Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Economic Ruin

In the previous posts, I discussed what I feel to be the tension between academic study and religious learning, and I expressed my uncertainty regarding whether reaching historical truth or attaining religious inspiration is more important. Obviously, this dilemma rests upon the belief, which I possess, that being Jewishly inspired is a good thing! It is my belief (and, I hope, that of my readers - otherwise, this blog is not for you) that Torah and Judaism is a force for good in the world. Thus, it is good for people to grow in their Jewish inspiration.

However, there are certain aspects of certain sectors of Orthodox society which are extremely harmful - perhaps to the extent that they cause that sector of Orthodoxy to be fundamentally problematic. I am thinking right now of the approach in the Charedi world to demote economic self-sufficiency from being a value.

In one of the yeshivos that I learned at, the Rosh Yeshivah (with whom I was very close) would regularly mock those parents that tried to encourage their children to leave yeshivah and join the workforce. One of his peeves was the parents' telling their son that "Imagine if everyone were in kollel - then where would we be?!" As he would point out, if everyone were a dentist or a lawyer, we would also be in trouble, but you don't find parents of prospective dentists or lawyers using such an argument.

It was only much later that I realized that this was facile, for three reasons.

First of all, what the parent is really saying is that being in learning and not acquiring employment skills or employment is not responsible. The saying "Imagine if everyone were to do that..." merely serves to dramatically illustrate that point. And it is indeed true that dentists/ lawyers are usually financially self-sufficient, whereas people in learning are dependent on charitable support.

Second, the son who desires to stay in learning rather than enter the workforce is usually doing so not because he considers this to be his personal choice, responsibility and niche in society, but rather because he believes that basically everyone is obligated to do this. There is no mass-movement for vast swathes of society to become dentists - if there was, then parents of prospective dentists would be equally concerned! Hence, the point behind the challenge of "Imagine if everyone were in kollel - then where would we be?!" is that the notion that most people should be taking this path is ludicrous and dangerous.

Third, this son is not just making a decision about his own path in life; he is simultaneously choosing a path in life in which all his children will likewise take the same route. They will attend schools in which there is little in the way of secular education, and a strong message, accompanied by peer pressure, that they should be in yeshivah/kollel long term rather than train and enter the workforce.

Why do I bring this up? Because in the last few days there have been a spate of articles illustrating the extent of the problem with the economic situation and the outlook of the charedi world. See this article from the Israeli Yated Ne'eman which dismisses the importance of going to work as a way to emerge from poverty, this critique by Brooklyn Wolf (while I think that some of his readings of the article are a little uncharitable, overall he makes excellent points), this article in the Jerusalem Post about the problems facing Israel, and this article from Vos Iz Neias about the increasing number of charedim who are not in the workforce (at least, that part of it which is on the books).


  1. This issue is extremely scary - anyone who cares about the future of Israel should be shouting about this from the rooftops? I am not sure of any general solutions to this problem, but as it stands I am trying to convince anyone who will listen that the Charedi system in Israel is sleepwalking to disaster for all of us. I think the most important thing any of us can do is to make sure that none of our children are deprived of employable skills.
    As an aside, R. Slifkin, do you think there is a necessary connection between maintaining a rationalist perspective on 'Science and Torah' matters and having a positive view of financial self sufficiency and/or the general desirability of worldly endeavour?
    See the following excellent article for an elucidation of one aspect of this topic - http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/704651/Dr._David_Shatz/Practical_Endeavor_and_the_Torah_u-Madda_Debate

  2. The Maharal in Netzach Yisrael specifically notes that until Moshiach comes a lack of achdus in the world as well as in Klal Yisrael is a necessary feature of life. He observes that Yaakov Avinu had multiple wives to produce his 12 sons because God wanted diversity within the Jewish nation. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, develops this by stating specifically that God wanted different tribes with different aptitudes in order to create a self-sufficient nation. Issachar might learn but Zevulun would work to support them while Yehuda would rule, Asher would supply fruit salad for kiddush each week, etc. If God wanted everyone to dress like an Oreo cookie and sit and learn all day, why have 12 different tribes? Why disparate berachos?
    Some of our brightest should sit and learn and develop Torah for our nation but the rest must contribute other aspects. We are meant to be an example, not a collective of parasites living off the generosity of others and spitting into the hands that feed us.

  3. "entering the workforce does not guarantee an escape from poverty"

    However, NOT entering the workforce DOES guarantee poverty.

