Why Can’t They Be Like Me?

The current crisis in Eretz Yisrael constitutes an extended educational seminar on two topics: what is Torah, and what does it mean to be a student of Torah?

At the outset, let’s dispense with those issues on which there is little or no essential dispute. No one argues that people who aren’t interested or capable of learning full-time must do so anyway. The many programs that have been providing training and placement for thousands of men in the Torah community over the past many years should make this abundantly clear.

There are also those who have little or no interest in learning full-time but perhaps remain enrolled in yeshivah for other reasons, such as to avoid the responsibility to earn a living or the possible stigma associated with leaving the yeshivah. Although this group, whose numbers are not known, is often invoked by supporters of the drafting of bnei Torah, it is disingenuous to do so. The central debate is not over their fate, and pointing to them is simply an attempt to change the subject or tar all bnei Torah with their disrepute.

The essential issue is this: What of the many, many thousands of bochurim and yungeleit who fiercely love Torah, genuinely live Torah, and wish to remain immersed in its full-time study? The conflicting positions on this question are well known. Less appreciated, however, are the beliefs that underpin these positions, which make all the difference in the world.

Here’s what Torah Jews have always believed, and from rich experience, know to be true:

That limud haTorah is the greatest mitzvah and a never-ending one, incumbent, in the Rambam’s words, upon “poor and rich, the healthy and the afflicted, the young and the old and feeble … until the day one dies.” It’s intended to fill every available waking moment of the Jewish man (with accommodation obviously made for attending to one’s material needs). And for good reason, because, as the Chofetz Chaim puts it in explaining the verse (Devarim 32:47) “Ki lo davar reik hu mikem, ki hu chayeichem”: Torah isn’t just one aspect of life, nor even the primary one. Torah is life itself.

That limud haTorah is life’s supreme joy, enthralling in its brilliance and depth, and that the longer and further one explores its vast expanses, the more enraptured he becomes, wanting for naught but to drink deeply of its Divine wisdom forever; that studied properly, it is immeasurably ennobling of one’s character, helping to tame ego and bodily drives alike; that it is a balm for the soul and an elixir for the body, literally good for what ails one; that it is the life force not only of the cosmos, bestowing material and spiritual blessing on all they contain, but of all the other mitzvos as well.

And above all, we have always regarded as our individual and national heroes those who merit remaining in the beis medrash long-term through their and their families’ single-minded determination and surpassing love of Hashem and His Torah. How else to describe those who forego promising careers and material comforts to instead toil in Torah with such intensity that, as Dr. Akiva Tatz wrote of his first months in yeshivah, “I’d come home daily more deeply exhausted than I had been as an intern, if that is possible to imagine … the intellectual level demanded in yeshivah learning makes university study pale into insignificance….”

To be a neheneh miyegi’a kapav, an honest, G-d-fearing working man, punctilious in mitzvah performance and daily Torah study, has always been the lot of most Jews, and a truly noble one it is. But Jews never confused the fulfillment of their individual mission, based on their particular needs and limitations, with the objective truth that the more Torah, the better, and that there can be no greater good fortune — whether it is mine or my Jewish brother’s — than to “sit in Hashem’s house all the days of one’s life.”

The Gemara (Berachos 35b) teaches that harbeh asu v’ lo alsah b’yadam, many aspired to a life devoted exclusively to limud haTorah, but did not succeed. But never, ever in our history was there anything like a spiritual class war between those Jews and the select bnei aliyah hamu’atim who did succeed in living lives of toraso umanuso. Their existence among us was always a cause for the deepest pride — and for provision of moral and material support.

This was true already at the dawn of our nation’s history, when, as Klal Yisrael bore the heavy yoke of Egyptian servitude, the original tribe of Levi carried a burden of another sort: unceasing study and teaching of Torah to their brethren. But in an attempt to force the Leviim, too, into the slave ranks, the Egyptians promulgated the edict that if one didn’t work, neither would he eat. Whence, then, did the Leviim and their families derive even basic sustenance? The answer, as a prominent rav and marbitz Torah in Flatbush pointed out to me, is given by Rav Elya Lopian ztz”l, quoting Chazal: The rest of Klal Yisrael — enslaved, beaten, and tortured — shared their meager slaves’ rations with those whose Torah study was the nation’s very raison d’être.

