Friday, June 29, 2012

A False Dichotomy

Alexander Rapaport, a Chasid who is the executive director of the Masbia soup kitchen network, has written an article in the Forward taking issue with the idea that Chasidim as a whole are poor by choice– as I have recently suggested. He explains that it isn’t poverty they choose but religion which often conflicts with secular values. And in choosing religion they have to forgo the better economic conditions that more participation would allow them to have.

He provided several examples of this. Some of which I challenge.  First there is his statement about the Halachic inability to control the size of their families. That is not as clear cut as his “little wiggle room” statement implies. While there are differing Hashkafos between various Orthodox groups, the basic requirement of the Torah to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is fulfilled by having one boy and one girl according to most Poskim. 

Let me quickly add that this does not automatically permit birth control. There are more lenient views and more stringent views about that.  But there are various Heterim that can be given for different reasons to delay or not have any more children for various reasons not necessarily having to do with Pikuach Nefesh.  It depends who you ask. In Chasidic circles those Heterim are harder to get. The result is that in many, perhaps even most cases, women keep having children until menopause.  So much for “wiggle room”.

To be clear, I have no problem with large families. If one can properly raise their children, Tova  Alehem Bracha – God  bless them! By the same token it should not be anyone else’s responsibility – financial or otherwise - to support them. The point is that his contention that large families are a “non-negotiable” Torah requirement is incorrect.

His second point is a response to why Chasdim do not seek higher education. It is not the education they object to, but the environment. By environment I assume he means the typical university campuses of today where sexual mores are practically non-existent. I understand the fear. But the truth is that there are plenty of universities and colleges that are not geared to any social campus life – like Brooklyn College that has had thousands of Frum graduates over many decades.  I see no reason to say that these places are unacceptable.

Furthermore has he never heard of Yeshiva University? Or the Hebrew Theologial College? I understand that YU and HTC are not Hashkaficaly Chasidic. But to make the claim that higher educations is banned because of an anti Torah atmosphere is  – again - incorrect.  

His claim that Touro is changing things remains to be seen. But it is a canard against places like YU and HTC to imply that before Touro these places were forbidden by the Torah to attend. And it gives lie to the reason bout being poor until now because of the religious objection to attend college.

Bearing all this in mind let us examine the following statement from the article: 
Is choosing to be religious a choice that we should abandon? Because other than that choice, I think the community is choosing to fend for itself and struggle against poverty. When you talk about Orthodox poverty, you are largely talking about the working poor, men and women who work to support their families but still don’t earn enough to do so.
His question implies that it isn’t poverty they choose. It is religion  But that represents a false dichotomy. One does not have to abandon ones religious beliefs in order to better their lives through higher education. One can be religious and educated enough to find more financially rewarding jobs.

And then there is the welfare issue. Here is how he frames the issue: 
So when the word “undeserving” is used to refer to children who benefit from food stamps or WIC because of their parents’ “choices,” I find it unacceptable. You can argue against a way of life, but I think we all, on both sides of that growing gap, can agree that the question of whether children, or adults for that matter, “deserve” help is not how the debate should be framed. 
Here he really misses the boat. Yes there are some people like those he lists that are deserving of aid because of external circumstances like physical or mental ailments. However, there is a difference between them and people whose values are shaped by a Hashkafa that is more prone to poverty.

Mr. Rapaport then questions why tax breaks for the wealthy seem far more acceptable that subsidizing the working poor. Perhaps he has a point.  But an argument can be made that certain tax breaks even for the wealthy benefit society as a whole.  I therefore do not see the two issues as opposite sides of an ethical coin.

Nor does he address the abuses, both legal and illegal or an entire group of Jews using a welfare system because of religious choices that are not universally seen as required by Halacha - as he implies they are. Those choices are based on narrow interpretations of Halacha and on a biased, overly negative view of the real world by their leaders. And these leaders are so iconic that they are never challenged.  Hence, you have a situation that is both intolerable and in my view correctable.

I reject Mr. Rapaport’s view that the poverty conditions inherent in his community are not based on choice but on religion. It is not religion but mainly on an unreasonable approach to engagement with the rest of society.