Beis Moshiach Magazine/By Yisrael Lapidus
To hear Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Offen speak in a strong tone of voice is surprising. I was a student of Rabbi Offen, and we had this kind of “shtick” to try and engage him in debate during the shiurim. I can attest to it that even when the strangest questions were presented and not necessarily innocently, Rabbi Offen kept his calm and replied in his organized and clear way.
I don’t think it requires great effort from him, it’s just who he is. But this interview was different. The sharp style and tone of voice can be transmitted even in the written form.
It is school registration season, and many parents are facing several options of which kind of Cheder, school or Yeshiva to enroll their children in for the coming school year. A growing trend, positive we may say, in many communities is the establishment of schools “al taharas hakodesh” where no secular subjects are taught at all. Beis Moshiach presented the following questions to Rabbi Offen in order to gain a perspective on what proper Chassidishe Chinuch should look like.
As is his way in his captivating and edifying classes in Chassidus, R’ Offen digs deep into the roots of the matter, and offers us an illuminating look into the foundations of proper chinuch.
“The question of secular studies in Yeshivas is really a question of Bitachon” he says.
He asks to clarify up front. “Before we begin to discuss the topic of the chinuch of children, it is necessary to bear in mind that the chinuch that we bequeath to our children will affect them their entire lives. Even when the child is no longer a child, but is a teenager, a young adult and even a full-grown adult, he will always carry with him the chinuch that he was given in his childhood. It is then obvious, how tremendous is the responsibility that lies upon the parents and educators.”
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH SECULAR STUDIES?
Parents who want to raise G-d fearing Chassidishe children are obviously concerned mainly about the behavior of their children, their middos. Why are we so concerned with the academic elements of the education our children are receiving in school?
This subject is discussed in the early chapters of Tanya, where he lays out that every Jew, young or old, has two souls, a G-dly soul and an animal soul. Each of these is divided into two, intellect and emotions.
If we would ask any person on the street, even someone observant: “What is the primary element of the soul? Is it the intellect, the ability to conceptualize, understand and know in its consciousness, or the emotions and their ability to experience the feelings of love, hate, and so on?” He will likely answer that the primary element of the soul is obviously the emotions and feelings. However, the Alter Rebbe in Tanya reveals an amazing, novel idea: The main element of the soul is the intellect, the brain functions in the head.
Why is this so? Because through the intelligence, it is possible to control the emotions. More so, the intellect creates and forms the emotions! A person who contemplates at length how such-and-such a person is really good to him, gives him things and treats him well, will create feelings of love towards that person, and the same applies in the inverse.
When we invest the time to conceptualize and contemplate G-dly matters, the results will be refined and holy emotive traits, or what is called the yetzer tov or “positive inclination.” In contrast, when the intellect is occupied with materialistic concepts, it produces materialistic emotive traits, feelings and desires for material matters, or what is called the yetzer hara or “negative inclination.”
Therefore, along with the emphasis on good behavior and good character, we need to be very concerned about what is occupying the minds of our children, whether the study of holy subjects or the study of mundane subjects. Every additional hour of limudei kodesh develops feelings and emotive traits of holiness, and every added second of the intellect being occupied with limudei chol, increases – Heaven forbid – the emotional attraction to matters of this world.
I understand that the intellectual involvement in matters of holiness engenders good middos and that intellectual involvement in matters of impurity engenders forbidden emotions. But what about neutral subjects, those that aren’t holy but aren’t forbidden – what’s wrong with them?
Until the revelation of Chassidus, we knew that the world was divided into three categories: forbidden things — sins, holy things —Torah and mitzvos, and optional things which are neither a sin nor a mitzva. Chassidus came along and established that there are only two tracks, either holiness or the “sitra achara” — “the other side.” There is no in-between. The world is black and white; there is no gray. There is the “side of holiness” and the “other side.” Whatever isn’t from the side of holiness, is automatically considered the other side.
So are you saying that anything besides for Torah is evil?