As Rav Elya observes:

Think about how mighty of spirit the bnei Yisrael were then. Not one person complained, “Why do I have to give them? Let them work! If not the elderly, at least let them send their children to work.” Every single family understood that there must be a significant portion of the nation whose sole concern is eisek haTorah, and each contributed from its paltry provisions to support the entire sheivet Levi as they learned Torah in Eretz Goshen.… And all this was before receiving the Torah and witnessing the miracles of the Exodus and the Mon … Not for naught did they merit being the generation to receive the Torah! (Lev Eliyahu, Bamidbar, p.136)

And thus has it always been. In his memoirs, the socialist publisher of the Forverts, Abraham Cahan, recalled hiring a wagon for the trip to Volozhin to learn in the town’s famed yeshivah. Hearing of young Cahan’s destination, the simple litvishe wagon driver, who likely worked himself ragged to support his family, sat up straight and adamantly refused to take money for taking someone on his way to learn “Tayrah.” My own zeideh, whose cheder education had been minimal, thought nothing of outfitting, gratis, any talmid chacham who walked into his haberdashery on the Depression-era Lower East Side.

BUT THE GANG playing with Eretz Yisrael’s future seeks to change all that. To learn where Torah and bnei Torah figure in Yesh Atid’s worldview, there’s no better source than the stated views of the fellow who, for all intents, mans that party’s chareidi desk or, shall we say, sektzia. I don’t know him, and I’m happy to ascribe good intentions to him — although nothing quite matches the havoc wreaked when earnest people with goals like “sav[ing] the Haredi community from themselves” are loosed on the world in service, knowing or otherwise, of nefarious ends. In the spirit of generosity, let’s even impute similarly well-meaning motives to the “very special” mentor and benefactor who plucked him from obscurity to launch his evanescent political star.

He says that “it’s not a normal thing for a human being to be studying Torah, full-fledged, day and night,” and to this we respond “guilty as charged.” He’s so right, it’s not at all normal — unless, of course, you’re a Jew. One will search in vain for another religion whose spiritual practices include anything remotely resembling the unique, all-encompassing, mind-body-spirit experience we call talmud Torah. One hears nowadays about “the new normal”; welcome to the “the Jew normal.”

But our newly minted, albeit unofficial Minister of Chareidi Affairs bemoans, “It’s hard to do that. How many kids can really do that?” Baruch Hashem, the answer is many thousands, thank you, and kein yirbu. He recalls that one year in yeshivah, he “went through” studying Torah day and night, and “then after a year — I loved it but you can’t do more of that…”

Reading these inadvertently revelatory words, one can only muse: Whatever your experiences may have been, must you really inflict them on untold numbers of people of whose reality you know absolutely nothing?

But how could it be otherwise for someone who caricatures the sublime experience of limud haTorah for which a hundred generations of Jews lived and died as nothing more than “spend[ing] a day analyzing [one] line of the Talmud and all the commentaries, and that’s it,” about “women-related issues and damages,” and who agrees with his interviewer that yeshivah men are preoccupied with “obscure alleys that have no relevance for living a good life”? He is so profoundly, tragically ignorant of Torah in all of the senses we described above: as a spiritual delight, as ethically transformative, as a dynamic, practical exploration of G-d’s will for mankind, an intellectual adventure. His idea of learning? “Take the Tanach and understand who King David was … King David is my guy [laughs] … a warrior, a politician who had to deal with coalitions and struggles and even moral struggles in his life, and crises of faith.”

Talmidei yeshivos hakedoshos, of past and present, I ask: Do you recognize yourselves in the crooked mirror he holds up to you? Does the ethical, intellectual, spiritual growth you and your chaveirim experienced in those wondrous youthful years or as yungeleit learning Torah, and their impact on your life since then, bear any likeness to this man’s words? Do his sentiments describe your experience of learning, even now, so many years later, or your feelings about limud haTorah and bnei Torah, and what you wish your children to feel?

