Has Work Become Kosher in the Israeli Yeshiva World?
Last week, Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, the co-Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka in Bnei Brak, issued what appears to be an extremely significant mid-course correction for the charedi yeshiva world in Israel.
With Rav Dov Landau (who is seen as the senior figure guiding the Litvish yeshiva world) sitting at his side, Rav Hirsch spoke via video to a gathering of working charedim in Yerushalayim. He told them that they were part of the charedi world, and should continue to see themselves as proud charedim, rather than outsiders.
If this strikes you as not quite newsworthy, think again. Until now, one of the seemingly immutable principles of the yeshiva world in Israel is that working for a living is incompatible with the appellation “charedi.” If you worked, you were not welcome in some charedi neighborhoods. Your kids would not be accepted in charedi schools. If you got together with some like-minded friends to set up an evening program of learning, you could not find a local beis medrash that would host you. The term “working charedi” was considered an oxymoron. Real yeshiva men learned full-time, for their entire lives. Working made you a pariah. (All of this applies only to the Lithuanian branch of the charedi world. Neither chassidim nor Sefardim shun employment.)
There was limited outreach to these “blue-shirts,” as they were pejoratively called – mostly after it was realized that political parties other than Degel HaTorah were successfully recruiting them as voters, since those parties were at least willing to talk to them. The fundamental shunning of charedim who worked, however, continued unabated.
Rav Moshe Hillel’s remarks may change all of that. He reviewed the history of the last century, as seen though a charedi lens. Really, he said, citing R. Aharon Kotler zt”l, everyone ought to be learning full time, without the distraction of other responsibilities. That, of course, is not really possible. What is possible – and necessary – is for there to be some part of the Jewish people that does.
The place that this happens, said R Moshe Hillel, is Israel. That is where this elect minority gathered, and where they established a standard for the entire country. Those who did not follow the expectations of this model often left the community altogether.
Things have changed in the last twenty years, he said. More and more people have found it necessary to earn a livelihood. Their increasing numbers should not have to exit the community; they need to be welcome within it. Batei medrash should set up learning programs for them. They, in turn, should not regard themselves as baalei batim, but as full bnei Torah – albeit working ones. They should insist on regular hours of Torah study, and continue to strive for growth in their learning. Their commitment to the fine details of halacha should continue in full force. They can allow themselves an upgrade in their life-styles, commensurate with their income.
Surprisingly, he made several references to working charedim in the US. Till now, Americans learning in Israel were subject to derision, as introducing ideas foreign to the Israeli system. It was strange to see them – the Americans who hold jobs, yet rush back to the beis medrash after-hours, some of them even writing seforim – held up as a positive model. (Not totally surprising. Rav Moshe Hillel is a native American, a fact not lost on at least one commenter. He lamented what had become of Torah Yiddishkeit in Israel when someone who speaks Hebrew with a strong American inflection can dictate policy that can destroy the sanctity of the accepted outlook on a life of Torah.)
Rav Moshe Hillel’s words potentially can produce major changes in the face of the charedi community. It has long been realized that there are a very great number of young people not cut out for full-time learning, and frustrated by their lack of options within a system that is one-size-fits-all. This might allow new options to open up for them. Of course, his words may just as easily wind up being walked back, or simply ignored.
It was courageous of Rav Moshe Hillel to say what he did. Those who spoke to him through the years found him privately saying the same thing, but arguing that he could not be the one to state them publicly. He now has found the ability to do just that. Looking to the American model is also a courageous move. Let us hope that Israel can capture its positive points, and avoid its mistakes. A good beginning would be to bring about a Hebrew translation of Rav Aharon Lopiansky’s modern classic, Ben Torah For Life.
Some will find in the Rosh Yeshiva’s words a forced capitulation to reality, and a sign of the weakness and unsustainability of the present system. Possibly – and it is virtually impossible to deny that it is unsustainable – but the opposite should not be dismissed. Rav Moshe Hillel may have been speaking from strength. The strength of conviction that learning Torah must be placed on the highest pedestal, from where it will not be toppled (as previously feared) by parts of the community involved in other endeavors. The sterling luster of the Torah community will be preserved by the minority of the most gifted, who will continue to lead lives of complete devotion to Torah learning. They will not be shaken loose from their commitment by others in their community leading more bourgeoise lives. They will continue to be exemplars of Torah virtue, admired by the rest of the community.
Kind of what Rav Aharon talked about. It’s hard to ignore Rav Aharon. Even if Lakewood is in America.
[NOTE: Comments to this post will be restricted to the immediate topic, i.e. the potential impact of Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch’s remarks. Comments about the general issues of kollel, full-time learning, charedim vs. non-charedim etc will not be accepted.]