Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Are Charedim the Biggest Threat to Israel?

Extremist Charedi draft dodgers (Jerusalem Post)
I find myself agreeing with much of Dan Perry’s analysis and yet I am appalled by it! Not because his analysis is wrong. But by his negative description of the Charedi world in Israel. A description that blames them in advance for his prediction of Israel’s demise in the near future. 

Much of what he says, I have said before. These problems exist and are legitimate: 

(The Status Quo) arrangement (between Ben Gurion and the Chazon Ish) turned Torah study into an arguably unprecedented obsession in which all haredi men are pushed to lifelong seminary duty, first to avoid the draft and then essentially as a source of welfare. Whereas other university students pay tuition, haredim receive stipends for as long as they study, if possible for life. Over 150,000 men now in these schools are indoctrinated in the faith that stricture and rabbis supersede the laws and officials of the state.

To maintain the insularity, most haredi high schoolers are sent to the community’s schools that teach little or no math, science and English; in recent days Israel’s chief rabbi, who is haredi, called such studies of secular subjects “nonsense.” Israel funds these schools even though their unfortunate graduates are essentially unemployable in a modern economy.

The counter argument offered by the Charedi world and their supporters is that many Charedim do work. At least eventually. But as Perry notes it is less than half of them. Many of whom are employed in what he calls a religious bureaucracy that includes supervisors of the mikvaot ritual baths, kashrut food certification. 

Not that this is not legitimate employment. It is. But it speaks to the lack of the kind of education that better paying jobs require. In any case these jobs are limited. The food certification industry for example needs just so many supervisors. Not everyone that applies will get that job. And how many Mikva attendants do we need? None of which in all likelihood pays as well as a job where an education is required. And certainly does not provide a large enough income to support their typically large families. Which means (as Perry notes) they have to rely on government subsidies - surely at a much higher rate than the non Charedi world. 

It is also true that their growth rate is so much greater than the rate of the rest of Israel’s Jewish population, that in a few years they will comprise the majority! A prescription for disaster if things continue in the same trajectory. There is no logical way the tax base will be large enough to continue the stipends Charedim rely upon just to live if the percentage of the working public decreases in such a major way.

Perry mentions a few other issues that contribute to this malaise. Not the least of which is the wholesale draft exemptions given to Charedim. The vast majority remain in Yeshiva and Kollel with ‘student deferments’ until they are married and/or at an age where they are no longer eligible to serve. This has long been a sore subject for both secular and religious Jews that do serve. While that is changing somewhat due to the creation of religious army units, they are an insignificant minority of the Charedi world.  Most Charedi leaders are at best not thrilled with this option and still urge their students to continue their full time Torah study for as long as possible. And this doesn't even address those Charedim that actively resist even registering for the draft. Which sometimes incudes violent protest!

Like I said, everything Perry says is basically true and closely mirrors things I have said myself. But his article still disgusts me. In fact the title of his oped says it all. Although he never uses the word, his negative attitude basically amounts to calling them parasites that will destroy civilization in Israel as we know it. Here is how he puts it: 

Clearly this economic setup could very well collapse, and the haredim will have to work. Perhaps the haredim might bestir themselves to somehow change their ways. But it is hard to see this happening fast enough for much to survive of the “Start-up Nation” that is a world leader in cybertechnology, agrotech and venture capital, punches way above its weight on Nobel prizes and exported television formats, is a global leader on gay rights and decriminalizing cannabis and has developed Iron Dome to zap rockets out of the sky. Indeed, it’s hard to see such an Israel compelling the secular to stay; the people responsible for all of the above can be expected to flee and take their global innovation skills with them

I hear him. But his prediction of Israel’s demise is premature. Nor  do I see some of what Israel has come to stand for as positive (Decriminalizing pot? Really? He thinks that’s a good thing?!) At the same time he might have a point about the survival of other achievements. I don’t for example see the Charedi world in the competition for a Nobel Prize any time soon. 

Perry completely ignores the value of full time Torah study. He probably has no appreciation whatsoever for it and sees it as a complete waste of time.  That is just plain wrong. Torah study is vital to the Jewish people. To master it requires full time Torah study for many years. The Jewish people need Torah scholars. Especially in the modern era. Technology is advancing so rapidly that it requires constant analysis of the best Halachic minds to tell how to use it. (e.g. if and when we can use new devices on Shabbos. It also requires those Halachic minds to acquire secular knowledge. But that is a subject for another time.) 

Torah knowledge is needed to simply live a Halachic life. To imply that it is irrelevant is to dismiss the essence of Judaism. A nation filled with  non observant Jewish Nobel Prize winners for example can hardly be called a Jewish nation. What will it be that makes them Jewish if not following Halacha? Yiddish theater? Eating bagels and lox? What kind of Judaism will they transmit to their children? 

My problem is not with the intensity of Torah study that Charedi leaders require of their students. It is their application of it for everyone. Not everyone should be doing that. Only the truly elite. The rest should go work and serve their country the way most other Israelis do. That is what needs to change. 

In my view the only way that can happen is through a good secular education as part of their Yeshiva curriculum - through high school. Adding that to the school day will not detract from the greatness that can be achieved by those capable of learning Torah at high levels. Those that are in that league should pursue full time Torah study after high school and be supported by the community. Only the truly elite should focus solely on Torah. They will become our future leaders. (Of course in my view they should have secular knowledge too if they want to be truly great religious leaders. But again, that is a discussion for another time.)

The rest need to do what the vast majority of Yeshiva students in America did back in my day: Pursue an education that will provide the dual advantages of Torah and secular knowledge so they can be  knowledgeable in both areas and also get decent productive jobs. .  

This is what Perry is missing. He may not have said so. But I’ll bet he would not be disappointed if Torah study was completely abandoned. After all, to his way of thinking it is a waste of time anyway.