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Ethics of Economics: The Haredi Challenge Part 2

The Haredi Challenge
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Israeli Haredim and Israeli Arabs: The Duty to Work and the Duty to Provide Work

Part 2: The Haredi Challenge

The Haredi world’s challenge to Zionism and Judaism, in terms of the ethics of economics, derives from its educational system. The Haredi educational system, whose lion’s share is financed by the State of Israel, refuses to teach mathematics, geography or civics, let alone English, modern literature or history.

Some efforts to address these issues have been voiced by the Likud Minister of Education Gidon Sa’ar, but no reforms have yet been enacted. Besides the lack of cultural identification with the Jewish national state, graduates of the Haredi schools – even after four or more years in post high school yeshivot – have, as we mentioned, no marketable skills.

In fact, very often they are uninterested in entering the job market even after gaining an exemption from military service by having studied in yeshivot until the age of 26 or so. (Some enter the job market earlier and others do not enter until after 30. If they stay in yeshiva until after 27, the most military service they will do is three months of secondary military training).

Thus, voluntary and involuntary unemployment of men is extremely high, and those employed are poorly remunerated because of their low level of economic skills. Even with the contribution of working Haredi wives and mothers, it is the Israeli welfare system that bears the brunt of economic support of Haredi families provided by the working population of Israel.

Dan Senor and Saul Singer, authors of Start-Up Nation, have warned about the drag on Israeli economic success by the burgeoning Haredi community:

The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, generally do not serve in the military. Indeed, to qualify for the exemption from military service, Haredim have to show that they are engaged in full-time study in Jewish seminaries (yeshivot). This arrangement was created by David Ben-Gurion to obtain Haredi political support at the time of Israel’s founding. But while the “yeshiva exemption” first applied to just four hundred students, it has since ballooned to tens of thousands who go to yeshiva instead of the army.

The result of this has been triply harmful to the economy. Haredim are socially isolated from the workforce because of their lack of army experience; plus, since they are not allowed to work if they want a military exemption – they have to be studying – as young adults they receive neither private sector nor military (entrepreneurial) experience; and thus Haredi society becomes increasingly dependent on government welfare payments for survival.

Israeli Government Collusion: The Often Unintended Consequences of Financial Support for the Haredim

In his recent book, The Unmaking of Israel (2011), Gershom Gorenberg traced in detail the way Israeli policy over the last 60 years has, for the most part unintentionally, brought the economic issues of Haredi to crisis proportions by freeing men of some of the consequences of their religious decision to remain voluntarily unemployed rather than entering the workforce to support their families. Let us quote just a few of his insights:

Israel’s present-day version of ultra-Orthodoxy is a creation of the Jewish state. Policies with unexpected effects fostered this new form of Judaism, at once cloistered and militant. So did successful measures by Haredi leaders to revive a community that was shrunk by modernity and then devastated by the Holocaust. (p. 166)

In other words, Haredim in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust and Haredim in Belgium and United States do not oppose making a living for the majority of ultra-Orthodox men after college age. But Israel has been subsidizing this new and extreme choice to develop a full-time study community for the majority of men for the majority of their lives.

The first government decision that led to this phenomenon was the conditional exemption from army service granted by Ben-Gurion in 1948. That meant that Haredim who did not want to serve in the Israeli army, as they were instructed by their teachers, must stay in full-time yeshiva programs until their age 41 to avoid the draft. Also marrying early and having many children early will exempt Haredi men from all or part of their military service. A father of five is exempt from age 31 even if he is no longer studying in a yeshiva. [i]

In 1974 only 2.4% of the soldiers enlisting to the army that year were exempt because they were yeshiva students. This number has reached 9.2% in 1999. In 1999 there were 30,414 exempted yeshiva students, and by 2005 the number grew to 41,450. It is anticipated that this percentile will reach up to 15% by the year 2012. By comparison, in the year 2025 the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israel is expected to reach 12.4% of the total population, whereas the children of this sector would reach 22.4%.

Besides the dampening effect on democratic participation in national service, the economic consequence is that these yeshiva students are not allowed to do job training in this period lest they lose their exemption. Some initiatives have been taken of late to allow yeshiva students to work or get part-time vocational training while still studying in the yeshiva without being drafted.

