Published in The Jerusalem Post on March 28, 1999
Arye Deri may be guilty as charged, but he is not at fault. Deri is a victim of the ruinous Ultra-Orthodox ‘thou shall not work’ ethic.
We all know that Arye Deri, the savvy 40-year-old master politician of today, would never mess around clumsily with bribes in order to hustle an apartment for himself and his wife. It was a desperately-needy, just-out-of-yeshiva 26-year-old Deri, who sinned.
And here is my point. The younger Deri was pushed into temptation by his circumstances, tragically trapped as he was in an impossible world of Ultra-Orthodox strictures and limitations. A world that deems real work and productivity, what we would call normal life, *ossur*, forbidden.
There are three cancerous rules, you see, that are corrupting and pauperizing the otherwise much-admirable Haredi world. First and most destructive of all, is the rule that bright and healthy young men cannot work or study for a profession. Not if you want to be respected. The ideal is to stay in yeshiva and study only Torah, for as long as possible. Inevitably, this means that many Haredi families are impoverished and dependent on charity of one form or another.
Rule number two is that despite rule number one, you have to buy or own an apartment the minute one gets married. At his trial, this is what Deri called a ‘siddur maleh’, an all-encompassing marriage arrangement that provides the young couple with housing and all the necessary furniture and appliances.
Read the trial transcripts. Deri held forth on this point for days. The transcripts make for a fascinating study into an ailing Ultra-Orthodox world of marriage, dependency, poverty and pride.
Deri says that he was a “hot catch” in the Haredi world and therefore outright entitled to a ‘siddur maleh’, which his step-in-laws provided. The court found that Deri’s in-laws provided no such backing. Facing the stigma of poverty and wanting to get ahead — but untrained for anything other than political panhandling — Deri worked things out illegally with his buddies. They ‘arranged’ the coveted housing for him (in return for other deals which Deri threw their way).
Regular people just starting out, not ramshackled by crippling Haredi codes, simply rent an apartment or take a mortgage and *work* to pay it off.
The third Haredi rule, which applies to all those who don’t have Deri’s friends, is that the government must solve the problem. If housing is expensive — the government will build subsidized housing in preferred areas at ridiculously low prices, exclusively for the Ultra-Orthodox public. If schools, health care, youth groups and municipal taxes are expensive — the government will reduce the fees to almost nothing if you are in kollel, or provide the services outright.
And thus is created a Haredi world of dependency, of living off the dole. Crisis-level poverty has been created by this self-imposed isolation and asceticism. Half of the 64,000 children in Haredi Bnei Brak live under the poverty line.
Equally unhealthy is the trap created by the all-encompassing government-support system for those studying in yeshiva. It doesn’t pay to leave. The minute a 35-year-old kollel boy leaves yeshiva, municipal taxes triple, health care and education costs double, and the study stipends end. What high-enough paying job can he possibly obtain, without any skills relevant to today’s hi-tech workplace, to offset these automatic leaving-yeshiva losses?
Things are beginning to change. A number of Ultra-Orthodox computer training centers for older men have opened on the margins in recent years. But the late start in seeking a livelihood makes this an enormous challenge, a solution that works for only a stalwart few.
The situation is not only tragic; it is sacrilegious. The modern-day Haredi credo ‘thou shall not work, only study’ is a perversion of tradition. “A father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem the firstborn, to teach him Torah, to marry him off and to teach him a profession”, instructs the Talmud (Kiddushin 39a). In order that he “should not become a burden on the public”.
“It is preferable that man eke out a livelihood bitter as an olive through work, and trust in God, than to accept honey-sweet support from another man”, teaches the Talmud again (Eiruvin 18b). “A craftsman who studies Torah but simultaneously supports himself merits all the honor and good in this world and in the World to Come,” asserts Maimonides (Laws of Talmud Torah 3:10).
Make no mistake about it, Maimonides warns sternly. “One who studies Torah professionally and fails to work, counting on charity for a livelihood – desecrates God’s name, shames the Torah, extinguishes the flame of religion, harms himself and abdicates his place in the World to Come… Torah that is not accompanied by work has no staying power and inevitably draws one into sin,” he continues.
“As Rabbi Yehuda taught in the Talmud (ibid.), the man who fails to learn a profession or to work — ultimately will come to steal from others”.
One need look no farther than Deri to sadly know just how true this is.