The contemporary tuition crisis is a well known aspect of today’s American Orthodox life. Paying for day school tuition and other costs of American Orthodox life makes American Orthodox living quite expensive. Many parents work exceedingly long hours to earn a sufficient amount of money to sustain a Torah lifestyle and pay their children’s Yeshiva tuition. American Orthodox Jews know that they must position themselves to earn highly significant amounts of money just to break even.
The purpose of this essay is not to offer solutions to this intractable problem. Instead, we seek to offer some perspective on the problem based on the experiences of Daniel and his three friends Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah as recorded in the opening Perek of Sefer Daniel.
Daniel and his Friends Refrain from eating Non-Kosher in Nevuchadneztar’s Palace
Soon after his conquest of Yerushalayim and exiling of the Jews, Nevuchadneztar ordered a select group of young Jews to be raised in his palace. The boys were to be of royal lineage, to have no blemishes, to have an attractive appearance, to be intelligent, learned and possess top notch social skills. Nevuchadneztar wanted them to teach these boys Babylonian culture and language during a three year stint in his palace. Therefore, Nevuchadneztar gave Daniel and his three friends Babylonian names and ordered the boys to be served meat and wine from the royal kitchen.
Daniel and his three friends decided they would not partake of the non-kosher food served to them. This was done at great risk. Besides the risk of insufficient nutrition, Nevuchadneztar would likely kill them instantly for failing to abide by his plans. Nevuchadneztar was not a particularly kind individual who would be inclined to spare the boys’ lives. He was a ruthless killer, as is evident from his behavior in Perek 2, where he almost killed his entire staff of advisors when they failed to comply with an unreasonable demand of his, and in Perek 3, where he decreed death upon anyone who failed to bow to his statue. The risks taken by Daniel and his friends were considerable.
Fortunately, the story ends well, as Hashem miraculously sustained the four boys to the extent that despite their extremely limited diet, they were as healthy and robust as the other Jewish children who partook of the non-kosher fare. They also excelled in their course of study and were the only Jews to be promoted to serve as advisors to the king.
Why did Daniel and his Friends Risk Their Lives?
One may ask why Daniel and his three friends felt it was necessary to risk their lives to adhere to the laws of Kashrut. After all, as is well known, only three prohibitions are sufficiently severe to warrant sacrificing one’s life instead of violation - idolatry, murder and illicit relations. The Malbim explains their behavior arguing that a portion of the food served by Nevuchadneztar was first offered to Avodah Zarah (idolatry) and the rest of the food was considered part of what was offered to foreign gods (Tikrovet Avodah Zarah). The Malbim argues that Daniel and his friends risked their lives in order to avoid violating a prohibition associated with idolatry, for which Halacha demands we risk our lives. Nonetheless, since there is no explicit evidence for the Malbim’s assertion in the Tanach text, there remains room for us to explore other options.
Voluntarily Sacrificing One’s Life
One can explain their behavior based on the position of Tosafot (Avodah Zarah 27b s.v. Yachol) that one may volunteer to sacrifice his life to avoid violating any of the Torah’s laws. Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaToah 5:4) strongly disagrees. The Rambam believes that such an individual is guilty of suicide and is held accountable as such by Hashem. Thus, for the Rambam, the behavior of Daniel and his three friends is puzzling indeed. In fact, according to the Rambam the Jewish boys who did partake of the non-kosher food seemed to have acted more properly than did Daniel and his friends. Why then does Hashem reward Daniel and his friends with success greater than that enjoyed by the other Jews in Nevuchadneztar’s palace?
Upon careful examination, one can determine (with the assistance of the insights of Rav Yaaqov Medan’s Sefer on Daniel entitled Galut VeHitgalut) the intention of Nevuchadneztar in his raising Jewish boys in his palace for three years. Nevuchadneztar was not merely looking to develop talented advisors for his empire. If that were his goal, there would be no need to demand that the boys be handsome and descendants of the royal line. There would have been no need for him to change their names and have them eat of the royal food.