The second government decision was to adopt the Haredi schools as government schools without reforming their curriculums to teach democratic values or economically necessary skills. Gorenberg explains:

This is a story full of ironies. The critical, un­noticed catalyst of the transformation of ultra-Orthodox soci­ety in Israel was the 1949 law instituting free, compulsory education. State funding made it possible to open new ultra-Orthodox schools and pay steady salaries.

As the Israeli economy modernized, high school education became the norm. The state helped fund ultra­-Orthodox secondary schools along with others, but the high schools for Haredi boys were yeshivot devoted entirely to reli­gious studies. (pp. 167-169)

Thus for men there were new jobs teaching Talmud to an ever-growing number of Haredi boys. For girls’ education young Haredi women could finish teacher-training seminaries by age nineteen and get elementary school jobs and support their husbands’ studies at the state’s expense. Gorenberg describes how this helped create a whole community of life- long learners:

Rabbi Avra­ham Yeshayahu Karlitz, used these changes to promote a transformation in the name of extreme conservatism: Haredi men and women would marry young. Men would keep studying Torah in kollel after marriage, supported by their teacher-wives. Their working parents would help out. (p. 168)

The marriage age for both men and women dropped: between 1952 and 1981, the average marriage age of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel fell from 27.5 to 21.5. At the beginning of that period, the typical Haredi groom was slightly older than the average for Israeli Jewish society. By 1981, he was four years younger than the Israeli Jewish average. Among Haredi women, marriage before age twenty became the standard. Ultra-Orthodox couples started having children early and continued to have them of­ten. This, too, made leaving Haredi society much more difficult, for women as well as men. (p. 169)

Third, the social democratic governments of Israel, out of their concern for social justice and for the welfare the children in large, poverty-stricken families, especially African-Asian immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, provided graduated child-support grants. Under Menachem Begin, as part of his collation agreements with the Haredi parties in 1980, child-support regulations changed so that after the second child the benefits grew geometrically so that a family of seven had significant income from child support. Thus, Haredi families, while remaining very poor, could still feed their families with this government aid. The benefits were not offered as tax deductions so the heads of the household did not have to work at all to receive them.

Fourth, the government has refused to enforce the Knesset law mandating core studies in every Israeli public school including math and civics, so that one may become a self-supporting citizen in a modern democracy and economy. In this regard, Gorenberg notes the bitter irony of conflicting trends in Israeli politics:

Twice in the last decade, the High Court of Justice has ruled that to uphold the State Education Law and the principle of equality, the government must set a core curriculum for high schools and cease funding Haredi yeshivot that refuse to teach it. The second ruling was needed because the state ignored the first one. The latter ruling, however, came a few days too late. While the justices were preparing to deliver it in July 2008, the Knesset passed a preemptive law, allowing the Education Ministry to fund secondary schools serving “unique cultural groups” – explicitly including Haredi schools that only teach religious subjects. (p. 189)

Thus coalition politics, social welfare rights and multiculturalism and very savvy and zealous Haredi political and rabbinic leadership have created new Haredi Judaism of Jewish learning without economic responsibility. They have miraculously reversed the rabbinic saying in Avot: “If there is no flour, there is no Torah,” which meant one must make a living as well as study, because they have brought down manna from the Israeli government supplied by the labor of non-Haredi Israelis. These ultra-Orthodox leaders have also overturned the ideal of the founder of modern Orthodoxy, Rav S.R. Hirsch that we must pursue “Torah with Derekh Eretz” – with ways of the world. Modern Orthodox and Zionist Orthodox follow Rabbi Ishmael who said:

Perform worldly occupations (derekh ezetz) together with (studying Torah). These are the words of Rabbi Ishmael.

However the Israeli Haredi world has realized increasing, what Professor Menahem Friedman calls, “the economy of the next world.” To what may Friedman be referring with his intriguing quip? The next world as a messianic image may refer to the world which is “all Shabbat” (Birkat HaMazon), so one never has to work and God supplies our needs as God did with the manna in the desert. Or he may being referring to the views of the extremist Talmudic rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai, who rejected Rabbi Ishmael’s moderate notions and insisted that Jews even in this world concentrate all their efforts on Torah study for its own sake and let others support them. Rabbi Ishmael understood that the Torah teaches us to work the land alongside studying Torah. But what Bar Yochai says rejects all compromises:

RASHBY [Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai] says, “Is it possible that a man plow in plowing season, sow in sowing season, harvest in harvest season, thresh in threshing season, winnow when the wind blows!? – Then what will become of Torah?