    It's not so simple to just "get off welfare". For many families this solution doesn't add up. But that is not the same as creating a welfare culture where children are pressured/condemned to lead a life of "holy poverty".

    In answer to J's question above - the reason a rationalist approach is relevant here is that it respects facts on the ground. If we allow religious ideals (like Limud Torah "yomam va'laila") to be followed unchecked by grounded thinking and real-life concerns (such as supporting one's family), eventually real life forces a system crash.

    More than that though – in my opinion we need to teach that thinking rationally/reasonably and supporting oneself ARE religious ideals.

  4. There is another complicating factor, coming out of "left field". The nature of "making a living" has completely changed since the times of all classic Jewish sources, up to about 200 years ago. Since then, we have entered the industrial revolution, and in the last couple of generations the real hi-tech phase.

    Today the choice is between being a technical professional and being very poor. More and more people are unfullfilled by this system and wary of what it is doing to the world, even Orthodox Jews, and even though they try to avoid environmental issues (as pointed out in an earlier post).

    Hazal never encouraged anyone to be a full-time programmer or lawyer, and I'm not so sure they would be too happy with the modern system.

    I'm not saying that the Kollel systen is desirable, only trying to open up the parameters of the discussion.

  5. "the approach in the Charedi world to demote economic self-sufficiency from being a value."

    I think this one phrase really hits the nail on the head.

    I remember being very proud of getting my first real job out of college and being able to tell my parents that I won't be needing any more checks from them. My parents were proud of me too. They were happy not just because they were relieved of a financial burden, but also because my financial independence was a further milestone confirming that they raised their kid right.

    I was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, and I think that this sort of sentiment is still common in those circles. However, in the time I have spent in American Yeshivish circles post-college, I have rarely seen parents, rabbi, or teachers inculcating within young bachurim the idea that eventually weaning oneself from financial support (parental or otherwise) is an honorable goal to work for and aspire to. I can imagine it's only worse among Israeli Charedim.

  6. We can all do our part to assist in the solving of this problem by speaking to our Haredi or sem-Haredi friends and encouraging economic self-sufficiency.

    Good topic, Admor.

  7. we've been hearing of the impending disaster that J. warns of for many years already but it didn't happen yet. well, maybe it will "have" to happen, but maybe not.

    mighty garnel's specific point that the jewish people should be modeled on the tribes' various roles has already been addressed by the yeshivah community by focusing on the entire contemporary jewish nation, including the nonreligious. two tribes, levi and yissachar, out of the 12 (or 13) were involved in full-time study. assuming there are 12 (or 13) million jews today, 2 million should do full time study. of course this doesn't mean only kollel and can include rabbinics, education, etc. and also includes wives and children of kollel people. based on this, the kollel community is underpopulated. also, they claim, the kollel community is and will be instrumental in the facilitation of the return of the irreligious back to the fold, and is therefore understaffed!

    my intention is not to belittle those who benefit jewry in other ways, only to point out that the quantitative lopsidedness alleged to the kollel community is agreed to by them, but in the reverse.

  8. In reply to anonymous - if you look here - http://www.vosizneias.com/53038/2010/04/12/israel-percent-of-non-working-charedi-men-tripled, you will see that the phenomenon of so many people not working is rather recent and in absolute terms is much more severe compared to even a decade ago - so the fact that a meltdown has not yet occurred gives no reason for optimism. Also, just because there are irreligious Jews does not mean there should be so many people in kollel - throughout Jewish history there were never anywhere near as many people is full time study - whether proportionally or in absolute terms.

  9. Who says the impending disaster hasn't happened already? There's a terrible crisis of poverty in the charedi world, with all its repercussions on family life. Ask any social worker who works in that world.

  10. Some reasons why Gedolim stress learning and not going to college.
    I heard from rabbis from Chaim Berlin- that when one lacks in some area - the way to fix it - is to go to extreme the other way. If kollel would not be stressed, naturally all good and smart jewish boys would go to colleges and none would be learning full time. So to tilt the balance - say to get 10% of bochurim to stay in kollel, Torah study is hammered into their brain. basically in order to get 10%, rabbeim shoot for 100%. In Chaim Berlin and Torah Vedaas and Baltimore this system is still sort of working, but numbers are higher than what was hoped for. I would say about 30% go for long term kollel study.
    But in other places, especially Israel - percentage is like 75.