Yes. If it’s from what Chassidus calles klipas noga, then it can be elevated. But a child should not be busy with that, especially if it’s an “intellectual k’lipah”
What do you mean by “Intellectual k’lipah?”
In man’s soul, Hashem created three types of intellect: 1) the intellect of the G-dly soul which wants spirituality and holiness, 2) the intellect of the animal soul which is drawn to the pleasures of this world, and 3) the natural “intellectual” soul which is the “connecting intermediary” between the two souls.
The ideas of the animal soul are easier to get rid of since it seeks the pleasures of this world like an animal. It “stands out” and is easier to identify when it tries to drag a person into cravings and pleasures.
But the intellectual soul is problematic since it uses the intellect and logic. The intellectual soul comes along and claims that materiality is the true reality. The yetzer hara appears as the objective truth and this is a problem. A person needs to learn Chassidus to discern that this is false. This is the only way to attain the truth and not be impressed by convoluted explanations of the intellectual soul.
This also enables us to understand why Chassidus places an emphasis on refraining from permissible things if they are not completely for the sake of heaven. Chassidim would say, “what is forbidden is forbidden and what is permissible is unnecessary.”
The truth is that this principle is also brought in the revealed part of Torah. There is a halacha in Shulchan Aruch that “all your deeds should be for the sake of heaven,” and “in all your ways, know Him.” But in Shulchan Aruch this is mentioned only in passing, whereas Chassidus expands on this and turns it into one of the foundations of Jewish life.
Impurity is also called k’lipa. Just like a k’lipa, a peel covers the fruit, the “other side” covers holiness and the light of Hashem that shines in the world. Consequently, if man does something for the sake of heaven, that is holy; otherwise, it’s k’lipa. Even if it isn’t forbidden, it still conceals holiness.
Why is it so important that every single thing belong either to holiness or to k’lipa?
In order to highlight the truth that “Ein Od Milvado” — “there is nothing but Him.”
Without learning Chassidus, people think that the world and Hashem are two separate entities. There is a world within which we live and operate and there is Hashem who runs the world. This way of thinking leads a person to the conclusion that we need to reckon with the world and operate by its dictates.
Comes Chassidus and shows how there is no world, there is no reality other than Hashem. The world and G-dliness are one thing. Therefore, we don’t need to reckon with the world. We can focus on making a dwelling for Hashem in this world and revealing the light of Hashem in the world.
OUR JOB: TO SANCTIFY THE MIND OF A CHILD
Can you translate these ideas into practical chinuch methods?
In chinuch, our goal needs to be to educate our children to live lives of holiness and purity, lives that are directed by the G-dly soul, so that the very being of the child, starting with the intellect, moving into emotions and ending with thought, speech and deed, are all permeated with holiness.
In earlier generations, children did not come in contact with the nonsense of the world. They were constantly under the positive influence of the education in the home and educational system. They were spared all the distractions and confusion. Today too, despite the distractions and confusion around us, it is still possible to preserve a pure Chassidic education. It’s just that we need to ensure that the school our children are learning in is run al taharas ha’kodesh.
Chinuch like this, in which children learn only Torah and matters of holiness, without being confused with the nonsense of the times and of the world, causes the students to clearly differentiate between what is primary and secondary in life; what is true and what is false; what is holy and what is k’lipa; what is black and what is white.
Can’t we rely on the “intuition” and purity of a Jewish child?
Not yet. A young child is drawn to the harmful things of the world due to the animal soul that desires materialism. That’s where chinuch comes in; chinuch is for instilling holiness in the brain of a child. Hashem puts His infinite wisdom into the Torah so that we can “grasp” it with our human intellect. And this is our job, to connect the child’s mind with the intellect of G-d. This is obviously done only through limudei kodesh.
Whatever is taught to a child influences their minds and hearts. So a child whose world is comprised exclusively of Torah and mitzvos, and only this is important to him, this is what he learns in class, this is the homework, this is what he is tested on and he got good marks … When the entire daily schedule in school revolves around taharas ha’kodesh, then a child becomes accustomed to seeing Yiddishkeit as the central point of everything. That is how he grows up with a mind of Torah and mitzvos, which as we explained before affects the middos for a lifetime.
