Friday, April 15, 2011

Food for Thought

B’Zeyas Apecha Tochel Lechem. From man’s earliest moments on earth he was ‘cursed’ with a Godly edict: ‘By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread’. This means that man can only survive if he works. Women do not have this ‘curse’. Nowhere in the Torah does it say a woman must work.

Women are charged with the pain of giving birth and raising the family. The Gemarah tells us “Kevudah Bas Melech P’nimah - the honor of a woman is inside. One interpretation of that phrase is as a reference to the home. A woman is the Akeres HaBayis, she is the anchor of the home. Although she is permitted to go into the workplace - her primary responsibility as a Jew is raising the children and taking care of the home.

This is the Jewish paradigm. Men work and women raise the children. That – in part - is the role of each in Judaism. This is not to say that they are not equally valuable in the eyes of God. It says the opposite in fact. Their roles are of equal importance and of equal contribution to the family’s welfare. Mutual respect for what each does is a Torah requirement. The Torah does not devalue the role of a woman in the home. It cherishes it. The Torah recognizes that a woman’s role in the home requires so much of her time that it exempts her from time bound Mitzvos.

Women are allowed to work and there are laws that deal specifically with how a husband- wife relationship handles the income of a wife. But that is only an option – not a requirement.

The Talmud is replete with laws and references to men working and supporting their families. It is the assumed status of a Jewish man to work. Learning Torah depends on it. Chazal codified a system of ethics that unqualifiedly states, ‘Ein Kemeach, Ein Torah’ – if there is no sustenance there is no Torah.

Supporting a wife was built into the Halachic marriage contract called the Kesuvah. Every Kesuvah today has those requirements written into it. In fact a husband is not allowed to live with his wife without one.

Until recent times the idea of most men working for a living was the norm. In fact Chazal worked for a living themselves as indicated by the nicknames of some of them. For example R’ Yochanan Hasandler was a shoemaker. Although they worked Chazal were not ordinary people. They were the Gedolei HaDor; the people that recorded the oral law; and created rabbinic law as later codified by many Rishonim like the Rambam – who also worked as a physician.

Later Rabbenu Yosef Karo combed those Rishonim and further refined and codified it all into that huge corpus of Jewish law knows as the Shulchan Aruch – much of which deals with the laws of business and the workplace. If one were to read all of these works in their entirety one would conclude that working for a living is the assumed primary state of the Jewish man.

But working for a living is not the only conclusion one would draw from all of this. One would also see the highest value in Judaism is placed on learning Torah. The Gemarah is replete with references to that. ‘Talmud Torah K’Neged Kulam’ – learning Torah is equivalent to all the Mitzvos in the Torah. V’Hogisa Bo Yomim VaLaila - one should study it diligently day and night. One must establish regular periods in the day and night devoted to Torah study.

The Gemarah also tells us to make learning Torah the primary part of one’s day and work secondary to it. This does not mean that one must learn more than one works. It means that even though one spends less time learning than working, learning Torah should be the higher value in one’s life.

If the assumed state of man is to learn but not at the expense of making a living; and that a woman should be a stay at home mother and to raise the children - how does one reconcile that with the Charedi paradigm that encourages men to not work at all but to learn full time? How can men be forbidden to in any way take off time from their learning to prepare for the workplace? How can Charedi families survive without a man doing what he is supposed to do - work for a living?

The answer in modern times is for women to forgo their roles as stay at home mothers and work instead. What about the biblical assumption that man must toil with the sweat of his brow in order to eat bread? How can we now basically ignore - if not entirely abolish that biblical and rabbinic paradigm?

Many Charedim will answer that despite the current Charedi paradigm, many men end up in the workplace anyway. They eventually drop out of the Beis Hamedrash and become second class workers instead of first class learners. But this is no way to run a society. No society can function in this B’dieved way. Earning a living wage (especially when the average number of children in Charedi families is 8) in a modern economy with technological advances that constantly change requires preparation.

One of the arguments given by Charedim for opposing working for a living is one that I heard in the name of Rav Moshe Feinstein. When asked why Jewish men must study full time now and not have any other interests he answered that it is because in our day there is just too much to learn. Torah has evolved to such an extent that even if one were to learn full time day and night he would still not be able to learn all the Torah there is to learn. He therefore says we have no choice but to change the paradigm in our day. When challenged with the example of the Rambam as a working physician I believe R’ Moshe answered that the Rambam was so brilliant he could do it. Besides there was not as much to learn in the Rambam’s day as there is in ours.

I’m sure he is right about that. The Rambam did not have to learn any R’ Chaims. But I have to ask, is not the Torah and Chazal’s entire approach to Judaism based not only on the primacy of Torah but also on a man working? That seems clear to me. Why it is the obligation of every single man to learn day and night full time?

I can understand that there has to be some people who do that. That is the only way we can know how to do the Mitzvos as they have developed in our day. Someone has to know it and answer new questions that arise as a result of the modern era. But must everyone become a Posek at the expense of his family’s material welfare? Is he supposed ignore all the historic precedents for work dating back to the very beginning of the Torah and continuing until recent times?

I do not understand that at all. And yet that has become the standard. Right along with women supporting their families. I do not believe one can learn Torah and then say that this is how God intended Jews to live.

Raising a family is now a diminished part of a typical Charedi woman’s day. Children are being raised in part by baby sitters and daycare centers. Many children in Charedi families come home from school to an empty house with no parent there to supervise until hours later. Kevudah Bas Melech is turned on its head by women going out into the workplace. They are the ones out in the public square now. Not men. Charedi men are sometimes found more often in the home than Charedi women. Is this really the Jewish paradigm?

I don’t think so. But most Charedim apparently do - both men and women. Many women will say they gladly do this because they want their husbands to learn full time. Why? Because this is what they are taught in Beis Yaakovs and seminaries all over the world. And if anyone in the Charedi world prepares for the workplace – it is the women!

This is the current attitude among the Charedi world – especially in Israel but increasingly in America too.

There is something definitely wrong with this picture. And the proof is that as the Torah world continues to grow in exponential numbers it is increasingly becoming less sustainable. That is becoming more and more obvious with the passage of time. How many more articles like the one I wrote about yesterday and the one at Reuters today for Charedi leaders to realize that?