But when Israel ful­fills the will of God, their work is done by others, as it says, “Strangers shall stand and pasture your flocks; [aliens shall be your plowmen and vine-trimmers] (Isaiah 61:5). When they do not fulfill the will of God, their work is done by themselves, as it says, “You shall gather in your new grain” (Deuteronomy 11:14).

Abaye said, “Many acted in accordance with Rabbi Ishmael and prospered; in accordance with RASHBY and did not prosper.” (TB Berakhot 35b)

Today Israeli Haredim have at least partially disproven the observation of Abbaye, the Babylonian rabbi. They may not be prospering, but with the subsidies of the Israeli government and their devoted wives’ employment, they are surviving at subsistence with large families and devoting most of their lives to their understanding of Torah.

The Internal Jewish Debate over the Value of Work, the Dignity of Economic Self-reliance, and the Religious Ideal of Bitachon, Trust in the Divine

This problem of Haredi voluntary unemployment is ethical and religious, not merely economic. The Haredi leadership in Israel, much more than in the United States, defends its communal policies that discourage work and the learning of marketable skills by men. It argues that those who study Torah full-time are a spiritual elite who serve God in the name of the community. However, the social revolution after World War Two was to raise the percentage of Haredi men engaged in lifelong study from 5% to 90%, regardless of their level of talent or the needs of the community for such a “service.” Gradually that goal is being realized. It recalls the Talmudic exemption of rabbis from taxation, especially when concerned with defense of the city. It often insists that Torah study by “earning” Divine favor contributes more than its fair share to the defense of the land and its material blessings that depend directly on God. The Haredim rely on the Talmudic halachic position that “Torah scholars need not protection since Torah protects them.” [ii] Therefore they do not have to pay for security expenses or serve in the army.

But even scholars are obligated to pay their fair share for economic benefits such as fixing roads or digging wells. In any case the law did not assume that most of the male Haredi community would devote the majority of their time to studying Torah. The law may well have regarded the teachers and elite halakhic scholars as exempt because of their communal service just as “all those engaged in mitzvah needs,” [iii] like the cantor ought to be exempt. But not those studying for their own sake.

The Hazon Ish, who set the tone for many Israeli Ashkenazi Haredim in the 1950s, praises the value of bitachon, reliance on God for financial support, not investing too much effort in one’s own business pursuits, since Divine providence has already allocated what we will earn, no matter our efforts. Against this reliance on miracles, we need to reaffirm the Jewish value of self-reliance and the dignity of labor as well as condemn the sins of parasitism. This turn toward self-reliance has long been a central national value of secular and religious Zionism both in term of military self-defense and the return of the Diaspora bourgeoisie to the ideal of physical labor. However, it is now essential to reinforce the religious argument for economic independence. Let us examine some key sources.

First, there is the parental duty – which many in the Israeli Haredi community have sought to escape – the mitzvah to prepare our children for adult life as self-supporting citizens.

“Our Rabbis taught: The father is bound in respect to his son to (1) circumcise him, (2) redeem him, (3) teach him Torah, (4) take a wife for him, and (5) teach him a craft. And some say, to teach him to swim too.

R. Judah says: Whoever doesn’t teach his son a craft teaches him to rob.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29a) (Tosefta Kiddushin 1:11).

The refusal of Haredi schools to teach civics appears to oppose the added parental duty promulgated by the all important head of the Sanhedrin in the Galilee under the Romans in 200 CE: “Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi teaches one’s child statecraft [to settle a new city]” (Mekhilta on Exodus 13:8).

The parental obligations are defined broadly as preparation of the child for full independence as an adult including job training and according to one source – civic education for full participation as a citizen. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi would, I believe, have insisted on teaching civics in Haredi schools for he himself was not only the greatest Torah scholar of his generation, responsible for the canonization of the Mishna, but also the wealthiest man and the political leader representing the Jews of Eretz Yisrael Judea to the Roman authorities.