For Yesh Atid, it’s about “a select cadre of elite scholars,” about cost-benefit analyses of what a scholar can produce and contribute; for us it’s about loving Hashem’s Word and studying and teaching it with all one’s abilities, about drawing down holiness and morality into a profane world. For them it’s about Israel as a wannabe America — although the latter exempted divinity students from wartime drafts and generously funds grad students specializing in the work of obscure 18th-century Italian poets; for us, it’s about Jews, in a country run by Jews, doing something quintessentially Jewish and Jewishly essential.

And it is this distorted, impoverished, technocratic view of the yeshivah as a factory for producing religious functionaries like another might produce sausages, that informs all the rest of what Yesh Atid’s token “chareidi” has to say: his relish for writing the “test that is going to decide which 18-year-olds can study Torah day and night … it’ll be less than 400” that will be exempt from the draft, and his boasts of the Knesset “Torah study” sessions he initiated with secular “Talmud scholars,” radical Orthodox feminists and their ilk, whose notions of “Torah” bespeak both abject ignorance of sacred texts and sacrilegious distortions that would revolt the authors of those texts.

No wonder that for him, “it’s the other way round: The guys who study Torah on the train on the way to work in Tel Aviv every morning are the princes of the Jewish people … the princes of my world.” But we — Mishnayos Yidden, Shas Yidden, and everyone in between, including the guys learning on the train — see talmidei chachamim as our princely class (Gittin 62a), and, twice weekly, lovingly beseech Hashem to “maintain chachmei Yisrael in our midst, along with their wives, sons and daughters, their students and students’ students,” for they all are the royal entourage of our nation.

He’s the picture of reasonableness as he revels in his “bomb kashya”: “Why can’t Israeli chareidim be more like me and my fellow American chareidim, who learned in yeshivah and then went to school and work?” Let’s put aside the simple reality that America doesn’t produce anything like the quantity of accomplished talmidei chachamim, yeshivos and kollelim, the seforim output, the society of spiritual strivers, that only Eretz Yisrael’s unique Torah atmosphere does — and for good reason.

LET’S PUT ASIDE the strangeness of invoking the American way of life on behalf of a deeply intolerant attempt to socially reengineer a community of 800,000 souls, to order them about like so many pawns with threats of prison and zero funding for families and schools. And let’s put aside —as if we can — that this moment, with a threat of annihilation in one fell swoop hanging over our heads (even as France’s first homosexual “couple,” who sparked that country’s biggest street protests in years, were invited this month by Tel Aviv to adorn its “pride parade”) is probably not the best time to remove from Eretz Yisrael the zechusim that constitute its real Iron Dome.

But know that the entire premise is false, because this group seeks not to import Brooklyn or Teaneck to the Middle East, to increase people’s options. That was happening already and proceeding apace, until this gang burst onto the scene and made a shambles of it all. No, they seek to starve avreichim — those “parasites” mindlessly studying their ethically barren line-a-day — out of the beis medrash entirely. They wish, in a word, to surgically remove the beating heart of the Jewish People.

This article first appeared in Mishpacha.

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9 Responses

  1. Lisa Liel says:

    With all due respect, Torah is the most important thing. Not Talmud Torah. Living Torah. Which includes defending the nation with arms. That’s an integral part of the Torah, and I don’t understand how raising Talmud Torah up above the rest of the Torah is good for the Jews.

    What really kills me is that if frum yidden had been in the army to begin with, the army might have been affected to be more kosher than it is. Abandoning your brethren both physically and spiritually in order to see to yourself is something Elimelech would have understood, but I don’t.

    As far as living off of others, there’s nothing wrong with doing so if the others are willing. But to coerce others to pay to support you when you can be supporting yourself is… well, insupportable. Consider all the great Tannaim and Amoraim who lived productive lives in the physical world and still became Torah greats.

  2. Nachum Boehm says:

    You argue that due to the centrality of Torah, those who earn ought to support 800,000 people who choose not to earn but choose Torah learning instead. This argument might be compelling if it was rooted in classical or historical sources. Why is it not written anywhere that this would be the ideal? Why did nobody ever try to implement this until 65 years ago?

