The Zionist Conspiracy

A clandestine undertaking on behalf of Israel, the Jets and the Jews.

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Thursday, July 31, 2003
Kollel Students

In this week's Jewish Week, Rabbi Avi Shafran laments the fact that most people would respect a PhD student in Scottish literature, but would be critical of somebody who devotes his life to Torah study.

To the extent that kollel students are ridiculed and labeled as "parasites," Rabbi Shafran is absolutely right. However, he ignores the fact that whereas only a small number of people in any society pursue a PhD and that it is in fact rather difficult to get into a PhD program, in the charedi world thousands of young men have decided to learn Talmud full time, with the doors of massive yeshivas like Mir Jerusalem wide open for anybody to join. While the standards for entry to Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey are higher, several thousand men are in kollel there.

Outside of Israel, the result is an unsustainable system, in which middle-class parents are expected to subsidize (and sometimes fully support) the lives of their children, while a mother of six or eight works full time for a relatively modest salary. As the size of the kollel families grow and the grandparents age, many families will slip into poverty. Once it comes time for the kollel families to marry off their own children, there will be nobody to pay for the weddings, let along support another generation of kollel families. Even now, young men who intend to learn in kollel usually look to marry a woman whose parents are wealthy, rather than one whose own father is in kollel.

In Israel the situation is worse. Charedi society, while at least publicly shunning Zionism, has for decades relied on government support of yeshivas and for large government payments to families with many children. Under the current government those benefits are being reduced, ensuring that many families will be unable to put food on the table or pay their electricity bill. Rather than seek a solution, the charedi rabbinic and political leadership, and charedi newspapers such as Yated Neeman, have responded by blasting the Sharon government as being anti-religious for phasing out Israel's erstwhile socialist system.

The obvious solution, in Israel and elsewhere, is for only the best learners to learn full-time (just as only the best Scottish lit scholars enter a PhD program), with others spending a couple of years in yeshiva after their marriage. In Israel, after an army deferment of a few years, most charedi men should do a few months of basic training and a few weeks of reserve duty each year, and then enter the work force. While the economy is currently weak, there are many areas in which charedim would succeed.

Rabbi Shafran baldly asserts that the IDF does not want charedi soldiers. Such assertion may have had a kernel of truth in 1999, but in the current situation is nonsensical and is contradicted by the growth of charedi Nachal combat units. The IDF is severely undermanned, especially now with thousands of soldiers in Palestinian cities. There is no reason why 40 year old reservists should spend a month in Jenin with a combat unit, while 25 year old charedim avoid the IDF entirely. Indeed, on the army issue the position of the charedi leadership lacks any moral basis, and those of us who are religious - whether charedi or not - should not accept the burden of having to defend it.

The sad thing is that many charedim in Israel do not want to be poor, and are eager to contribute to Israel in a positive way. Ultimately, these sentiments will prevail. In the meantime, tragically, by turning down millions to build centers to train charedim and pressuring young charedim to avoid the army, their leaders are forcing their constituents into poverty, which will cause many in their late teens and early 20's to leave religious observance, as an alarming number have done in the last few years.

Ultimately, while Torah study is certainly worthwhile and praiseworthy, full-time learning is not appropriate for everyone, or even for most.