  11. The article by Jonathan Rosenblum, linked below, is a good defense of the Israeli charedi educational/economic model(Summer, 2004 Jewish Action, published side by side with another article). In it, he makes the following points:

    1) No one educational model can possibly satisfy the needs of all the children
    in a large community, and the attempt to force one model upon all can only result in many being lost altogether to the religious world.

    2) Anyone looking for a rapid transformation of the Israeli Chareidi community
    towards something more akin to the American model will be disappointed. The Chareidi community is by nature an evolutionary, not a revolutionary,
    one. What changes take place will come in an incremental fashion, primarily generated by pressures from below.

    3) In their insistence on incremental change, the gedolei Torah are on solid
    ground. An entire body of social science literature documents the disastrous
    consequences of many efforts at social and ecological engineering, and the frequency
    with which those efforts generate consequences far more grievous than the problems they are designed to cure.

    4) Another crucial determinant of the openness of the Chareidi world to
    change will be the attitude of the secular world. The more the Chareidi world
    feels itself under siege, and feels that the government seeks to uproot the world
    of Torah, the more it will circle the wagons and resist all change with determination.


  12. That's not a defense of the Israeli charedi educational/economic model, it's an apology for it. And his description of how the Gedolim are pushing for incremental change is not correct - he is trying to portray all the Gedolim as accepting his view, but that's just not the reality.

  13. Another reason is that secular education weakens many ikarei emunah of charedi judaism - like inerrant chazal and dinosaurs killed by flood etc. Colleges teach to some degree (it is getting smaller) critical thinking skills. And critical thinking is a death threat to Judaism and especially to Charedi version.

  14. "That's not a defense of the Israeli charedi educational/economic model, it's an apology for it."

    The defense part of the article is primarily when he writes of appreciation for contributions to Judaism made by the Israeli charedi community(" American Jews must
    not lose sight of the amazing dedication to Torah learning that is the hallmark of the Israel Torah communities.").

    "he is trying to portray all the Gedolim as accepting his view, but that's just not the reality."

    I supppose one needs to survey the Gedolim(R. Shteinman had a accepting view regarding Nachal Charedi and was attacked by kannoim).

  15. I think all those who value Torah study must value the contributions made by the Israeli Charedi system - which has produced hundreds, if not thousands of outstanding talmdidei chachamim, and tens of thousands of committed Torah Jews. However, it seems terribly tragic to accept that a full Torah life is only possible at the expense of a self-sufficient society. When, if current demographic trends hold true, the Charedim become a majority of the Jews in Israel, will they have to rely on others to fight their wars, to run the state infrastructure and to fill the universities? Is the society we desire one in which we have people who are generally incapable of fruitfully engaging with the modern information economy? This, in effect, means that you are prepared to see Israel degenerate from its present state of relative economic success, to one of subsistence and reliance on the international community. Do we really have to wait for the IMF to get involved before we get our act together?

  16. > the approach in the Charedi world to demote economic self-sufficiency from being a value

    I would go one step farther, and say that anyone who is not sitting and learning is actively looked down on as a nebach who just couldn’t manage learning in kollel. The message in many yeshivas is that anyone who isn’t learning full time has failed in their purpose in life.

    Zohar said...
    > Hazal never encouraged anyone to be a full-time programmer or lawyer, and I'm not so sure they would be too happy with the modern system.

    Why is being a lawyer or programmer so different than being a full-time farmer, or blacksmith, or shoemaker… If anything, people today have far more free time. A farmer was usually busy from the moment he woke up until the moment he went to sleep. A programmer goes home at five and, if he wants to, can use some of the rest of the day to learn.

    Wrestling with G-d said...
    > critical thinking is a death threat to Judaism and especially to Charedi version.

    To mystical religion, in general. Which should tell us something.

  17. "In their insistence on incremental change, the gedolei Torah are on solid
    ground. An entire body of social science literature documents the disastrous
    consequences of many efforts at social and ecological engineering,"

    Actually, the creation and existence of modern Charedism is a classic example of social engineering, trying to create an entirely new society, and with precisely those disastrous consequences.

  18. ..critical thinking is a death threat to Judaism.

    Wrestling--Many us gathered on this blog don't think so. We're dedicated to RATIONALIST JUDAISM--not RATIONALIST ATHEISM.