But why is swimming so important? Allow me to extrapolate from a concrete case to a much broader generalization as the rabbinical tradition is wont to do. It appears that swimming is an emergency survival skill for a community living on the Mediterranean. On a state level, that would be military training. Maimonides complains that the Jews lost their war of independence against the Romans (66-70 CE) and the Second Temple was destroyed because they devoted their time to studying astrology rather than the arts of war (Letter to Rabbis of Montepellier)

Second, the Talmudic Rabbis themselves praised labor as an imitation of Divine creativity in making the world:

Love labor. One is obligated to love labor, melacha, and engage in labor. It is learned by analogy from the Master of the Universe to whom the whole world already belongs, yet ….God did his labor (Gen. 2:2), so even more so must human beings do so.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan B 21)

Thus most of the Talmudic rabbis were themselves skilled laborers. In early 2011 a political ad appeared on the side of Jerusalem buses in opposition to a budgetary law to expand support for Haredi yeshiva students studying Torah but not employment skills. The ad showed a page of the yellow pages where one could find listings for doctors, carpenters, weavers, vintners and coal carriers – each with the name of the one of the famous rabbis of the Talmud and the Middle Ages who practiced this profession proudly. Maimonides (12th Century Egypt) himself became a physician to the Sultan to avoid taking any remuneration as a rabbi of Egyptian Jewry. He wrote passionately against rabbinic parasitism:

The greatest rabbis were cutters of wood [Hillel, TB Yoma 35b), carriers of beams and drawers of water for gardens, blacksmiths and makers of coal, rather than asking the public for aid and even when the public gave them [tzedakah], they refused to accept it.

One should always pressure oneself and manage somehow with privation (distress) rather than be dependent upon [literally, than to need] other people or cast oneself upon the public [by taking tzedakah]. (Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Gifts to Poor 10:18)

No labor should be considered beneath one’s station, when the alternative is exploiting communal charity.

Rav said to Rav Kahana: “[Be a tanner!] Work in the [stinking and degrading] occupation of stripping skins off carcasses in the market, earn your salary and do not say: ‘But I am a priest’ or ‘I am a great man. This is demeaning to me!” (TB Baba Batra 110a)

A tanner was a stinky job, for urine was used to cure the hides and that put this occupation at the bottom of the social totem pole. Being employed as a tanner constitutes grounds for divorce in Rabbinic society, if the wife cannot stand the smell (see Mishna Ketubot 7:10). Nevertheless the Rabbis urged that even engaging in this occupation was preferable to living off of others.

Third, the Israeli government ought to translate the Jewish value of labor into a policy that provides disincentives to parasitism. Compassion for poverty-stricken families including those with many children who suffer through no fault of their own stands in tension with revulsion from parents who refuse to be breadwinners when they could be.

Rabbi Aharon of Lunel (14th century Provence, France): “It is disgusting before God to be one who benefits from the tzedakah fund because s/he would rather not make an effort to benefit from his/her own labor.” [iv]

In December 2012 Professor Trachtenberg said it is difficult to feel sympathy for Haredim who neither work nor pay taxes. Trachtenberg is responsible for changing economic priorities in the Israeli budget by taxing the wealthy at a higher rate (instituted Jan. 1, 2012) and then increasing social support to young families, with programs such as free childcare and education and lower taxes. He was appointed by PM Benjamin Netanyahu last August in response the 450,000 demonstrators who demanded greater social justice and solidarity and greater equality in the sharing of the national wealth and national burden of work and service in the military.

Sensitivity to the needs of the poor is central to this broad social movement, which is critical of unrestrained free market capitalism. Yet it does not necessarily mean that welfare benefits are rights independent of the duty to contribute to the nation economically and in terms of national service.

