HaBucher HaChushev Ploni ben Nistar here for shtick, news and fun. You know, a Chassidic life isn't as boring and heavy as most people might think! ;-)
מצוה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד
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DISCLAIMER: Questions on Jewish Law (Halacha), I will try to answer to the best of my ability. Note that my understanding may not be accurate nor be the final word on asked topic. One should consult an Orthodox Rabbi before drawing any conclusions.
It depends on how you define low standards and education. Because, we believe, that true good education only comes from the Torah. The Mishna says “Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam” (The study of Torah equals all [other mitzvos]). From a secular point of view the Hareidi Education System might be inferior to theirs. But from a Torah point of view, I think, our schools are doing a lot better, instilling a passion for Hashem and the Torah in their students’ hearts. The first priority and greatest joy a Jewish parent can have, is to see their children grow up to be Yirei Shomayim (G-d fearing) and Talmidei Chachomim (outstanding Torah scholars).
It’s a mitzvah d’oraisa to study and teach our children Torah. Just like Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam, learning Torah leads to other mitzvos. The same can be said of Bitul Torah: Bitul Torah Keneged Kulam, Bitul Torah leads to more aveiros (Rav Noach Weinberg z”l). What is more important - to a religious Jew - than the Torah of Hashem? Math? The history of China?
In fact, the Rema (246) even paskens it is ossur to engage in a curriculum of secular studies. But to read through it now and then, is permitted, he says.
Some say the difference between a curriculum and just looking through it, is that this prohibition is not due to Bitul Torah but rather a Bizayon HaTorah, by establishing studies in areas other than Torah, it shows that you believe they have some value that would justify learning them when you could have been learning Torah.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l was asked about secular studies (Birkas Shmuel - Kiddushin #27 p.42). He replied as follows:
A: According to the Torah the obligation of Bonim Uvnei Bonim means you must make your children into Geonei and Chochmei Torah - and not merely prepare them for life as a Yid. Rather, you must teach them and get them to learn the entire Torah, and if, chas v’sholom you do not, you violate the entire Mitzvah of learning Torah as per Bonim Uvnei Bonim.
B: Universities and gymnasiums are prohibited because of Apikursos.
C: To learn secular studies on a regular basis is prohibited, as per the Rema 246:4.
See also Sefer Kovetz Shiurim B 47
Having said all this, I personally do think it would be good for Hareidim in America/Canada/England/Belgium/France (being the countries with the largest Hareidi population in Chu”l) to learn how to speak and write the local language. And yes, I even think it would be good if they did this at their chedorim (elementary schools). But even then one should be careful with, and screen, the teaching material they would use. Or perhaps even make their own.
I think it would be very good if the heimishe oylem in above mentioned countries spoke the local language better than they do today. Not that I would advocate of speaking it in the house (not at all!), but just to know it. Throughout the ages’ Jews have always spoken the language of the countries they resided in. So why should we not?
Now to come back to your question. “What about basic literacy?” In the above mentioned countries: yes, for sure. Just not in Eretz Yisroel, because they don’t really need it. I agree it could be good for them to know a foreign language (like English). But in Eretz Yisroel, if one wants his children to know English, they should learn it in their free time.
Sure it might be harder without all those other secular studies. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l said about this the following: “In America you do not need college to make parnasa (a livelihood), and we should be willing to live on little, not a lot, for the sake of Torah.” He then brings a gemora where R. Nehurei said: “I will forgo all skills in the world and teach my son only Torah.” Reb Moshe continues that R. Nehurei’s statement of abandoning all skills in favor of Torah applies all the more so today now that we live in a country where you can make a living without college, with no miracles needed.
However, everyone agrees that if you do need secular studies to make a livelihood - and won’t have to study apikursos - you are allowed to learn it (see Kovetz Shiurim). Not only are you allowed to, most people will even encourage it. It’s not always as black & white as people would like you to think. There are exceptions to the rule. Like for instance in Antwerp there is a special organization which gives secular -government recognized - courses/studies for married Haredi men; all within the boundaries of Halacha. The Belzer Rebbe shlita also allows married women to learn at (secular) universities over there.
So yeah.. these are my thoughts on the subject.