The Road Back From Utopia

By Joel Rebibo

Ravaged by poverty, Israel's haredi community is rediscovering the merits of work.


Like many computer programmers in Israel’s burgeoning high-tech industry, Yisrael sees himself as part of an ongoing revolution. Unlike others in his field, however, Yisrael’s revolution has nothing to do with computers, or with technology at all. His is a social revolution, one that moves quietly forward every day when he goes to work.
Yisrael is haredi, a strictly observant Orthodox (or “ultra-Orthodox”) Jew, in a country where only a minority of haredi men are employed. While in the United States there is nothing unusual about a haredi computer programmer, attorney, or accountant, in Israel the situation is different. Self-imposed, ideological constraints have made it nearly impossible for haredi men to leave yeshiva early enough in life to study a profession and find satisfying, well-paying jobs. Most of them do not work at all, spending their days studying in yeshiva, where extracurriculars such as vocational training are forbidden. Those who enter the workforce only do so well into their thirties, and then find low-paying work as teachers, scribes, or kashrut supervisors. The fortunate ones have a family business to go into. Until he made his decision to leave the yeshiva and study computers, Yisrael was part of what the sociologist Menachem Friedman, a leading authority on the haredi community in Israel, calls a “learning community” of some 150,000, which consists of students in kollel (advanced yeshivot for married men) and their dependents.1 This rapidly growing community includes families that have seen three generations—grandfathers, fathers, and sons—who have never earned a living.
The result has been disproportionately high poverty among haredim, losses to the Israeli economy amounting to billions of shekels a year, and growing resentment from a secular public that feels it is being taxed unfairly to cover the shortfall from the haredi sector and to pay for coalition promises to the haredi parties. With every passing year, the poverty, dependence, and resentment have deepened.
But there are signs of change. Vocational training programs for haredim, in everything from computer programming to architecture, are having difficulty keeping up with demand. A haredi army unit has been formed with the approval of highly respected rabbis. Most significantly, haredi leaders have supported the proposals of the Tal Commission, a body appointed in 1999 by Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make recommendations concerning the exemption of yeshiva students from army service. The most controversial of these proposals calls for a “year of decision” that would allow students to leave the yeshiva at age 23 for a year of work or training, without losing their army deferrals as full-time Tora students. For the haredim, this is a major departure from the thinking of the past fifty years, according to which all men should aspire to remain in yeshiva their whole lives, and all women to bear the double burden of raising large families and supporting them financially.
The number of men who have taken advantage of the new opportunities is still quite small. However, many insiders see a definite change in attitude on the part of the leaders of Israel’s haredi community, including R. Aharon Leib Steinman and R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, two leading rabbinic authorities of the non-Hasidic (“Lithuanian”) Ashkenazi community, as well as the rebbes of the Hasidic communities of Gur and Vizhnitz, whose opinions set the tone for much of haredi life. Regardless of whether the Tal Commission’s proposals eventually become law, the fact that rabbis of their standing have given them tacit approval is taken by many to mean that something basic has changed. If this assessment is correct, it could ultimately mean a dramatic transformation of haredi life, improving the economic lot of tens of thousands of families, enriching the national economy, and reducing tensions that have bitterly divided secular and religious Israelis since statehood.
The phenomenon of so many learning in yeshiva for so long is unprecedented in Jewish history. In the past, the vast majority of religious Jews, including many of the greatest Tora scholars, worked to support themselves. R. Yehoshua, a mishnaic sage who lived in Jerusalem in the first century and was a candidate for the presidency of the Sanhedrin, eked out the barest of livings as a coal-maker.2 Rashi, who lived in France in the eleventh century and whose commentaries on the Bible and Talmud are considered indispensable in yeshiva circles, was a vintner. Maimonides made his living in the twelfth century as a doctor in the Sultan’s court in Egypt. R. Joseph Karo, author of the Shulhan Aruch, earned his living in sixteenth-century Safed through the fabric trade. And this pattern continued well into the modern era: R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (better known as the Hafetz Haim), who lived in Radin, Poland, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, supported himself for many years as a grocery store owner; R. Baruch Halevi Epstein, the twentieth-century Russian talmudic scholar who wrote the Tora Temima, worked in a bank.
The reason for this was not solely economics. For centuries it was accepted that a Tora scholar should prefer to support himself rather than take a stipend for his studies. For some, such as R. Yohanan, the third-century sage who lived in Tiberias, the motivation came from an ethic of self-sufficiency: “Even make your Sabbath profane,” the Talmud quotes him as saying, “but do not become dependent on other people.”3 For others, labor was not only fundamental to one’s material well-being, but also an integral part of one’s spiritual development: In the opinion of the Mishna, “All study of Tora that is not combined with labor ultimately comes to nothing, and causes sin.”4 It was such a belief that led Maimonides to declare that “whoever decides to study Tora and not to work, but instead to live on charity, desecrates the name of God and brings the Tora into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of life in the world to come.”5
With the passage of centuries, however, work came to be seen as an economic necessity, an activity that was worthy but nonetheless secondary to the ideal of full-time Tora study. The European yeshivot which emerged in the nineteenth century, including the famed academy of Volozhin, sought to create an elite of Tora scholars who dedicated many years to full-time Tora study “for its own sake,” supported by donations from a broad base of working householders (ba’alei batim), who themselves studied during their free time. This elite was never meant to be more than a small fraction of the population; for the great majority of Orthodox Jewish men growing up in Eastern Europe, delaying one’s entry into the workforce for even a few years in order to study Tora full-time was simply not an option, and pursuing a living through the work of one’s hands was not considered problematic in the least.
In recent times, this model has continued to guide Orthodox Jewry in most parts of the world. As the waves of Jewish immigration reached North America in the early twentieth century, the American haredi community fashioned itself after the European pattern: A small number of yeshivot, in which an elite of young Tora scholars studied full-time for several years, supported by a base of working householders; a fraction of these scholars went on to rabbinical careers, while the rest entered the workforce in other fields. A recent study by Amiram Gonen, director of the Florsheimer Institute of Policy Studies in Jerusalem, describes the attitude of the leaders of the haredi community in the United States toward the passage of young men from the yeshiva into the workforce:
Although the rabbis and yeshiva heads make extensive efforts to widen the opportunities for full-time Tora studies, and encourage talented students to deepen their learning as much as possible, they do not put any pressure on those who want to go out and earn a living not to do so. They… understand that the haredi world has a thriving yeshiva culture, in which the most seriousscholars have the opportunity to continue their study and enter into leadership roles, and that it is important that there be a strong component of ba’alei batim who not only support their own families quite successfully but also may constitute a base of support for the society’s institutions, particularly its yeshiva world.6
Among North American haredim, the age of entry into the workforce varies according to the particular religious stream. In Hasidic communities, for example, men tend to begin working in their late teens or early twenties; in the Lithuanian communities, on the other hand, they leave yeshiva in their mid- or late twenties. Overall, however, the pattern is a consistent one, in which very few students beyond the age of thirty remain in full-time study.7 A recent study of the Hasidic community in Montreal, for example, shows that of working-age males in that community, only 6 percent are studying in yeshiva full-time.8

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