However, a child who grows up with a hierarchy of values that gives credence to the idea that there are other things that, sometimes, are no less important than Torah and mitzvos, i.e. worldly matters, he already does not feel that sense of G-dliness as simple reality. And this strengthens within him the outlook of the intellectual soul, which will be much harder for him to uproot than even the animal soul.
This is because the animal soul looks at food and wants the good taste of the food; it craves the pleasure that results from eating, and that is relatively easy to fight. You can understand and explain why it’s not good. But the intellectual soul comes and claims that it wants food not for the pleasure of eating but for the nutrition and vitamins in the food. That is more logical and harder to uproot.
Eating for good health alone is wrong?
Yes. It’s an approach that conceals the truth of the G-dly soul. It’s brought in Chassidus that a person does not live from the bread he eats but from the word of Hashem, as in the words of the verse. That means that a person does not get life energy from the vitamins or minerals in the food, but from the G-dly sparks hidden within the food. It’s true, there are vitamins, but that covers the truth, because what gives life to man is the G-dliness within the vitamins.
SECULAR STUDIES POLLUTE THE CHILD’S SOUL. PERIOD.
So you’re saying to teach only kodesh and stay away completely from limudei chol?
Absolutely. This ought to be the natural ambition of every Chassid, to ensure that the Chassidic education provided is precisely the way it was in previous generations and to eschew secular studies, because with secular studies you are putting kelipa into the intellectual soul, directly into the soul of the pure child.
It should be clear: by learning secular subjects, the mind is polluted and it won’t absorb what Chassidus and holiness are communicating to him, because there is timtum – a stuffing up of the intellect. Even if the person is smart and deep, he will not succeed in properly learning Chassidus. We need to ensure that the mind is clean, pure and refined.
When the intellect will be a properly rectified intellect, the intellect of the G-dly soul that has not been corrupted by secular studies, it will naturally influence all of the emotional faculties of the soul. All seven of the faculties the Alter Rebbe lists in Tanya (chessed, gevura, tiferes, etc.) will be rectified and upstanding.
Not every child who learns in such a cheder is the best behaved child in the world…
True. The child was born with an animal soul. But even if it doesn’t immediately change the middos, it certainly changes the actions. The Alter Rebbe demanded intellect and action of his Chassidim, because he knew that the middos will be corrected over time. As it says in the verse, “And you shall know today, and place it upon your heart,” this means to say that the mind “squeezes” the heart from above and the actions “squeeze” the heart from below, and eventually it will have an effect upon the emotions. However, if the mind is not as it should be, then there is nothing to talk about.
In the aforementioned sicha of Simchas Torah 5715, the Rebbe said several times that secular studies imbue spiritual impurity into the mind of a child. This is based on what it says in Tanya that secular studies, the wisdom of the nations, is worse than ordinary idle talk because idle talk is sourced in the element of wind and that only pollutes the middos. The wisdom of the nations is understood by the mind and this pollutes the chochma-bina-daas of the neshama.
One year, a few young children in the Chabad community of Montreal passed away. Rabbi Hendel, rav of the community, together with the mashpia Rabbi Peretz Mochkin, went to the Rebbe. In yechidus, they asked to arouse divine mercy on the community.
The Rebbe spoke to them about being particularly careful with women wearing sheitels (wigs) and about chinuch for children al taharas ha’kodesh. Right after that yechidus, Rabbi Hendel began working on classes where the learning would be al taharas ha’kodesh. In the meantime, he told his son not to attend secular studies anymore, until the class for limudei kodesh-only would be available. Some parents maintained that it would be better for the children to learn secular studies than to be idle. When Rabbi Hendel told the Rebbe, the Rebbe said that secular studies are worse than idle matters as it says in Tanya, that they pollute the chochma-bina-daas of the soul.
