Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Slow Change

In the wake of the devastation after the Holocaust, the leaders of the Chareidi community chose to change the lives of their followers in a radical way.  To respond to the loss of so many great rabbonim and scholars the decision was made to impose a "Learn, don't earn" lifestyle on the masses.  The hope was that with a huge increase in the numbers of full-time kolleleit over the next couple of generations the loss in Torah knowledge that the Holocaust produced would be replaced.
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.

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.
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.
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.


Adam Zur said...

Your idea of the success of Torah in this generation I think is not true. Why don't you just take out a few minutes to discuss a simple Tosphot with your local rosh yeshiva --on the exact sugia that he is supposedly learning and I think you will see that the whole thing is one big put on. It is the story with the king's clothes.

I discovered something hypocritical about the "learn don't work theses." It only applies to "unzere lite" "our people". Regular Jews need not apply. This gave me pause to think that perhaps the real motivation is not that of the greatness of learning Torah --(because if that was the case it would apply for all Jews. )Rather I think the real reason for the learn don't work these is laziness.

Devorah said...

There are a few problems here. First of all, you imply that previous leaders of Torah were smiths, beer makers, tailors, tanners, etc, and thus were supporting their family. With the exception of the Rambam and his remarkable career, (to which he only begrudgingly applied after his brother stopped supporting him), all of these professions that you mentioned still kept the family in poverty.

I disagree with the notion that our "leaders" and "rosh yeshivos" are to blame for this current climate of lazy men. The truth is, parents consider it some kind of status symbol - much like a bugaboo stroller - to have a son learn. I blame parents that feel that their son is this special snowflake that is somehow exempt from hard work in his life, and wishes that women should somehow alleviate his lot in life with both her parents' money and her own ability to work.

Over and over again, I see that the parents are the ultimate ones responsible for the son's choices. It doesn't seem to matter which yeshivos he's gone to, (or perhaps it does, since the parents are the ones doing the selecting), if parents want their son to work, it's the single biggest indicator.

Furthermore, boys are learning very quickly (pun intended) that the life of learning is a lot more lucrative and respected than going to work, and thus they insist to their parents that they're simply following God's will. I blame parents for allowing themselves to willfully ignore such laziness, to encourage their sons to find rich women to marry, to indulge said desire for comfort and luxury, and to ignore their son's obvious learning potential.

Kollels can't exist without monetary support from the working class. Simply avoid donating until these Kollels start implementing strict entry guidelines into their ranks. Either you're a Talmudic genius and you will be sponsored, or you're going to work. Simple as that.

JRKmommy said...

In an Emperor Has No Clothes way, I'm wondering how many are simply ashamed to admit that they haven't figured out a miraculous way to house, feed and clothe a large family without an income, fearing that it's a sign of lack of faith?

Several years ago on a forum for frum women, I came across this gem:

"Someone decides to learn and not work. If he truly believes that Hashem provides parnassa he has created a situation in which he can live like that. Hashem will find him ways of sending him parnassa.
An extreme example is a simple man in the time of the Arizal in Tzefat who heard a shiur (I can't remember if it was from the Ari or one of the other Gedolim living in Tzefat at the time) that a person can learn and not work. He sold his horse (donkey?) and cart and sat down to learn. After a few days the donkey came back with a cart laden with money, which had belonged to the Arab owner who died.
If someone thinks he has to work 12 hours a day to make a living, that's what will happen to him. "

from here:

Friar Yid said...

One of the things I find so interesting/shameful about the gedolim these days is how many of them seem simply to not be critical thinkers. I am particularly thinking of the ones that ban books written in languages they cannot read because someone tells them there is something bad in it, or alternately, ones who endorse people or books they haven't bothered to investigate. I guess the counter-argument is that they are busy being such massive learners, geniuses and saving the Jewish people from assimilation or something but considering these people are supposed to be intellectual pillars of their community and role models for everyone, they really need to do better about checking their sources. (Then again, this may also be related to the fact that some of these communities vest their power in octo, nono- and centarians.)

The work issue is incredibly important because it is such a divisive fault line in world Jewry, cutting across both issues in the Orthodox world as well as Israeli society as a whole. While Devorah is right that being a tinsmith or a brewer is not likely to make you fantastically wealthy, I think the bigger point is that, A- people were self-sufficient, and that B- even if they struggled financially, it wasn't from lack of trying. Additionally, every community had several charity organizations, and while they may not always have been 100% successful (for a variety of reasons), part of the reason they were in a position to help those who really needed it was that they weren't expected to be helping EVERYONE all the time.

Many of our ancestors moved mountains and worked as many jobs as possible to provide for their families, to support their children, to feed them clothe them, get them an education, etc. Think of the immigrant generation: quite often they worked for years to save up enough money to emigrate somewhere, made the move, and then worked for years again just to get the family established. Many of our ancestors did this while still being religious Jews. My g.grandfather worked continuously, at several simultaneous jobs, for over 35 years to bring his entire family from Poland to the US, from the time he was 17 and his father died to the day he dropped dead at 53. Yes, there may be sacrifice in a life of learning, but it doesn't simply doesn't compare to the daily grind of earning a living for your family.

The incredible work ethic embodied in previous generations, including frum Jews, is something that appears to have been either totally forgotten, or deliberately erased from collective Haredi memory. The idea that an "authentic" or truly frum Jew is someone who spends their life learning and leaving other people to provide everything for them as well as their family is not only disturbing, but also incredibly childish. They should take their example from the Torah-- there were 12 tribes and only 1 of them were Priests. Everyone else needed to work. The mistake the Haredim make is in assuming that all of them, by virtue of simply being born into the Haredi community, are Levites and that the rest of Israel is responsible for their welfare. They need a fundamental perspective shift and to realize that within the Haredi world, there must also be 12 tribes-- that not everyone is a Levite. Not everyone can be a professional learner. Acknowledging that fact and becoming a productive member of not just one, but several societies, needs to become a badge of honor and accomplishment, not a mark of shame.

While there are some good omens on the horizon (the Tal Law, the Belzer rebbe's annual "get out and work" speech, and MK Amsallem), until more of the gedolim start preaching this to their followers, I don't see it happening.

Adam Zur said...

"One of the things I find so interesting/shameful about the gedolim these days is how many of them seem simply to not be critical thinkers."

It is not "seem" but rather they are not critical thinkers. But I will venture to name a few that I know are critical thinkers but they are not what is considered as gedolim.
To be a so called gadol you have to play a stupid game.
The people that actually are critical thinker are just very smart and very devoted to the Gemara. They are Naphtali Yegeer in far Rockaway, Rav Nelkenbaum at the Mir in New York and Rav Haliua in Chayim Berlin.
Also Rav Zilverman in Yerushalaim.