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Israeli Society and the ‘Society of Learners’

Should Israel support a ‘society of learners’ in which ultra-Orthodox men study over the course of their adult lives and not join the workforce or serve in the army? Professors Shlomo Naeh, Zvi Zohar and Elhanan Reiner discuss the place of Torah scholars throughout the generations and the relevance of models from Jewish history for today

The decision of the High Court regarding support for kollel students has again raised one of the most contentious issues in Israeli society: the existence of a "society of learners" in which most ultra-Orthodox men study over the course of their adult lives with the support of the State and do not join the workforce or serve in the army. Professors Shlomo Naeh, Zvi Zohar and Elhanan Reiner discuss the place of Torah scholars within the Jewish People throughout the generations, and the relevance of models from Jewish history to the current political rift.

Professor Shlomo Naeh explains that throughout history, there have been models of support for Torah scholars; however, this always involved the intellectual elite rather than a whole community. "In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is no mention of maintaining Torah scholars. They received great respect and their opinions were highly thought of and there are even hierarchies within the community of learners itself; however, there are very rich Torah scholars and very poor ones and both of them work for a living and provide for their own needs. It was the custom to say ‘Hillel obligates the poor and Elazar Ben Harsum obligates the rich’. In other words, Hillel is an example of a poor man who studied Torah and based on his precedent no poor man can claim that he is too busy making a living to have time to study Torah. On the other hand, Elazar ben Harsum was very rich – an owner of ships as well as assets on land – and even he found time to study Torah. Therefore, a rich man cannot say that his businesses keep him too busy to have time to study Torah. The learning community was composed of both the rich and the poor and there was no mechanism for supporting those who study, apart from the regular system of supporting the needy.
"In the Babylonian Talmud, there is a somewhat different model, in which we find certain privileges that are given to those who have been recognized by the community as Torah scholars. Thus, for example, "designating the market" for Torah scholars, whereby the scholar was allowed to sell his goods before any of the other merchants. As a result he was able to make a sufficient living and also find time to learn. The Babylonian Talmud also tells of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi who lived in Israel and during a drought opened his stores and gave food only to the scholars. On the other hand, in that same story, the Talmud praises the scholars who practiced humility and did not take advantage of their status in order to make a living.

"The rationale behind stories like this is that the study of Torah is a higher value that the whole community benefits from. Therefore, according to the Babylonian Talmud, it also exempts scholars from municipal taxes, including taxes for guarding the city. It is interesting to mention the justification that the Talmud gives for this law, i.e., that the scholars do not need protection since the Torah already protects them. However, it is important to emphasize that all these cases involve only a few individuals – the intellectual elite – and not a whole community. In the Land of Israel, there was a formal mechanism, with a deed of appointment, that determined who was a scholar. In the Babylonian Talmud, it is not really known how this was decided; however it is clear that the community knew how to identify scholars—they even dressed differently—and that they received respect and privileges from the public.

