A couple of years ago I visited a Chassidic Rebbe who is known to be a proponent of the idea that each individual has a unique God-given purpose in life that he or she is obligated to follow. At the time I had just started working on forming Youth Directions–an organization that helps young people find and then succeed at their own innate purpose in life. The ideas expressed by this Chassidic leader, therefore, interested me a great deal. In the course of the conversation I asked him what he would say to one of his students who was convinced that his God-given purpose was to become a medical doctor? He responded that he would encourage him to become a Mohel (ritual circumciser), but would never encourage one of his student to study in Medical School.
This response was perplexing: how can one simultaneously say that each person has unique, God given, purpose in life and in the same breath maintain that any type of exposure or training in the area of that purpose is prohibited? But this is exactly the paradox that many Orthodox Jewish leaders are maintaining. Many Jewish schools especially in Israel, and boys schools and Yeshivot in particular, only teach Judaic studies. General studies such as science, mathematics and physics are never taught. In fact my schooling was similar. I went to a high school in the UK that offered no general studies at all. My English language proficiency was developed only in my early twenties when I attended University.
It is gratifying to see that this style of education is now being challenged from within the community. In a recent Jerusalem Post column, Israeli Parliament Member, Rabbi Hiam Amsalem took segments of the Orthodox community to task for not teaching general studies in their schools. He describes this style of education as not in ‘accordance with Jewish tradition ‘ and a ‘a modern aberration ‘ of Judaism. To his credit he brings many traditional Rabbinic and sources to back up his assertions.
Unfortunately, however, Rabbi Amsalem does not bring up the concept of purpose in his article. Indeed the practical outcomes of not being taught general studies in school are the inability to make a living and therefore as he states ‘leads to sin. ‘ But there is another issue here, one that is not just practical but also religious and spiritual.
One may argue that there are two aspects to living a fulfilled life in the way God intended it. The first is purely spiritual in nature and for a Jew this would include learning the Torah and following its precepts. Doing this exclusively, however, is missing the other half of the equation. We are also physical beings and each person has a completely different set of talents, abilities and passions. No two people have the same fingerprints, DNA or purpose in life. God created us all unique and all of us have something special to contribute based on our physical, emotional and mental makeup.
The great Jewish ethicist Bahya ibn Paquda states that based on a person’s unique constitution they can know how God intended them to make a living (Duties of the Heart, Gate of Faith, Chapter 3). Clearly a persons talents and abilities point to their God given purpose on this planet. To ignore that is to ignore the will of God. Thus, even if we were very religious we have still have not completed our purpose in the universe until we use our talents and abilities to the fullest extent within the physical world.
Thus, not teaching general studies is not only a perversion of Jewish tradition and an aberration of Judaism is is also denying young people the opportunity to fulfill their God-given purpose. Change to a system that promotes this can not come a minute to soon. For the God’s sake, literally, I pray that Rabbi Amsalem succeeds with his reforms of the Orthodox Yeshiva System.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions and non-profit that helps youth find and succeed at their unique. positive purpose in life.