The policies that must be considered go back to medieval rabbis who established a rule that formally denied any welfare to those who are destitute – if they could have learned a profession and could have worked to support themselves:

If you encounter a pauper who knows the craft of the scribe or one who is suited to learn this craft [or another gainful skill] yet refuses to make the effort, this person is unworthy of tzedakah.”(Judah HeHasid, Sefer Hassidim #1035, Germany, 13th century)

Rabbi Yechiel bar Yekutiel (13th century, Rome): “Just as people are expected to care for their own interests, so are the poor expected not to impose themselves excessively on the community, except in extreme circumstances, in order not to ‘turn off’ people from giving Tzedakah who might be tempted to slam the door in the face of the poor… One who depends on the community dole is stealing from the poor. It is entirely fit and proper to withhold support from such a person and to shame them into seeking employment.” [v]

Finally, since we are recommending a policy that limits welfare support to the families of those who refuse to work or to educate themselves to be able to find jobs, let us consider the value of tzedakah and its relationship to the duty to work. Without doubt, the Haredi community is one of the most generous to the needy on a per capita basis. One of the greatest contributions to Israeli society has been what began as a Haredi institution in Jerusalem – Yad Sarah which lends medical equipment to the ill at no charge. It now serves all Israelis. However while sharing is admirable, someone must increase the pool which can be shared by productive labor in a modern economy. Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch, the founder of modern Orthodoxy but also a major leader and inspiration for separatist Haredi Orthodoxy in Germany and Middle Europe in the 19th century, explains the Biblical mitzvah of strengthening the needy as follows:

You strengthen him to live with you (Leviticus 25:35) means with you in independence by joining you in economic activity to support and live with him, with you in the moral sense [of trying to support himself].

To live with you means his development of his life is intertwined with the development of your life. You do not live just for yourself but for him. True, you worry about yourself first, but you acquire the means and tools to fulfill the calling of your life, but helping him is also one of the callings of your life. You must acquire the means and tools necessary to aid him for he is your brother connected to you socially, therefore you must help him, so as to fulfill your calling in life. His life is connected to your life. That is what makes you one people…This is free connection – strong, eternal of mutual help. (S.R. Hirsch, Commentary on Torah, Leviticus 25).

I agree heartily with Rav Hirsch, who sees in job training not just a pragmatic solution to financial needs but a “calling,” a profession, a vocation, to support oneself as value and society as a mitzvah. Economic independence allows you to fulfill your moral calling to help the needy become independent. In the Birkat HaMazon blessing after eating we pray for the dignity afforded by economic self-sufficiency so we will not be dependent on the loans and handouts of others. Yet we seek an even higher valuation to labor. All Israeli citizens are invited to see in their own individual and national efforts to achieve economic self-sufficiency, not merely a guarantee of national self-preservation, not merely an avenue to greater material comforts or professional satisfaction, and not just a way to avoid parasitic dependence on others. S.R. Hirsch proposes that acquiring economic skills be valued as a part of the moral calling to help one another.

Maybe what the State of Israel needs to do relative to the Haredi community, who will not soon listen seriously to the Jewish values and texts cited here, is to apply a stricter system of reward and punishment in the Biblical sense. In the desert God brought all of us manna and quail from Heaven. But as soon as we crossed the Jordan River, it says:

On the day after Passover, on that very day, they ate of produce of the land, unleaven bread and parched grain. On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna.” (Joshua 5:11-12)

Self-reliance is the rule in God’s promised land. Those who will not work the blessed land cannot expect manna from those who do – neither out of mercy for their self-inflicted poverty nor out of short benefits from their convenient collations. While Haredim like the Hazon Ish may preach about bitachon, reliance on God to provide without human effort, other Haredim know better. In December 2011, Minister of the Interior Rabbi Eli Yishai, the head of the Sephardic Haredi party, Shas, who is responsible for municipalities, opposed the idea of solving the recent conflict between Haredim and non-Haredim in Beit Shemesh over a mixed religious primary school by splitting the city into two separate municipalities. He warned realistically that an all-Haredi municipality would not be able to collect enough taxes to support itself.

[i] The IDF grants the yeshiva-bocher a 6 month deferment of service, which needs to be extended every 6 months. Students postpone again and again until age 41, when they finally receive a permanent exemption. Fathers of at least 5 children are granted this final release at age 31. Minimal duty is required when a father who has not yet served has 2 children and to all the others from age 29.
[ii] ArukhHaShulkhanHoshenMishpat 163:15
[iii] ArukhHaShulkhanHoshenMishpat 163:15
[iv] Orkhot Hayim, Vol. 2
[v] Maalot HaMidot 16



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