"If we jump ahead in Jewish history to the world of the yeshivas, there also the community organized itself in order to maintain its Torah scholars, who came to the yeshivas from great distances and sometimes suffered from poverty and marginalization. The hosting community would see to it that they received hot meals, a place to stay and other amenities. The support of the local yeshiva was a volunteer effort in each community.
"Since the days of the Babylonian Talmud, the Jewish People have understood that someone who is studying fulltime will find it difficult to do other things. But the choice of whom to support was selective – those who studied Torah were the gifted students, the geniuses and the scholars, not a whole community. The Israeli model in which any individual in the ultra-Orthodox community is eligible for support has no precedent. And this is a double-edged sword: The general community that is carrying the learning community on its back is angry and resentful, while the receiving community does not develop since its productive potential is repressed and its motivation to advance doesn’t exist. The situation is a tragic one and creates an internal trap in the learning community and perpetuates poverty and weakness.
"If there is a continuous thread from the dawn of Jewish history, it is the need and ability of the Jewish People to deal with the necessity of existence, with the dangers, with a hostile environment, with economic difficulties – and still to nurture the study of Torah. The effort on behalf of Torah study was a necessity of life. Even when the community as a whole was in distress, it took its best and brightest and provided them with the conditions that would allow them to study without working. In this way, the Jewish People was able to arrive at such great achievements. The State of Israel has created a situation in which the system has degenerated. We have cut learning off from life and as proof this generation is far from being one of the greatest in the history of the study of Torah, despite the existence of tens of thousands of learners."
Professor Zvi Zohar explains the roots of the learning community in the Land of Israel and the halachic revolution that allowed the unique form that it took in the context of the State of Israel. "In the eyes of almost all the Tannaim and Amoraim, the study of Torah was not perceived as a replacement for the rest of life: just as I am meant to support myself and my family, to help the weak, to prevent injustice, etc., I must also study Torah and be involved in Torah. Thus, people learned Torah and at the same time earned a living as craftsmen, merchants and farmers. Sometimes, it happened that the members of a family tried to free a gifted brother from other duties in order for him to concentrate on learning. Thus, David Ben Maimon, who was a trader of precious stones, supported his brother – the Rambam. When David drowned on a trip to India, the Rambam made a living as a physician in the royal court of Salah al-Din, the King of Egypt. Similarly, the brothers of Rabbi Yosef Haim from Bagdad (the author of Ben Ish Hai) made him a partner in their trading company and he took his share of the profits from the family business.
"A learning community, in which all men devote all their time to studying Torah and withdraw from all other activities, is an invention of the renewed Ashkenazi yishuv in the Land of Israel in the late 18th century. Until then, there were no more than 5,000 Jews living in the Land of Israel, almost all of whom were of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin and who supported themselves – whether as tradesmen and merchants or from money they earned and then invested abroad prior to their aliyah.
“At the end of the 18th century, Jews of European origin began to arrive in the Land of Israel. Their goal was to live a life of holiness in the Land of Israel rather than try to make a living. The concept of a kollel, which until then referred to an umbrella community organization of all the cities in the Land of Israel, was adopted by them as the name of an organization that takes care of Jews from a particular community abroad. In contrast to the Sephardim, the members of this group lived on stipends they received from the kollel. These were unique frameworks that did not resemble any other in the Jewish world.
“From a halachic point of view, some major acrobatics are required in order to justify a situation in which adult men purposely do not seek a livelihood and subsist from donations in order to learn Torah. First, already in the days of the Tannaim a fundamental disagreement arose between Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, who viewed a life of only learning Torah as the ideal, and Rabbi Yishmael, who viewed a life in which a man plowed, sowed and harvested and combined earning a livelihood with the study of Torah as the ideal. Rashbi’s opinion was rejected and in the Ethics of the Fathers (2:2) Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, states that: “It is optimal to combine the study of Torah with the ‘Way of the Land’ (i.e. with earning a livelihood)…and any Torah that is not combined with work, in the end is worth nothing and brings with it sin.
“Second, the study of Torah is a commandment and it is inappropriate to receive money for fulfilling a commandment, in the same way that it would be inappropriate to take money for fasting on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai would never have considered taking money from the public in order to be involved in Torah. Someone who has no food for himself and his family should stop his involvement in Torah completely and go to work. And so it is brought down in the Shulhan Aruch: ‘A man should always keep himself from needing charity and should endure any anguish, not to be in need of his fellow man…and even a respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man’.
“Later in the 19th century and the early 20th century, the revenues of the kollels from the donations of Jews abroad were not sufficient to provide a living for all the members of the group. In the mid-20th century, the community of learners found themselves in a major crisis. What saved them was the confluence of several developments. The first: Ben Gurion agreed to a deferral of military service for someone “whose Torah is his faith”, which created the minimum conditions for the survival of the community of learners. However, he never considered financing them – so what will they live on? And from here came the revolutionary idea that is diametrically opposed to the Jewish and halachic traditions. Indeed, according to any source, a husband is obligated to feed and support his spouse, even if he has to sell the shirt off his back. Up until the creation of the State, families in the learning community lived off the money they received as members of a kollel and it never occurred to anyone that the woman should be the main provider. The situation is the opposite today: the Beit Yaakov schools for ultra-Orthodox girls began to teach that the religious role of a woman is to take on herself the burden of providing a livelihood in order to allow her husband to devote his time to learning. In other words, ultra-Orthodox women in Israel were put into the shoes of Zevulun who supported Issaschar.
