Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Just Society - Democracy and Learning Torah

There are those that would urge fighting against the elimination of benefits for Avreichim in Israel – which is what the Israeli Supreme Court did a couple of days ago. Indeed some irate Knesset members have promised to do so. I have consistently made the point that in a just society one needs to be fair to all constituencies. One constituency cannot be favored over another. So it is a fair decision. The court saw an inequity and corrected it.

As I said yesterday, I hope the cuts are not immediate and that some way is found to remedy the increased poverty – perhaps by the Knesset legislating and funding various job training programs for Avreichim ready to work. In the short term it will increase the budget. But in the long term it will increase revenue by increasing the number of taxpayers. Not doing so will only increase poverty.

In a just society based on the principles of democracy – which is what the State of Israel is - it is only fair that different constituencies be treated equally and that one not be favored over the other.

But then there is the religious argument. The Torah tells us that Talmid Torah K’neged Kulam – Learning Torah surpasses all other endeavors. As such it can and should be given priority treatment. Society – via the state - should therefore support its Torah scholars. It would be in a sort of Yissachar/Zevulun relationship where the working class (taxpayers) supports the learning class (Avreichim) and share equally in the Heavenly rewards. In theory a great idea. But in practice this will never sell in a society that does not understand the value and importance of Torah.

But let us examine if this is indeed the Torah ideal. Does the Torah really support this enterprise as it is currently practiced in Israel? Should every religious Jew be paid to sit and learn full time? I do not believe that this is a Torah value. Oddly enough an editorial in the Jerusalem Post makes this point much better than I ever have.

Here is the pertinent excerpt:

Medieval sage Maimonides ruled, “One who replaces work with Torah study and lives from charity profanes God’s name, disgraces the Torah, extinguishes the light of the law.”

In short, Judaism implores the faithful Jew to support himself. The rabbis knew the devastating effect that relying on charity can have for a father’s self-esteem, how it can undermine his ability to command the respect of his wife and children. They also wanted a man to be a constructive member of society.

TRUE, THROUGHOUT the ages, communities, no matter how destitute and poverty-stricken, supported gifted Torah scholars. And Maimonides’s businessman brother David helped him make ends meet until his untimely death. But these arrangements were voluntary and limited to a select few.

In fact, six decades ago, when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, reached an agreement with the haredi rabbinic leadership and its most dominant figure – Rabbi Yeshayahu Karelitz (the Hazon Ish) – to exempt yeshiva students from military service, there were only a few hundred. It seemed at the time that haredi Judaism, nearly decimated by the Shoah, was on the verge of extinction.

Perhaps Ben-Gurion acted out of pity, or out of a feeling of guilt for his own departure from tradition, or out of a conviction that at any rate the remnant of haredi Judaism would soon be gone, or perhaps to maintain that tradition of the most gifted Torah scholars being enabled to study full-time.

Today haredi Judaism, both in Israel and abroad, is enjoying a new resurgence. Its leaders are seen as representatives of “true,” “authentic” Judaism. At a time when other Jewish communities suffer the ravages of assimilation and intermarriage, haredim have not only maintained their own numbers, they are growing and convincing others to join them through intensive outreach. But it is no longer only the most gifted who are being subsidized to study full-time.

I have heard mention – I believe in the name of Rav Moshe Feinstein – a statement along the following lines: Anyone who uses the Rambam as an excuse to work instead of learn is following his Yetzer Hara.

I have also heard that R’ Moshe wrote in his Teshuvos – I did not see it personally – that times are different now. There is so much more to learn now that even if we devoted every single moment of our lives to learning – we still would not have enough time. Working was possible in the times of Chazal and the Rambam. But today the Rambam’s dictum does not apply. We do not have the luxury of both learning and working. Working will perforce detract from the time necessary to gain sufficient Torah knowledge.

I hear that. But as the editorial suggests I believe that all these arguments were made at a time where building Yeshivos and Kollelim - and getting people to learn beyond high school was a struggle. I do not believe that they would have made the arguments so strongly if they weren’t trying to build the system from scratch.

We are now experiencing a reverse problem. Yeshivos and Kollelim are bursting at the seems. New ones are forever popping up to accommodate the overflow. The system is built. In fact it is over built. In his wildest dreams Lakewood founder Rav Aharon Kotler could not imagine having over 5000 students in his Yeshiva and growing by leaps and bounds. When he died there were about 300 students and it was already then considered wildly successful!

Rav Ahron Soloveichik has said that learning full time should be reserved for the Yichidei Segulah. The fulfillment of the Mitzvah of V’Hgeisa Bo Yomim VaLailah - that one should be learning Torah day and night – is indeed fulfilled by full time learning. But he also said that it can be fulfilled by reciting the Shema – once in the daytime and once at night. In his view full time learning should be reserved for those with the potential to become the Torah leaders of our generation – the elite. They are the ones to support. Not the masses that we have now. The way things stand now most religious Jews should be working and be Kovieh Itim - setting aside a daily schedule of Torah learning before or after work.

Rav Ahron was right. And this new court decision supports that idea. The Jerusalem Post said it better than I ever did:

The time has come for the haredi community to reassess its standing. It is no longer the weak, embattled minority that it was in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The haredi leadership can no longer justify devoting all of its energies to the singular endeavor of preserving tradition and insulating its flock from “evil” outside influences. It must now rise to new challenges. First and foremost among these is ensuring that while an elite few continue to carry the torch of tradition, others receive the skills needed to integrate into a dynamic labor market.

VeNomar Amen.