Monday, February 02, 2009

Getting Paid to Learn Torah

Guest Post by Toby Katz

Should someone who learns Torah full time be paid well for their efforts? In my view the answer to that question depends on the quality of the learning and his potential to the contributions to Klal Yisroel. So as a percentage of those who are doing that now, I would say that most are not in that category. But ultimately it is up to the society that wants it. If they can afford to do so, that is just fine with me. But in any Torah society there needs to be a place where potential leaders in Torah can learn Torah and not have to worry about paying their bills.

For those who are truly great in their Torah learning – those with potential to be leaders in Torah world - they should not only be paid but paid well. This is my long standing view.

The best and most honorable source of that income is – us – the working class of observant Jewry in a Yissachar- Zevulun type relationship. But, as I wrote in a recent post it should not be done through public funding not intended for that purpose.

Utilizing the government welfare system in this country even if it is being done legally should be avoided - even if it were not the potential Chilul HaShem that it is. We should not have to relegate our best and brightest Talmidei Chachamim to the welfare system. It is degrading to them -a Bizayon - to have to resort to it even if it is legal.

It should not be used at all and certainly not be used to by the masses of Avreichim who are in Kollel just because they feel like it.

In this context I now present a guest post by Mrs. Toby Katz, the daughter of a man who I greatly admire, Rabbi Nachman Bulman. She is a brilliant writer and though we sometimes disagree - on this subject I believe we are more or less on the same page. Her words were written on an e-mail list in the context of this issue which is currently being discussed there. Here now her words:

A significant portion of the kollel guy's "income" consists of food stamps, medicaid and the like.

While I wouldn't call this a "morally reprehensible" way to make a living, I would say that it is ethically dubious. When you talk about being "well paid" you think of an employer or maybe a non-profit organization that gives stipends to students. Being "well paid" by the welfare bureaucracy is a whole different story. Let's say that learning Torah full time is indeed "an acceptable lifetime occupation" and that it should be "a well-paid occupation."

But paid by whom? People who work in other occupations are paid by those who use their services or who value their services. People who use electricians pay their wages. Music-loving philanthropists support the philharmonic and their money pays the violinists.

Who should pay the full-time Torah learners? Why, of all occupations, should this one be subsidized by the government? (I think that Zevulun should pay Yisachar but that's hopelessly old-fashioned, I know.)

Until socialism well and truly becomes our economic system -- and of course that may happen quite soon, R'L -- but until then, these quasi-socialist welfare programs were not really intended to enable able-bodied unemployed men support their families for years on end. The case is different in Israel, where every family receives child support payments, regardless of family income. (I think Australia and many European countries do that too.) There is no shame in taking such payments. But there is -- or there used to be, and there should be -- shame in accepting welfare.

Interestingly when the Rambam talks about levels of tzedaka, he says it is a higher level to give in such a way that the recipient is not embarrassed. (The highest level, it goes without saying, is giving a man a job. But today in Lakewood I guess they would put it differently, and say the highest level is giving a man's wife a job.) When he talks about not embarrassing the recipient of charity, he makes the assumption that a person would naturally be ashamed to take charity! What a thought. We have such an assumption in the bentshing too, "vena al tatzricheinu...lo lidei matnas basar im leyadcha hameleiyah....shelo nevosh velo nikalem le'olam va'ed."

But somehow when people are taking charity from their neighbors indirectly -- via food stamps and medicaid -- they don't think of it as "charity" but as "income"! And there is no feeling of shame at all, but a feeling of entitlement.

I just thank G-d that no investigative reporter from the NY Times has decided to poke around Lakewood and do an expose on how all these men are surviving on the dole without trying to find jobs. I think such an article would be a huge Chillul Hashem.