    Your assertion that Klal Yisrael always financially supported lifetime learning on a massive scale is ahistorical. To convince me otherwise you’ll have to bring more than some unnamed (or even named) Chazal about Shevet Levi in Mitzrayim and anecdotes of individuals who did individual acts of tzedaka for Bnei Yeshiva.

    But all that is beside the point. And MK Lipman is also beside the point. The fact is that the Israeli electorate has spoken. They are still happy to support Torah learning, but not to the extent that they have until now. To force them to support mass lifetime learning after they have voted against it would be undemocratic.

  3. Jacob Suslovich says:

    You say in your last paragraph that:

    “That was happening already and proceeding apace, until this gang burst onto the scene and made a shambles of it all. . .”

    You seem to not be too upset with that process. Why? wasn’t that process antithetical to the ideas expressed in your entire post?

  4. Miriam says:

    All you say is correct, and the current propaganda against the Torah-study communities is nothing short of a travesty.

    However, so long as the Charedi parties are in the political fray advocating for their constituency and claiming their rights, the other parties will no longer feel a separate obligation to them. Originally, representatives of the Charedi communities made agreements with the politicians and kept their distance. The Charedi politicians themselves decided that activism was a better way to go.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    My own zeideh, whose cheder education had been minimal, thought nothing of outfitting, gratis, any talmid chacham who walked into his haberdashery on the Depression-era Lower East Side.

    Was he forced to outfit those Talmidei Chachamim, or did he choose to do so? What about Bnei Israel in Egypt – were they forced to feed the members of Shevet Levi who were the Torah scholars, or did they choose to share their food? You cannot get taxes without having some tax payers resent you. Is putting Torah Study where it will be resented a good way to do Kiruv?

  6. Ben Waxman says:

    Let’s put aside the simple reality that America doesn’t produce anything like the quantity of accomplished talmidei chachamim, yeshivos and kollelim, the seforim output, the society of spiritual strivers, that only Eretz Yisrael’s unique Torah atmosphere does — and for good reason.

    If this is true than isn’t it incumbent upon anyone who wants his child to excel in Torah, especially the American Chareidim, to move to Eretz Yisrael immediately? After all, they agree that this goal is THE most important goal. If secular learning is crippling/hurting their children’s chinuch, than what are they doing there? At the very least the community’s message to its members should be: “You have to move to Eretz Yisrael at the first possible opportunity unless circumstances absolutely don’t allow it. However be aware that your children’s growth in Torah will, in all probability, be stunted”. (Put aside for the moment current events).

  7. Glatt some questions says:

    That limud haTorah is the greatest mitzvah and a never-ending one, incumbent, in the Rambam’s words, upon “poor and rich, the healthy and the afflicted, the young and the old and feeble … until the day one dies.”

    the author is quick to quote Maimonides to support his viewpoint, but does not address another quote by the Rambam, from Mishneh Torah, Talmud Torah, 3:10:

    “Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God’s] name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.”

    How does the author explain supporting full-time Torah study in kollelim for everyone, in light of this statement? Perhaps he can shed light on this.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Much of this looks like a good argument for maintaining Torah institutions with private funding, unsullied by secular governemnt manipulations, all along. After all, a secular government that can give can certainly take away. Why was there never a contingency plan to enable the avoidance of, or at least the most effective reaction to, threats of defunding? Moreover, the use of political clout rather than persuasion to get the public funding practically guaranteed that a backlash spearheaded by the likes of Yesh Atid would ensue once the clout went away.

  9. Eytan Kobre says:

    Thanks to all for writing.

    In response to the question regarding the Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10, for p’sak halacha please see the Kesef Mishneh on that Rambam, the Rema in Yoreh Dei’ah 246:21, with the Shach, the Aruch Hashulchan YD 246:40-42, and the Igros Moshe YD 2:116.