Secular studies are the opposite of the purpose for which the soul descended to this world, for the neshama came down into a body in order to transform human intellect into G-dly intellect, to connect the chochma-bina-daas of the intellect to Hashem in the manner of a “wondrous and powerful unification,” as it says in chapter five of Tanya. Studying the wisdom of the nations does the opposite.
THE REBBE RAYATZ ALLOWED IT ONLY IN UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES
If secular studies causes irreversible damage in a child’s soul, how have they been taught in Chabad schools, some of them even under the leadership of the Rebbe? An agreement with the government to teach secular studies in Chabad mosdos was even approved of by the Rebbe Rayatz!
As far as the Rebbe Rayatz permitting secular studies in certain places, the Rebbe himself said in a sicha of 17 Tammuz 5717, “We see among the actions of the Nesi’im, such actions that in Lubavitch they would not even consider at all, but due to the exigencies of the time, they had to also be involved in these matters in order to save the sparks that are found in low places.
“One of these things was that at a certain point, they did not wage war against secular studies (at a certain age) in a school where kodesh is taught, even though previously this was completely out of the question. However, first they invested in the children added strength and added revelation of matters that are the opposite of secular studies, the “light source of Torah” (Chassidus), which brings to love and fear of Hashem, and then, they did not wage war against the decree of secular studies because of the need to rescue these sparks.
“But we need to remember that this was an emergency measure only, because of the situation in that place and that individual, but not as a regular system.”
When speaking about the optimum, the Rebbe’s view on the matter is clear and was repeated many times: no secular studies for children! Secular studies are k’lipa and impurity which contaminates the soul of a child. The Rebbe never changed his mind about this and there are letters and explicit sichos about it.
The fact that the schools need to be run in a way of taharas ha’kodesh does not contradict the fact that there are schools which taught and teach secular studies reluctantly, such as in places where the only way to attract parents to Chabad schools is by including secular studies. So they included secular studies as the “lesser of evils,” but we need to remember that this is an “evil,” and very much not l’chatchila!
The Rebbe also refers to the laws of the country and sometimes the country requires secular studies. If there is no choice and no way to get out of it and something minimal needs to be done to enable the school to exist, perhaps it may be permitted, but we always need to remember that in and of itself, it is inherently negated.
LEARNING TORAH HELPS WITH PARNASSA
Doesn’t the Gemara say that a father must teach his son a profession? These days the only way to get a respectable “livable” job requires a college degree, let alone a high school diploma which requires at least some measure of secular studies?
That’s a familiar claim which is repeated in various ways. “How will he make a living?” “How will he support his family?” “How will he manage out in the world?”
First of all, the Gemara does say that we must teach our children a profession. But does it say it must be done from the moment they go to school?
In one of his letters, the Rebbe writes to someone who wants to leave yeshiva and study a trade. After telling him to continue learning in yeshiva, the Rebbe adds, “Obviously, the One who sustains and provides for all, when the time comes and you will need to support yourself, He will also provide the source for your parnassa. Do not confuse yourself at your age by being involved in preparing to make a living now, which depends solely on Hashem. Consequently, connecting to His Torah and His mitzvos are an amazing stratagem to lighten the burden of parnassa later, and leaving the tent of Torah prematurely interferes with this.” (27 Shevat 5713)
Elsewhere, the Rebbe says that it is because of his concern and caring for the yeshiva bachurim that he demands that they not teach them secular studies; just limudei kodesh. When the time comes, the bachur will find the right way that he needs to do through natural means for the needs of parnassa. As we see that many people studied and worked hard in a field and in the end they made money in something else entirely, as Chazal say, “a person does not know from what he will earn a living,” and that “He who provides life, also provides parnassa.”
Parents who claim they need to teach young children secular studies so that many years later, they will be able to support themselves, shows their utter lack of trust in Hashem!
Learning a profession has nothing to do with secular studies.
Why is teaching secular subjects a lack of bitachon, isn’t that a legitimate measure of “hishtadlus” which Torah requires along with bitachon?
