Looking around one can see that this decision bore a great amount of fruit. More people are learning Torah full time now than at any time in our nation's history. There are more books being published on Torah subjects than ever before. Someone wanting to learn in yeshiva has an incredible number of options to choose from, especially in Israel.
Unfortunately there is a dark side to ideological shift. The change from "earn" to "learn" was made possible by the creation of the State of Israel. With a government's resources to fund it, the Chareidi community was able to build the educational network it needed and provide support to the full-time learners who, despite a tremendous bekius in Torah, would never learn how to provide for their families. As a result, a community of poverty-stricken men was created, one in which the average person might know much of Shas baal peh but have only a rudimentary knowledge of basic math, grammer and science.
As time has gone on and life has become more expensive it has become obvious that the limited stipends that kolleleit live off of are not enough to maintain even a basic standard of living. This has led to the wives of the community being forced into the workplace, again in a limited fashion due to their narrow education and the dictates of "modesty" which restrict them from many places that they might choose to seek a living. Add to that the continued responsibility for looking after the children while the tzadiki they married shteigs his Gemara all day long. Is this an enduring lifestyle?
For a few years now there has been a quiet muttering within the Chareidi community that the current situation cannot continue. For those who are struggling and forseeing even greater struggles for their children the idea that working in a career and balancing that with Torah is somehow a sin has become bizarre and beyond understanding. However, the leaders of the community, those with wealth that insulates them from the struggles of the underclass, don't seem to have come to this realization. As Rav Shteinman, shlit"a, said to a Chareidi publication a few years ago on the subject of creating a Chareidi college to teach trades and professions: better they live in poverty and purity of Torah.
One can gauge how great the crisis is by how much of a fuss the official Chareidi press makes of it. One such mention occured in 2008 when the venerable Rav Yonasan Rosenblum all but called for a community-wide re-evaluation of the "Learn, don't earn" philosophy.
His voice has now been joined by another, Rav Chaim Ansalem, in a recent article in The Jerusalem Post, noted the obvious:
Hundreds of thousands of students begin a new school year today. Some will learn basic Judaism and Torah along with general studies. Some will study Torah in the mornings and general studies in the afternoons, and some will learn Torah exclusively. While the minimal degree of Jewish content in the more secular schools saddens me, I am even more troubled by the third category described above. The haredi world in which I live does not educate children in accordance with Jewish tradition.Now, without doubt, Rav Ansalem's call will fall on many deaf ears. One problem is the current structure of the Chareidi community. At the top sit the so-called "Gedolim". In reality they are figureheads while the real power lies in the stratum just underneath, the "Askanim". Through manipulation, selective presentation of news from the outside world and simple threats, the Askanim create a system of rule in which the Gedolim decree ban after chumra after outraged call for action based on the "ideal" Charedi system of thought that the same Askanim think should exist. Through their filter the Gedolim will no doubt be told that Rav Chaim Ansalem is calling for the destruction of the kollel system and the wholesale integration of all Chareidim into secular society. Naturally there will be official condemnation of his position.
Haredi schools not following Jewish tradition!? Aren’t they the ones who do uphold tradition? Haven’t the more modern movements veered from the path?
The answer is simply that any movement which teaches its children only Torah is a modern aberration.
Traditional Torah sources teach in the clearest of terms that learning a trade to support one’s family with dignity – alongside Torah study and living a Torah-observant lifestyle – is the highest of ideals. For example, in the Jerusalem Talmud, Peiah, Chapter 1 interprets the Torah’s instruction to “choose life” as a command to have a trade. The Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin, 29a teaches that “a father must teach his son a trade. Anyone who does not teach his son a trade is as if he taught his son robbery.” The Midrash on Ecclesiastes Chapter 9 instructs: “Acquire for yourself a trade together with Torah.” The Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 8a goes as far as saying that “a person who earns a living from his own handiwork is greater than one who fears heaven.” Finally, Wisdom of our Fathers Chapter 2 states emphatically that “any Torah not accompanied by work will end up being nullified, and will lead to sin.”
A glance through the Mishna and Talmud reveals that along with being great Torah sages, the leaders of their generations earned a living as doctors, tailors, launderers, plowers, carpenters, land measurers, shoe makers and repairmen, wood choppers, beer makers, bakers, smiths, trap makers, engravers, skin tanners, mill workers, scribes, pit diggers, bundle and beam transporters, wool merchants and weavers.
All the above sources no doubt served as the basis for the teaching from Maimonides, himself a world-class Torah scholar and physician (Laws of Torah Study 3:10-11): “Any person who makes the decision to study Torah without a livelihood and to sustain himself from charity – such a person desecrates God, disgraces Torah, extinguishes the light of religion, causes bad for himself, and removes himself from the World to Come… and our sages also commanded that a person should not earn a living from Torah… It is a high level for a person to earn a living from his own toil and a trait of the saintly. Through this, a person earns all the honor and good in this world and the next.”
This approach continued until the past few hundred years. For example, the 15th century Orchot Tzadikim (309), teaches that “A person must find middle ground with two responsibilities and set aside hours for Torah study and for work in this world, and must strengthen himself to do both… neither should take away from the other.” The famed Maharal of 16th century Prague relates in Netivot Olam that “when a person is busy with two pursuits – work to provide for what his body needs and Torah for completion of his soul – he will not find any sin.”
So it is clear that Jewish tradition advocates intensive Torah study together with learning a trade. In our times, this means teaching students whatever they need to earn a university degree – the primary path for earning a livelihood in today’s world. (I also advocate joint yeshiva and university programs – a topic for a future column).
Lest one think it is impossible to provide an intensive yeshiva education while studying language, mathematics, science or history, a glance at the yeshiva world in the US proves that highschool students attending the most haredi institutions – Lakewood, Torah Va’daas, Philadelpia, Chaim Berlin, Telshe, and more study all these subjects as mandated by US law. This provides students with the option of university study, which many pursue, and produces well-balanced and worldly Torah scholars who bring sanctity to God’s name in the workplace and earn great respect for their communities.
I must make two important clarifications. Maimonides, at the end of the Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, elaborates on the benefits of doing nothing but studying Torah. The Ohr HaChayim, one of the greatest biblical commentators of the early 18th century, explains that this teaching refers to a person or group who wants to support a full-time Torah scholar in a partnership. Maimonides, in the Laws of Torah Study quoted above, is referring to a person who places a burden on the nation through his learning, and essentially forces others to support him. If someone has a private arrangement by which he does nothing but study Torah while receiving the support of a private individual, this is a blessing.
I personally love nothing more than quiet moments alone with the Talmud, or studying the Parsha with my children, and cannot imagine a more beautiful lifestyle. However, as Maimonides states, no person can choose to place the burden of supporting him on the community. This is exactly what the haredi school system does.
But perhaps the rank and file, tired of the Daas Torah that leaves their bellies empty and their teeth slowly rotting, will hear the message. At that point the leadership will have a choice. They can either realize that change to the previous system is inevitable or wave their hands as if to say "Any Chareidi who wants to work is already OTD so let them go already". Hopefully the former will be their enlightened choice.