Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Pig in a Shtreimal?

Machon Tal founder Adina Bar Shalom and her father, R' Ovadia Yosef, ZTL
The Charedi world in Israel is in turmoil right now. Their population is increasing as their per capita income is decreasing.  The reason for that should be obvious even to the casual observer. The work ethic among Charedi men in Israel is practically non existent. At least as far as  working for a living as a priority is concerned. That’s why Charedi women work.

That is one of the few ways that Charedi families in Israel can support themselves. The ‘working wife’ is very often the chief bread winner in the Charedi family. That is clearly not enough to support the large families that are so common among religious Jews. Especially since women generally make less pay for the same work done by men. So it is very understandable why this world is in such dire financial straits.

To say that they choose this way of life is a bit simplistic. True, it is a personal choice to live any lifestyle one chooses. This is no less true in the Charedi world. No one holds a gun to anyone’s head there to learn full time and not work. A family that chooses to sacrifice their material welfare in service to God may be something to admire. But are they really free to choose any lifestyle they want?

I think that too has an obvious answer. No they are not. The expected and accepted path in life a Charedi man takes (at least for those of the non Chasidic – Lithuanian type Yeshiva world)  is to learn Torah full time for as long as possible. Long after marriage and family growth.  And only much later does he go out and find a job that will make a better life for his family. And there is absolutely zero preparation for doing that up to that point.

So in theory they have a choice. But in reality Charedim in Israel are psychologically ‘forced’ to choose this lifestyle. In most cases they do so willingly because they are indoctrinated practically from birth to believe this is how God wants every Jew to live. And even for those that might realize they are not cut out for full time learning many years post marriage -  do it anyway because they will at best be considered second class citizens if they don’t. And if they even express the slightest doubt about doing so before they are married – there go their Shidduch chances!

(Though there are often other factors, this paradigm is at least in part responsible for the increasing rate of young Charedim at risk, some of whom drop observance altogether. I am told that there is hardly a Charedi family that does not have at least one such person – or at least knows a family that does. But that is the subject of another discussion.)

I am not saying any of this as a pejorative. These are just the facts of life in the Charedi world in Israel.

Which brings me to a recent huge rally held in Jerusalem where Charedi leaders in Israel addressed issues of women’s education. The point of which seems to have been to discourage young women from attending college in order to get better paying jobs. Why are they opposed? Rabbi Natan Slifkin made the following observation in his own post on the subject: 
Once a person steps out of the daled amos of the yeshivah or Beis Yaakov, they are exposed to all kinds of influences and ideas that run contrary to charedi and Torah values. I don't understand how there are people that deny this. 
But as he also notes the Mishna in Avos which says : Im Ein Kemach, Ein Torah. This loosely translates as ‘if there is no livelihood, there is no Torah’.  A Torah community cannot survive without an income.  Working wives are a major source of that. Other sources may be needed as well but at most they supplement. They do rarely support. To paraphrase:  If there are no working wives, there can be no Torah.

None of these leaders said that women should not work. Of course they should. They are now the breadwinners. They are now the ones that ‘work with the sweat of their brow’. That curse given to Adam is now the woman’s curse. To go along with the curse of birth pains Eve got. (Good deal for men, No? We don’t have to work - or suffer the pain of giving birth.)

Charedi leadership’s opposition to women attending to college was coupled with a blessing that the jobs they will get will without a college education will provide the livelihood they need. Ultimately God is responsible for Parnassah (livelihood).  So women will be blessed for not attending these bastions of Kefira (heresy). 

What about Charedi colleges like Machon Tal founded for Charedim by R’ Ovadia’s daughter, Adina bar Shalom? I have no clue why they are opposed to that. But they are. (Rabbi Slifkin notes that college is about to close for lack of enrollment.)

What has grabbed the attention of a lot of people is comment attributed to R’ Aharon Leib Steinman about this issue. He said that a Charedi college for women is like a pig wearing a Shtreimel (a Chasidic fur trimmed hat)! While that comment may have been impolitic, R’ Steinman is not one to care about political correctness. He speaks his mind without caring what other people think. All he was really saying is that a woman attending even a Charedi college is highly inappropriate. He should not be castigated for espousing his beliefs. No matter how much one may disagree with him – as I do. Why make this analogy? I guess he wanted it to have an impact. He succeeded.

Fortunately many Charedim have been ‘voting with their feet’ on this issue… and taking academic courses that do enable them to get better jobs. Whether this rally will change things remains to be seen. But a rally like this didn’t work to ban the internet. I don’t think it will work here either. Not in significant numbers. At least I hope not.

I can’t help but once again contrast what’s going on in Charedi Israel with what’s going on in Charedi America. The two worlds could not be farther apart. Attending college here – even for men is not seen as too big of a deal as long as it is done for Parnassah reasons. Witness the increasing numbers of Charedi professionals. You will not see anything like this in Charedi Israel.

And yet there is a push in Charedi America to emulate the Israeli model. Which is why there is decreasing emphasis in secular education in almost all Charedi Yehsiva high schools here. Some of which do not offer any secular studies.

Is this really the direction in which Charedim here should be going? What will the future of both communities be? Will Israeli influences increase here? Will there continue to be an increase in Charedi professionals? And how long will Charedi Israel survive as the population increases while Parnassah opportunities decrease? Who knows?