“Hishtadlus” means to do things that are advisable, or at least permissible, according to the Torah. Can someone say that working on Shabbos is hishtadlus, because otherwise he cant make an ample living?
Are secular studies that bad?
Worse in a way, they contaminate the mind!
Think about it; in Russia, the Chassidim were moser nefesh so that their children would not go to gentile schools. That was the only way to raise G-d-fearing boys and girls. Surely there is no comparison between the hardships then, to the point of mesirus nefesh, and the hardships of today. If then, they were able to rise to the need to stand strong against all the difficulties, how much more so in our generation.
Some will say that going against the mainstream today is comparable to the hardships of yesteryear …
It is true that there are difficulties today, but still, things are much easier now. If we were given the possibility of overcoming the difficulties, then we surely must do so. We need to stand strong and muster willpower and dedication so that there will be schools that are completely as the Rebbe wants them to be, and it is in these schools that we must educate our children.
There is a story about the Kotzker Rebbe that once, a very rich person went to him. This man wasn’t all that religious and this man asked, “How is it that I am so rich when it says, ‘if you will surely obey,’ then ‘I will give the rains in their right time, etc.’ and if not … I don’t keep Torah and mitzvos!”
The Kotzker Rebbe answered: If you are asking about a verse in the Shema, then you read it at least once in your life. You should know that all your wealth came from that reading of the Shema and not from your doing business. If you kept Torah and mitzvos as you should, you would be far more successful.
Those who follow the Rebbe’s directives will have it good in all areas and we don’t need to be impressed by the world and its assumptions.
We need to follow the path of the Rebbe, the path of Lubavitch from its earliest days, and this is how we will be successful.
Even if it entails high tuition, in private schools that are not subsidized by government funding, the Rebbe explicitly says, “Do not consider the financial output involved in the chinuch of children al taharas ha’kodesh, because by saving a few dollars and not providing children with the best education, you detract from the benefit of your children for the rest of their lives!” (Sicha of the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul 5742).
Aren’t there shluchim and rabbanim who learned in schools that had secular studies?
The response of the Kotzker Rebbe already addressed that: If there are shluchim who learned kodesh and chol and are successful, obviously, if they had learned only kodesh, they would be far more successful!
How do I know this is so? I could not know this on my own, but it is clear to me that this is what the Rebbe holds. We see that the Rebbe sent shluchim to distant countries and they did not even know the local language and they were extraordinarily successful. One would think that before going to live and work in a new place, the minimum is to know the language! How did the Rebbe do that? From this we see that when you go with the Rebbe’s kochos, the physicality of the world does not distract and has no bearing.
Who is to say what secular studies consist of? What about basic math?
When I was a boy, I learned in the Chabad school in Tel Aviv and we learned kodesh all day: Mishna, Gemara, Halacha, etc. At the end of the day, we had a half an hour for math and writing. So our total math education was during one half hour every two days, basic functions of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. We learned letters, writing and words from the Chumash and Siddur and not from readers with all kinds of secular stories; it was all kodesh. We learned nothing else. We were not familiar with the foolishness of the world, just what we needed to know; that’s all.
[Actually, math is a tool for limmudei kodesh themselves. When you want to understand the calculations and measurements for the laws of eiruvin or the laws of kiddush ha’chodesh. The Rebbe points this out in the sicha of 13 Tammuz 5742. Obviously, when you learn it that way, it is not secular studies.]
[It should be noted that when Rabbi Binyamin Klein a”h wondered to Rabbi Hershel Lustig of Oholei Torah, why basic math studies that are accepted in all frum circles even in Israel, are not studied at the cheder, Rabbi Lustig told him that he understood from Rabbi Chodakov that even this shouldn’t be taught in Oholei Torah. Rabbi Klein responded that he’ll speak to Rabbi Chodakov about it. When Rabbi Lustig inquired a while later on the matter, Rabbi Klein just brushed the matter off…]
All the boys who learned in that school managed nicely in the big world. Today, we can even use the many aids available so there is no need to invest hours into studying math, English, history, geography, and other secular subjects.