    Ben, the question you raise is one that is pertinent even without my article, since many people would agree that there are great spiritual advantages to living in Eretz Yisrael; indeed, it’s a particularly pertinent question for religious Zionists who place great weight on Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. But the answer in all cases, as I have heard from numerous people who consulted gedolei Torah on this very question is that any such move must make overall sense for one’s family from many angles, e.g. chinuch habanim, parnassah, shalom bayis, etc. It would be foolhardy indeed to simply say “my son will grow greater in Torah there, so I’m going tomorrow, regardless of the costs to my family.” However, your comment certainly has relevance to where one will live even in the US, e.g., in proximity to a makom Torah, etc. I should also mention that the opportunity for greater growth in Torah in Eretz Yisrael of which I spoke has many more causes than simply a lack of secular studies (which, of course, is to be found in the Us , too), but those causes are a topic for another day.

    Jacob, you’re correct. I’m not only not upset with the process that has been underway to integrate those bochurim and avreichim who do not wish to learn full-time into the workforce, I positively support it. And it’s a great shame that the actions of Yesh Atid have set that process back so greatly. But I’m at a loss as to where you found anything I wrote in this article to be at odds with that sentiment.

    Nachum, I never claimed that Klal Yisrael historically supported lifetime learning on a massive scale since I have no evidence for that proposition. I would not, however, be so bold, as you are, to write that it’s entirely ahistorical, i.e., that it never happened, since the Chazal quoted by Rav Elya Lopian states that it did, at least in Mitzrayim, and it stands to reason that it may have happened as well in other periods such as in the Tannaitic period when tens of thousands of students studied Torah in the academies of learning. But I’m not well versed enough in the sources to know that.

    But my article has nothing to do with this issue. It simply made several points that I believe are unremarkable: that Torah study is a preeminent Jewish value; that Torah students were seen, even by the majority who worked for a living, as engaged in the ideal Jewish pursuit, one that is essential for spiritual and material blessing to be found among us, not to mention the Torah knowledge necessary for Jewish and ethical living; and that there was no sense of a spiritual class war, and that to the contrary, Torah students were honored and given support. Do you disagree with those propositions?

    Ori, Nachum and Lisa, perhaps my writing wasn’t clear enough, but you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what I intended to argue. This article makes no case whatsoever vis a vis the secular Israeli public, because, of course, what I wrote does not resonate with them and it is impossible, not to mention wrong, to force them to support that which they don’t want to support.

    This article is directed inwardly, at the Torah community, to clarify what I believe is the classical Torah position on the role and place of Torah and its students, from which ought to flow the position we ourselves hold on whether those who wish to learn full-time ought to be able to do so. I discussed the stated views of the chareidi MK of Yesh Atid specifically because he presents himself as chareidi and I wished to contrast his views with those of Torah Judaism, and that contrast is a stark one.

    The challenge then becomes, of course, to translate what we know to be true in Torah terms into a case that can be persuasive to a a broad secular Jewish public for their support of Torah study. I believe this can be done by, for example,

    a) going beyond the rhetoric to clarify the facts, e.g., that as Binyamin Rose estimated recently in Mishpacha, the entire basket of benefits that kollel families receive — and which are received by the working poor too, — amounts, in the most expansive estimate to a half of one percent of the Israeli budget; that 73% of chareidi families have at least one working wage-earner, which figure may be much higher since it only includes on-the-books employment; that kollel families pay significant taxes, such as 17% VAT on just about everything, real estate taxes, and that 52% of the working poor don’t either pay income taxes, etc; that cutting every last shekel from kollel families would do little to solve Israel’s budget woes.

    b) clarifying that the cuts planned by Yesh Atid will choke families and children in the extreme right now, in a way that has nothing to do with getting anyone to work, since the avreich husband isn’t trained and has no job to take right now, and it will simply punish innocent families of many children to no end, which is why the secular Dr. Yitzchak Kadman, head of the National Council for Child Welfare described these cuts as founded in nothing but cruelty to children and hatred of chareidim

    c) describing the reality that thousands of bochurim and avreichim are very diligent in their studies, which take place on an extremely high intellectual level for ten, twelve or more hours each day; that produce large numbers of teachers, judges, published works; that thousands of avreichim spend one or several nights each week teaching and reaching Jews of every background and age all over Israel under the aegis of Lev L’Achim and other groups; and that it is these studies that produce caring, ethical people who contribute to the high ethical level in Torah communities that have little or no incidence of violence, drugs, promiscuity, weapons in schools, etc. Those who are merely hiding out from responsibility in yeshivos should, of course, go to work in a spiritually safe environment.