“At the end of the State of Israel’s third decade of existence, there was one more important development: the increased electoral strength of Agudat Yisrael which enabled it to demand (and to receive!) from the State not only a military exemption for men in the learning community but also that it participate in supporting them financially. Thus, a major revolution in the history of halakha and Torah was complete and we must now live with its consequences.”
Professor Elhanan Reiner requests that we separate the issue of the learning community in Israel from the question of the status of Torah scholars in the Jewish community throughout the ages. In his opinion, the issue should be examined as part of Israeli political discourse. “From a historical point of view, support was always provided for those studying Torah among the Jewish People and it was always a contentious issue. Thus, for example, there was disagreement in the Jewish communities in both the East and the West regarding the exemption of Torah scholars from taxes. This issue became particularly significant in the 16th century when the community systems developed in new locations. Almost throughout Jewish history, there were Torah scholars who benefited from public funding and there were educational institutions that were funded by the community or by donors.
“However, all these historical examples are irrelevant to our current discussion. Upon closer inspection, the similarity disappears. There never was a situation in which a whole community, rather than just a small core from within the elite, received such broad support. This kind of support was never given without a time limit unless it was considered to be charity. There was never such exaggeration in the number of yeshiva students or in the size of the yeshivas that received support. Essentially, most of the ultra-Orthodox community views itself as part of the learning community and anyone who isn’t part of it is viewed as an exception. Furthermore, the situation differs on one fundamental point: the demand to finance the study of Torah is directed at the public, who for the most part do not accept the basic values on which the demand is based and are forced to accept it against their will.”
“The development of this anomaly should be examined not in religious or historical terms but within the context of Israeli political discourse. The demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties are not part of the Jewish communal tradition but rather are part of the political discourse, which has many partners. The ultra-Orthodox, who currently benefit from this discourse, were in the past one of its least important partners. The Hazon Ish and Rabbi Kahanaman, in their efforts to create the arrangement between the State and the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, did not speak on behalf of a tradition that should be preserved. They claimed that this was an exceptional moment in Jewish history since the Torah centers had been destroyed and a need had been created for special measures to rebuild them. Did Ben Gurion accept what they said at face value? I don’t know. However, the agreement with the government of Israel was made and the ultra-Orthodox won the status of “their Torah is their faith” for a limited number of yeshiva students.
“The number of yeshiva students that this arrangement applied to was limited. Although it gradually grew, it remained limited until the early 1980s. If things had remained as they are until today, the yeshiva students would only be drawn from the elite. The world of the yeshivas would not be in the awful situation it is in today, in which a whole generation of men – most of whom are far from being part of the religious or spiritual elite in their society but rather are part of its broadest population segments – have become lifetime students. However, the 10th Knesset elections in 1981 turned things upside down. The coalition agreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties – who held the balance of power following the tied elections – crossed the boundaries that had just barely been maintained until then. In order to survive, the Begin government met all the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Since then, whoever is interested – including individuals who have never in their lives learned Torah, such as pilots who have returned to religion – have become yeshiva students. The growth in the number of yeshivas and the numbers of their students since then has been in the hundreds of percent, a process which apparently even many in the ultra-Orthodox world today agree is threatening even them.
“One can condemn the ultra-Orthodox parties for their short-sightedness in presenting such sweeping demands and thus transforming the society that they represented into an impoverished community dependent on public funds, but not for the way in which they negotiated. They acted like any pressure group in Israel, including the kibbutzim, the moshavs, the manufacturers, businessmen, etc. During that same period, a different pressure group – the settlers – won even greater financial support from the State and that support continues until today even though most of the public does not identify with its goals either and in the opinion of many the damage it has caused is much greater. The privatization process in recent decades, which also was the result of the pressure of a small group, led to major disasters in whole sectors of Israeli society and changed it unrecognizably. The breaching of the historical arrangement for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students was completely within the Mapai tradition and in accordance with the same principles and methods of operating that are used by all sectors of Israeli society. This is not a traditional discourse but a totally modern one and any attempt to analyze it according to the rules of the old Jewish world is misguided and perhaps even misleading.
“The one who is paying the highest price for the situation that has been created is the ultra-Orthodox world itself. The growth of the yeshivas to such frightening proportions has impoverished the community as a whole. The ultra-Orthodox world needs help and not the kind of help that it has asked for until now. However, this cannot come without the acceptance of responsibility. One cannot disconnect everything with a legal/administrative decision, which would be disastrous for tens of thousands of people. The State must take responsibility for its decisions rather than passing the cost exclusively onto the current generation of the ultra-Orthodox.”
Professor Shlomo Naeh is a lecturer in the Department of Talmud at Hebrew University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Professor Zvi Zohar is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Jewish Sciences at Bar Ilan University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Professor Elhanan Reiner is a lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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