Any study of secular subjects by a child is superfluous; he is wasting years upon years for naught and in many cases he won’t even use what he learned. In actuality, not only is there no benefit in this, there is detriment involved, as we explained at length. It turns the peripheral into something primary. If the study of Torah subjects will be exclusive, the child will easily be able to discern what is primary and what is marginal, and that is true Chassidishe chinuch.
By the way, I am referring to the chinuch in school or yeshiva, as well as to the chinuch in the home, in that even in the home it has to be al taharas hakodesh, without any outside newspapers and without the Internet or at least, if there is no choice, with proper filtering.
THERE IS NO EXPIRATION DATE FOR POLLUTION OF THE SOUL
Everyone agrees that for very small children, three years old for example, the learning should be exclusively al taharas hakodesh. The question is, until what age should secular subjects not be taught at all?
There is no expiration date for the spiritual pollution of the soul. Therefore, there is no place for secular studies in our chinuch institutions for any age group. Nonetheless, it should be emphasized that the severity of the issue is all the greater with young boys and girls, because in these early ages are being built the foundation for their entire lives, and in order for the building to be solid so that it will not budge in the face of blowing winds, the foundation has to be built in the proper fashion.
In the Rebbe’s sicha of Simchas Torah 5715, the Rebbe said that they should abstain from secular studies at least until age nine or twelve. The Rebbe said that he would ask for more, except “if you grab too much you don’t grab anything.”
As stated, there are situations when the very existence of the school depends on it, due to government laws and the like, that it is necessary to introduce some topics of study, but in those cases it falls under the category of something permitted in a time of constraint, but this is a last contingency option.
We must always remember that the preferred course of action is – if there is any way to maintain a mossad purely al taharas hakodesh, then it is a real obligation to do so.
In your view, is it necessary to open new schools al taharas hakodesh, even in cases where there are existing schools in that place?
In every place, there are local rabbis and it is imperative to consult with them and to comply with their rulings. In principle, we need to know what is the will of the Rebbe, but the ways of implementing it in practice have to be in “pleasant ways” and with the approval of the rabbanim of Anash.
It should also be said, there is no doubt that when more and more schools will open that only teach kodesh subjects, and parents will insist on sending their children only to those schools, they will see success in all of their matters, personal and communal, and even materially, because the spiritual influence impacts the physical as well.
The Rebbe taught us how the material and the spiritual go hand in hand, and that is why you can see how many answers from the Rebbe about physical problems were to check mezuzos and tefillin. On the surface, what connection is there between the mezuza and the physical situation? The Rebbe taught us that there is a connection, and one depends on the other, and when people strengthen themselves in ruchniyus it does not undermine the gashmiyus, but to the contrary.
JUST TO FULFILL THE MINIMUM OBLIGATION
Until we have such schools in every community, should the secular studies be given support? For example, if the child comes home with homework in English or math, how are we, as parents, to treat it?
In such a case, parents need to emphasize that secular subjects are no big deal, and they are the least important subjects studied in school. Also, to place an emphasis on the homework in Torah subjects such as Chumash or Mishna as being of primary importance, as well as behavior towards others and the like. Meanwhile, any homework in secular subjects should be done only in a manner of “to discharge an obligation.”
If people would have set times every day for the study of the topic of chinuch in Chassidus, and they would learn the subject of chinuch al taharas hakodesh, it would penetrate the consciousness of both father and son that secular studies are worthless and there is no point to it at all, and this will help have the proper effect on them. And the fact is that every parent wants his children to be better than him…
Action is the main thing. We must try to see to it that the chinuch institutions in every place be exclusively al taharas hakodesh, and then all of the problems will be solved! In those places where such schools already exist, we need to support them and send our boys and girls to those schools only. And Hashem should help that everything be in accordance with the holy will of the Rebbe, who will immediately be revealed and bring us to the True and Complete Redemption!
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