Israel’s Yeshivas Can Help Save America’s Humanities

Subsidized Torah study in Israel demonstrates the power of government incentives to facilitate learning for the sake of learning. But it also highlights its pitfalls. Advocates of federal sponsoring for the humanities can learn a lot from the successes and failures of Israel’s experience.

Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon
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Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon

There’s been a lot of buzz in the American media about the so-called “crisis of the humanities.” Students interested in the arts, literature, philosophy and history are faced with a job market that undervalues their skills. The number of humanities majors is declining, and traditional jobs for graduates of the humanities - namely tenured professorships - are increasingly elusive. As a student of philosophy and political theory, extremely passionate about what I study, those figures keep me up at night.

The good news is that practitioners of the humanities love writing, and there are a host of potential solutions littered across the Web pages of America’s media outlets and journals. Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, penned a piece in the New York Times arguing that the crisis of the humanities is essentially economic, and advocated a series of communal, taxpayer-funded initiatives to save them. Gutting is right - the humanities should not perish at the mercy of our troubled economic system. But if left to the whims of the free market, their prospects look bleak.

Yet, the notion of federally sponsored cultivation of teaching and learning raises important questions. Putting aside immediate issues such as political will and economic viability, it’s important to imagine, in the context of the ongoing discussion, what government-sponsored humanities would actually look like. We have some contemporary examples, like the National Endowment for the Humanities, and some historical ones, like the Federal Writers Project. But since most of Gutting’s suggestions focus on the education sector, what kind of culture would the United States create if it subsidized teaching and learning of the humanities?

We could look to Israel to find out. In a certain sense, Israel has engaged in a similar practice with its subsidized yeshiva program. When Israel was founded, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion allocated funds for yeshiva students to study Torah year round on the government’s dime. Those full-time students were also exempted from mandatory army service. Much like Gutting, the then-chief rabbi, Dr. Isaac Herzog argued that that his discipline was a cornerstone of the state, and should be subsidized and encouraged.

In 2010, there were almost 60,000 students receiving stipends and army exemptions. In a purely numerical sense, the incentive system to inspire life-long Torah learning was an enormous success.

But as anyone who follows the controversy around the exemptions knows, by other measurements the subsidized yeshivas have been disastrous. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie pointed out, subsidized Torah learning has become the exclusive domain of the ultra-Orthodox, many of which are allegedly coerced into the program. This system, meant to institutionalize Jewish learning, has turned Torah and its study into an “object of contempt.” The army exemption is viewed as a cop-out from Israeli society, and is completely inaccessible to all but a few Israelis. Furthermore, the High Court of Israel has criticized the scholarships for diverting funds from Israel’s poor.

The fact that there are simply more people learning Torah year round does not equate to the promotion of learning, as Herzog sought, as a cornerstone of the state. In fact, the insularity of the system has resulted in the alienation of many Israelis from engaging with Jewish literacy.

In that sense, Israel’s yeshiva system illustrates both the boundless opportunities and easy pitfalls of government-subsidized, lifelong education. On the one hand, monetary incentives offer tremendous possibility for growth and a life vest for individuals passionate about some of our most important disciplines. On the other hand, the system benefits an ultra-Orthodox minority at the cost of the country’s majority, which is structurally alienated from participating in this socialized system of Jewish learning despite that it would likely benefit from increased access to it.

The humanities in the United States - already considered by many to be an “ivory tower” - run the same risk of dangerous exclusivity. If the humanities do not become more accessible to more people, they will continue to perpetrate a toxic elitism.

Humanities students and teachers in the United States can learn from the mistakes of the Israeli yeshiva model, and ensure the broader society – who will be paying for it – feels the benefits of the insights they glean.

The public outrage over Israel’s system of subsidies and exemptions underscores the importance of collective buy-in for national education programs. When the American public understands the value of supporting the humanities, academics, professionals and students will be able to actualize their passions in a framework of mutual support.

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the Board of Directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at

Students at the Hevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, 2012.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
A Jerusalem yeshivaCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

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