Thursday, January 24, 2008

Frozen In Time

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 Israel severely curtailing post-high school educational opportunities for women. Women were essentially forbidden from continuing their teaching education beyond a certain point and those that had finished it found themselves discriminated against in the education marketplace.

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.

The Wolf


SuperRaizy said...

Very well stated. You are absolutely right to note that it is impractical and harmful to try to keep frum women so sheltered and isolated from society at large.
I was also inspired to post about this after reading Rafi's report
(see "Keeping Jewish Girls in the Dark" at Superraizy).

Anonymous said...

I see this as part of a larger mentality of yearning for the days of old, of attempting to recreate and revert to the lifestyles/societies of the past. This yearning seems to extend to the shtetl life, almost, with slight acknowledgement of the abject poverty and incredible suffering endured by those who lived in such a manner.

As R' Maryles has said, the Torah (learning/society) from Europe has been recreated, and it's time to move on (instead of acting like everything was lost in the previous generation, IMO).

Orthonomics said...

If the women can't even pay for daycare, perhaps the burden for parnasah will end up on the men by default?

I agree with everything you have said. This is utterly ridiculous, but it would take a strong parent to change schools.

Ezzie said...

Great, great post... even if you're wrong about accountants getting with the times. :)

Lubab No More said...

Your post got me wondering what life will be like 3 years from now. (3000, 300, 30, ?) Will there be major changes as well? Probably. Social networking have been revolutionized in just the last few years (Blogs, YouTube, Facebook). And they've impacted life in unexpected ways. We're living in exciting times.

BrooklynWolf said...


I often wonder what life will be like in the future. I usually try to have a broader horizon than three years, however.

That being said, I think that a few years is probably the most that you can realistically predict. Considering the fact that not only is technology changing but that the *rate of acceleration* is increasing as well, attempts to predict what life will be like in 100 years from now are folly.

(But that doesn't stop me from daydreaming about it either).

BrooklynWolf said...


Well, I'll find out about you accountants soon enough. I start my first accounting class on Tuesday.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


Looking back with nostalgia upon "olden days" is fine, as long as you keep a few things in mind:

1. Not everything about the "olden days" was good. In 1900, life expectancy in the US was 47 years.

2. You can yearn for the "olden days" but you have to recognize that they have, in fact, come and gone, and that you have to live in the here and now. Short of complete isolation (which, barring buying an island somewhere in the middle of nowhere, is not possible), you cannot "turn back the clock."

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


If the women can't even pay for daycare, perhaps the burden for parnasah will end up on the men by default?

I don't think that will happen. If it comes to that step, I think that they'll be meetings, decrees, etc. that will try to change the very basic laws of economics. Of course they'll fail and cause a lot more misery... but they'll try anyway.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

Yes, heaven forbid the people change/adapt to the times.

Thanks for your wise insights, though, Wolf. Seriously.

Commenter Abbi said...

Unfortunately, with every "decree" I keep hearing, I'm more and more convinced that this is less about maintaining mesorah and more about maintaining a cult- ie: maintaining as much control over a group of people as possible, even possibly to their detriment.

Why would you make a decree that would seriously harm your own community? That defies everyday, common sense logic as we know it today? Why are the people who make such decrees considered gedolim when one of the most basic criteria of a morah d'asra is to pasken halacha in a way that will cause minimum distress for the community?

When someone can answer these questions in a satisfactory, logical manner I might chance my mind. (that excludes explanations that "this isn't really happening (seriously, my brother who really follows R.E denies any of these stories as "secular media lies") or "it's his corrupt assistants that are making him do this". ) For now, R.E. is no godol in my book.