The world is a changing placing. The changes are happening very rapidly and will continue to increase at an ever-increasing rate. Let me give you an example:
If you took someone from 3000 years ago and suddenly dropped him in 1708 (300 years ago), he would find that the world has not changed all that much. Sure, there were some social changes and technological advances between the two time periods, but after an initial adjustment period, the person could easily fit in. If he was a farmer in his original time, he may have to learn to use some new tools and some new techniques, but he'd probably be able to catch on pretty quickly, resume his work and could probably (after an initial culture shock period) blend into society.
However, if you took someone from 300 years ago and placed him thirty years ago (1978), he'd find the world a vastly different place. Far more advances occurred in the 270 years he skipped than in the 2700 years the previous time traveler skipped. A person from 300 years ago would have been completely lost thirty years ago. Just about any marketable skill he would have had in 1708 would be obsolete. He would suffer from far more technological displacement than the person who jumped 2700 years. The period of culture shock would also be much longer... perhaps even lasting the rest of his life.
Now, take someone who died thirty years ago, grab him right before he dies and bring him to today. He's skipped thirty years. I don't think I can honestly say that the world has changed as much in the last thirty years as it has in the previous three hundred, but it has changed considerably. With few exceptions, any marketable skills that he had back in 1978 are obsolete. The culture of the world is so different that I think he might find it unrecognizable. Remember -- this person didn't live through the last thirty years, taking its changes in gradual steps like you and I did... he just "jumped" those years. Just about everything that we do, from the way we communicate, to the way we eat, the way we do our jobs, the way we travel, the way we're entertained... all of it has been completely revolutionized in the last thirty years. Our time traveler would also suffer from severe culture shock as well. Most of the ideas and notions that he had about society have radically changed over the last thirty years. For example, a race such as Hilary vs. Obama would have been unheard of in his time.
So, society is changing... at an ever-increasing pace - and to compete in today's society, you have to keep up. Back in the "old days," you could train to become an accountant, work as an accountant for thirty years, and find that the job hadn't essentially changed. Yeah, you may have swapped your slide-rule for a calculator or an adding machine; but still, not much had changed. You could happily keep plugging away at your job for years on end without the need to increase your skill set. There are, no doubt, many other occupations that fit the same profile.
Today, however, you need to keep updating your skills to succeed in most occupations. As more jobs become technology-oriented, we need to stay "with the times" in terms of technology to keep up. I'm a database developer/administrator. I first learned the skills for this job about ten years ago. However, the software that I learned on (Microsoft SQL Server 6.5) is completely obsolete and outdated. If I had to go out and find a job today, I'd be hard pressed to do so if my skill set was limited to version 6.5 -- that was three versions ago (with a new due out later this year). Even non-technical jobs, such as a secretary, have to keep up with the times. Secretaries now have to be at least minimally familiar with email, word processing and spreadsheets. Perhaps ten years ago a secretary could get by without these skills, but today they'd be at a severe disadvantage in the workplace. Many professional occupations require some form of continuing education (formal or informal) after leaving school.
OK, now that I’ve bored you for almost 700 words on technology and the need for change, what does this have to do with Orthodox Judaism?
As you might all be aware, there was a decree last year in
In light of the fact that these women are the main breadwinners of the community (because their husbands spend all day learning), this decree came as a tremendous blow to the potential earnings and career opportunities of these women. By severely capping the education and training that women can receive, you are likewise capping the potential earnings that they can tap into. Because these women are the main wage-earners, this affects the entire community, often relegating major sections of it to low incomes for life.
This matter has now been brought to a head again with a new decree this week. As reported by Rafi, Rav Elyashiv (along with others) have decided that an Israeli girls school could not call itself a Bais Ya’akov if it offered training for the Bagrut exams. By exerting pressure on Bais Ya’akov schools to drop Bagrut training, they will once again be curtailing educational opportunities for women – the main earners in the community. In fact, as reported by Bluke, the very reason for the decree is specifically because if the girl completes her Bagrut exams, she may want to enroll in a university or get a job with a good salary in the secular world.
I understand (even if I don’t agree with) the reasoning behind the decree. The reason is to preserve insularity. Most Hareidim don’t want outside influences creeping into their communities and by preventing women from getting an education or advancing too far in their careers, they hope to preserve that insularity.
The problem is that such a strategy would certainly have worked 3000 years ago. It even worked pretty well three hundred years ago. It might have even had a chance thirty years ago. But not today.
Three hundred years ago, a girl could have become a baker without any need of formal education and would never have needed to see the outside world. Thirty years ago, she could become a secretary with no need to update her skills right out of high school and spent the next twenty years answering phones, taking dictation and typing in an office. But the world we live in today, for better or for worse, is not the same world as 3000, three hundred or thirty years ago. It’s a rapidly changing market place where you have to keep updating your skills or fall behind in the marketplace. In order to compete for employment opportunities, you have to be willing and able to adapt, to learn new skills and, most importantly, be willing to contact the world outside of your own daled amos. You can’t have policies that are frozen in time, because the world is not frozen in time. If you’re going to place the burden of earning a livelihood on someone, then you have to allow them to (within the limits of halacha, of course) be able to compete in the marketplace for jobs. If not, all you’re doing is setting up obstacles and dooming those earners to failure.
Instead of banning education for girls, what needs to be done is to set up education opportunities for them to pick up skills that will allow them to compete in the marketplace. And, of course, you have to *allow* them to compete in the first place. If you’re going to only allow people to compete for a small subset of jobs (teachers in Bais Ya’akovs, secretaries in women’s offices, etc.), then you are severely restricting their ability to earn a living for their families, forcing more families into poverty.
The policy of complete isolation may have been a wise one in the past, but it’s one whose day has come and gone. Such policies cannot be frozen in time, or else they (and possibly the communities that use them) run the risk of becoming obsolete.