    d) making the case that Israel’s existence has been one long string of miracles from 1948 until today and that even a great many secular, and certainly mesorati, Israelis believe this is a result of the adherence to Judaism and Torah learning to be found in the Torah community, and that never were the merits of that learning more desperately needed than now , with an Iranian bomb being readied against us, tens of thousands of Hizballah rockets aimed at us and the entire region a tinderbox,

    e) describing the reality of the past many years in which many, many thousands of avreichim have received high-level job training — without, by the way, ever having studied math and English in high school; so much for the utter indispensability of the core curriculum for later career success — and have been placed in the workforce by a gamut of different organizations, and they have done so with the support of their personal rebbeyim and, yes, gedolei Torah. Are there those who’ve been made to feel second-class for doing so? I’m sure. Are there those who haven’t? I’m sure. We’re talking, after all, about a community of 7-8,000,000 people and I’m sure there are experiences that run the gamut. But let’s stop talking in broad-brush terms of “they’re treated like this or that” based on at best, isolated anecdotes and at worst, no evidence at all, just one’s preconceptions. But what’s not disputable is that these programs and numbers of enrollees are real, not anecdotal, and finally,

    f) without question, the secular public must sense that the Torah community appreciates the public support for Torah it receives. This not only a matter of pragmatics to ensure the flow will continue; there is a basic Torah value of gratitude that is at stake. But here, too, I find many people making broad assumptions about how many people express such gratitude and how often, based at most on scant anecdotal evidence and at worst on nothing other than one’s own colored presumptions. Is the level of gratitude expressed on the individual and institutional level sufficient? Surely not, because the Torah’s standards are extremely high, and as flawed, yet striving, humans, we have much work to do in that area.

    In sum, Israel is a democracy, and in every democracy I’m familiar with, no citizen is happy with every item his government spends money on; indeed, he may be dead set against many of them, but it’s a trade-off between parties, interest groups, communities. For many years, the Torah community relied on trading political support for government support for Torah study. That’s far from ideal, and I must say Bob has an excellent point about what the current crisis tells us about the danger of relying on governmental largesse. Indeed, that was one of Rav Elazar Shach, zt”l’s bases for rejecting Menachem Begin’s generous offer to fully fund the yeshivos when he first came into office, and it seems to remain the position of yeshivos like Brisk to this day. But it’s the way every democracy works and anyone who thinks otherwise and is shocked that this was done is, I’m sorry to say, naive.

    I don’t know what the public attitude for all these years was towards that reality, but I have no reason to believe it was strongly opposed to it; perhaps someone can provide me with evidence on that. The public attitude does now seem to have taken a turn for the worse, but it’s rather hard to know how much of that is the result of Yesh Atid opportunistically whipping up anti-Torah frenzy, how much is about the current budget crisis, how much is lasting sentiment and how much is ephemeral, like so much of public opinion.

    So now that the Torah community is out of government, for as long as that will last, we need to make the case that we still deserve as much public support in this Jewish state as the public will agree to provide. I believe such a reasoned and reasonable case can be made, and all that I’ve said above, and more, should be brought to bear in making that case, even if Torah students will not enter the army due to the grave spiritual danger involved (which issue requires a separate discussion): that kollel families aren’t quite the parasites dangerously draining the economy that they’re made out to be; that they, too, pay taxes and many of them work, take their calling seriously, are productive and live admirably simple material lives; that they provide both tangible and non-tangible spiritual and moral benefits to the country, save it much societal dysfunction and the money spent to address such dysfunction; that they help protect it and give it its Jewish character, and in this regard are no worse, and in Jewish terms far better than the arts and humanities that receive billions of public shekalim whether or not every citizen — including the entire Torah community — accepts their societal value or utilizes their benefits; that the Torah community in Israel and abroad contributes large amounts both to Torah institutions and to the Israeli economy; and that the proposed cuts are cruel measures that will cause untold misery to innocent people and don’t help solve any problems Yesh Atid claims to be concerned about.

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