Rather, he sought to bring these boys to his home at an impressionable age to dramatically change their cultural identities. Nevuchadneztar did not seek to acculturate the Jewish boys but rather to transform them from Jews to Babylonians. Nevuchadneztar figured that young boys would not be able to withstand the pressure to partake of the finest food in the Babylonian empire and that they would easily succumb to the efforts to assimilate them.
The plan would not end there. Handsome and blemish-free young men were chosen because they would be able to subsequently become leaders of the Jewish people. Their royal lineage would serve to enhance their credibility as leaders of the Jews. Nevuchadneztar was hoping that these assimilated young Jewish would be accepted as leaders of the Jewish people and serve as role models for assimilation into Babylonian society. Nevuchadneztar hoped they would convince the Jews that now that they are in a new land they should adopt its culture and lifestyle. He thought that the young leaders would be especially effective in reaching out to the younger generation to convince them to abandon the ways of their parents. Once the Jews assimilated they would serve as loyal servants to Nevuchadneztar and his descendents rather than pine to return to their original homeland.
An Explanation of Daniel and his Friends
Daniel and his friends, despite their youth, grasped the plan and its far reaching consequences. The future of the Jewish people was at stake, for if the young leaders of the Jews set a poor example to their brethren and young counterparts, the Jews would assimilate and cease being Jews. Daniel and his friends acted correctly, for the future of our people was at grave risk.
One may argue that this was also the reasoning for Mordechai refusing to bow to Haman which has puzzled many of the commentaries to the Megillah (see our essay which summarizes the major opinions, archived at www.koltorah.org). One may suggest that Mordechai recognized that the Jewish people in the Persian Empire were so assimilated (see Megillah 12a) that if he, a great leader of his people, were to acculturate and bow to Haman then the Jews would soon assimilate into Persian society and cease identifying as Jews in a short amount of time. Although refusing to bow to Haman placed our people at great risk, bowing to Haman would have been the nail of the coffin of our people’s assimilation.
American Public Schools Promote Assimilation
The public schools in the United States serve not only to educate youth but also to serve as a means to assimilate children into the proverbial American melting pot. Indeed, any educational institution serves both an academic and social function. Thus, it is not surprising that statistics show that Jews who were educated in public schools suffer from a very high rate of assimilation. Well-known statistics also demonstrate that the strongest counter-assimilation effect is exerted by Orthodox day schools; the less time-intensive forms
of Jewish education have almost no effect on intermarriage.
Jewish day schools serve not only to educate youngsters in traditional Jewish texts but also for students to regard themselves as somewhat culturally distinct from the rest of society. This attitude is essential to Jewish survival. Avraham Avinu presented himself to his non-Jewish neighbors as a “Geir VeToshav,” “stranger and a resident” (BeReishit 23:4). While he must be a loyal and contributing member of the broader society, the Jew must also define himself in part as a stranger relative to general society or he will inevitably assimilate into society. There is nothing more effective at communicating this critical lesson than being schooled separately throughout elementary school and high school years.
One cannot deny that sustaining Jewish day schools is incredibly difficult and places an enormous burden on most Jewish committed families and communities in the United States. Nonetheless, history and simple common sense clearly demonstrate that there is no alternative for those who do not reside in the Jewish State.
The major theme of Sefer Daniel is that absent willingness to engage in dramatic Mesirat Nefesh (sacrifices), Jews will assimilate in the exile. Had Daniel and his friends been unwilling to risk their lives to refrain from eating non-kosher food, the Jewish future would have been severely jeopardized. The same applies in every generation. Had the Hasmoneans not made extraordinary sacrifices to resist Antiochus’ program of Hellinizing our ancestors, Torah observance might not have survived. Those Jews who did not make extraordinary sacrifices to refrain from Chillul Shabbat during the time (until the 1950’s) when the United States ran on a six day workweek, most often did not have Jewish grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Each generation has its unique Nisayon (test or trial). For our generation, our Nisayon is not Shabbat or Kashrut which are relatively easy to observe in today’s multicultural society. Yeshiva tuition is the Nisayon of our generation. If we step up to the challenge and are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices like Daniel and his three friends did, we too will join the long chain of Jews who have heroically preserved the Jewish heritage and will be, with God’s help, blessed with Jewish grandchildren and great grandchildren.