  19. " Anonymous said...

    we've been hearing of the impending disaster that J. warns of for many years already but it didn't happen yet. well, maybe it will "have" to happen, but maybe not."

    The one word response to this point is SPINKA. When an ADMOR is reduced to committing crimes in order to support a religious outlook, the disaster has hit. And the Spinka scandal is but one of many examples of the disaster that has befallen Klal Yisrael.

  20. "The one word response to this point is SPINKA."

    A two-word response is GUSH KATIF.

  21. 2 points:

    1) "two tribes, levi and yissachar, out of the 12 (or 13) were involved in full-time study."

    Does anyone really believe, as a historical fact, that the tribe of Yissachar actually just sat and learned all day? As though if you had a time machine and went back a few thousand years to the nachalah of Yissachar, you'd just find a few large kollels?

    If so, I have some questions, like what happened to all the talmidei chachamim they produced? Seriously, name one leader, of any kind, from the tribe of Yissachar. (I can think of only one, Tola ben Puah, a shofet who rates exactly one verse in Shoftim 10) Also, if chareidim believe they are the modern-day Yissachar, why are they excused from the army? Tanach states explicitly that Yissachar fought with Devorah (a woman leader, no less!) Also, why doesn't anyone, anywhere in Tanach mention this amazing fact, that an entire tribe (whose fields, I guess, were permanently fallow) other than Levi, was sitting and shteiging all day?

    Conclusion, Yissachar-Zevulun is nice vort, but I wouldn't take that derash as a historical fact, and certainly not as the validation for a lifestyle requiring the rest of BNY to support it.

    2) It saddens me that the chareidi lifestyle can, in fact, save itself (at least in terms of demanding a focus on Torah), thanks to the modern technology their leaders so despise. Working via the internet would allow someone to dress and act in every sense in accord with the chareidi lifestyle (bans on the internet and any and all forms of work notwithstanding) - no physical interactions with women or non-Jews or chilonim, etc. Plus, with some training, they could literally work for just a few hours a day in many fields (bookkeeping, paralegal or full legal 'behind the scenes' work such as document review, auditor work, etc.) There are many agencies that hire out such people for $50-75 an hour - one could work four hours a day, five days a week, and earn enough to get by (although, admittedly, not with 8 kids).

    It's just a shame that fear of technology is preventing the chareidi world from a path that would allow it to fundamentally retain its lifestyle and culture without mass penury.


  22. D. Schwartz, if I had realized that J. was refering to SPINKA I might have held my tongue. His post sounded like he was worried about a much bigger problem, why don't we check with him?

  23. I am referring to a much bigger problem. Read this report - http://www.taubcenter.org.il/files/H2009_State_of_the_Nation_Report.pdf - it's 355 pages long and written in Ivrit, but it really explains what we are dealing with - and you'll understand what I'm talking about, and why the problem is of a different magnitude to what it was in the past.
    As an aside, I think the Spinka Rebbe phenomenon is emblematic of this problematic situation. In any situation where you have thousands of people who are desperate to make ends meet, there are some who will give into temptation. This is especially so where you have an ideology which legitimises dishonesty to a certain extent. To quote Marc Shapiro (http://seforim.blogspot.com/2009/10/some-assorted-comments-and-selection.html), "Will Agudat Israel, which has publicly called for adherence to high ethical standards in such matters, condemn Klein? Will they declare a ban on R Yaakov Yeshayah Blau’s popular Pithei Hoshen, which explains all the halakhically permissible ways one can cheat non-Jews? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t declare that members of your community strive for the ethical high ground while at the same time regard Mishneh Halakhot, Pithei Hoshen, and similar books as valid texts, since these works offer justifications for all sorts of unethical monetary behavior."

  24. Once the Israeli government acts like a real government and CUTS the Ultra Orthodox off. you'll see people working again.

  25. However I think the prize has to go to "The country is lying to its citizens," said Knesset Finance Committee Chairman MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, in response to the Bank of Israel report. "Once again it has been shown that leaving the ranks of welfare recipients and joining the job market does not change the situation and people who work very hard for their living are unable to make ends meet.

    This whole article can be summed up as: I refuse to get a practical education, therefore I am unqualified for any high paying job, therefore I can't get one, therefore I will not work at all and let someone else support me. I will then whine and whinge about how bad it is that people who work hard for their living make a lot of money and demand that the state redistribute their hard-gotten wealth to me.

    How can anyone imagine that this is what God would want his chosen people to do?


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