Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sifrei Torah - How Many Do We Need?

The financial crisis facing Orthodoxy today is the greatest it’s ever been in my lifetime. Almost any parent who has children in a religious day school, high school, post high school Yeshiva or seminary can tell you just how difficult it is to pay their bills these days. Very few parents pay full tuition. Most parents are being squeezed to the max for funds to pay the teachers, who are nonetheless underpaid in many cases.

Many schools are underfunded and operate on annual deficits – and are constantly borrowing on a line of credit from a bank. This was true even before the current recession where a good number of parents have lost their jobs, or have had to take pay-cuts, or even have stayed even while expenses including tuition has gone up.

This is not really news. I have discussed this problem many times in the past. But there is one thing that I have just seen at Aish.com that reminds me of a pet peeve I have had of late. And that is the current ‘craze’ of writing Sifrei Torah. Aish.com has a fundraising drive involving the writing of yet another Sefer Torah.

There is a Mitzvah for every Jew to write a Sefer Torah. Most of us cannot afford the $50,000 or so that it costs to pay a Sofer (scribe) to write one. That is usually reserved for the wealthy philanthropists among us. The way in which the rest of us participate is by being given the honor of writing a letter at the end of it during its completion in great ceremony. Sometimes this is used as a fundraiser where people can buy a letter.

All well and good. Except that I am beginning to question whether we have not gone over-board on this Mitzvah to the detriment of the community. I think we may have.

Are there not enough Sifrei Torah in the world yet? It seems that every Shul I attend - even the small ones - there are many Sifrei Torah in their Aronei Kodesh. And almost every Shul has at least one new one. Some have more than one new one. How many do we need? Those who commission the writing of one will store it in a Shul upon its completion. With such a ‘glut’ of Sifrei Torah is there not a better use for that money for those who can afford to spend $50,000 on it?

It seems like every Monday and Thursday some Shul is having yet another Hachnasas Sefer Torah to great pomp and circumstance. That usually happens when a new Sefer Torah is completed and it is being transported from the home of the owner to the Shul in which it will be kept. It is usually a fun event involving a parade and a band with lots of dancing and singing. The entire community is invited to participate. But is that worth the $50,000 dollars given to a Sofer that can be better used by a school?

In this time of financial need in the observant Jewish community spending money to add to the vast numbers of Sifrei Torah that already exist is a questionable enterprise in my view.

There seems to be such a skewed sense of priorties now-a-days about where philanthropic funds should be going. Whether it is the seeming unending flow of new Sifrei Torah being produced or the building of new Shuls whlie those that already exist with a wide variety of Hashkafos have plenty of room to accommodate everyone. It seems a little ridiculous for philanthropic dollars to be diverted from Rebbeim and teachers that are underpaid and parents that are struggling to pay their tuition.

There was a time when it was deemed a necessity to write new Sifrei Torah. Many of them were starting to deteriorate beyond the point of repair. So rabbis would suggest to their wealthier members that they perform the Mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah and hire a Sofer to be their Shaliach. It was a great idea and it worked. But I think we have long ago filled the community need.

Now it is true that in some cases writing a Sefer Torah is done as a fundraiser. Philanthropists are sought to underwrite the costs. Sponsorships are sold and individuals are asked to buy letters to raise revenue. One might say that writing Sifrei Torah can thus be justified. Especially if schools are the beneficiaries of the funds. Perhaps.

But I would argue that even there, it might be over-kill. How many Sifrei Torah does a community need? Is there no better way to raise philanthropic dollars? And for those who simply want to write it for themselves and not as a fundraiser – I would say take that money and instead give it directly to a day school, Yeshiva high school, girl’s high school, Yeshiva Gedolah or women’s seminary. They need the money now.