Healing Haredi work ethics

Published in Israel Hayom, August 12, 2012  Click here for a printer-friendly copy

Israel’s most urgent agenda with its Haredim is not propelling them to the front lines against Hezbollah, but pulling them out of the unemployment benefits lineup. Not giving them guns, but helping them earn their own butter honestly. Not busing them to Tel Hashomer, but enticing them into hi-tech.

Consequently, it is time to change the focus of the debate over the place of Haredim in our society. Drafting them is less important than drawing them into the working world.

The Haredi world is admirable in so many ways: It lives modestly, prioritizes Torah study and spiritual aspirations, is suffused with good works and social assistance ventures, is meticulous in observance of mitzvoth, emphasizes family values, and is generally free from the drugs, booze, pornography, sleaze and slavish devotion to stupidity (as expressed in most TV shows and movies) that characterize much of modern society.

But three problematic rules are corrupting and pauperizing the otherwise estimable 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. This is called a “siddur maleh,” an all-encompassing marriage arrangement that provides the young couple with housing and all the necessary furniture and appliances.

This is what tripped-up Arye Deri. At his trial he provided a fascinating study into an ailing Ultra-Orthodox world of marriage, dependency, poverty and pride. Deri said that he was a “hot catch” in the Haredi world and therefore outright entitled to a “siddur maleh.” But Deri’s step-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 shackled 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. One-third of all elementary school children in Israel are now Ultra-Orthodox, according to statistics presented to the Knesset last week. Just 57 percent of these Haredi school students are taught the (reduced) material in core curriculum subjects assigned by the Education Ministry to be taught in Haredi schools! And just 0.7 percent of Haredi 17-year-olds complete high school with a full set of matriculation exams!

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 man 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?

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.”

Current Haredi rabbinic leadership, however, feels differently than the sages of old. It is not only blocking forward movement on the draft issue – even the mildest of reforms – but fighting a rearguard battle against the so very necessary integration of the Ultra-Orthodox in the world of real work and productivity. It is tragically trapping Haredim in an impossible world of imagined strictures and limitations which deems what we would call normal life – “ossur” (forbidden).

How tragic.

Things are beginning to change. Quite a few academic training centers for older Ultra-Orthodox men have opened 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. And the innovation has taken root only at the margins of the Haredi community.

Prime Minister Netanyahu should take the lead in helping Haredim out from the hole they have dug for themselves by freeing them from almost all army service (– even though this is unfair, I know) and ending the all-encompassing government-support system for those not even attempting to earn a living.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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