A New Deal for Torah Studies in Israel

Torah study should be recognized as the foundation of Israel’s existence - but not according to its current Haredi definition.

At a time when “sharing the burden” is the central issue of coalition negotiations, it is important to acknowledge that on one major point the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are absolutely right: Torah study is the foundation of Israel’s existence and essential for her survival.

Israel needs a powerful army to defend her borders. But an army is not enough. In the Jewish State, the Torah — to borrow a phrase from Dr. Ruth Calderon’s moving address to the Knesset — “must be magnified and glorified.”

But the problem is that the system of yeshiva study that now exists does not glorify Torah; it brings Torah into disrepute. Those who claim to revere Torah have made it an object of contempt. Those who profess to serve the needs of a God-fearing community have actually condemned that community to a life of grinding poverty and — frequently — despair. 

And it is a system without precedent in Jewish history. For thousands of years, the debate among rabbis was this: Should every Torah scholar support himself and his family while also making time for study, or should a small number of the most talented scholars be permitted to study full-time through the generosity of wealthy individuals? Many giants of Torah set an example by working themselves; Maimonides was a physician and the Chafetz Chaim a shopkeeper.

But the idea of full-time study won acceptance as well, and in the great institutions of Torah learning in Eastern Europe — such as the Volozhin Yeshiva, where my great-great grandfather studied — a select group of talented students, supported by voluntary donations, devoted their lives to Torah.

As we see in America, the boundaries of Jewish practice were fixed by the terms of this debate. Most male ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States work to provide for their families, finding time in the evenings to study Torah; there is also a modest number who study full-time, supported by generous private donors.

Yet in Israel today, an utterly different model has been created.

In the last four decades, the Haredi leadership in Israel has taken two steps never before taken in the world of Torah Judaism. It has created an expectation that every young man will become a full-time student, and it has demanded that the general public be obligated to pay for it. Because politicians have acceded to these demands, there are more full-time yeshiva students in Israel today than in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars.

The result has been utter disaster, with the honor of Torah being the primary victim. 

In the first place, a coercive system of funding adult study demeans the Torah study enterprise and angers average Israelis, who end up resenting what they might otherwise admire. 

In the second place, full-time Torah study is demanding and difficult and beyond the capacity of all but the talented few. Until very recently, our rabbis knew this. Most yeshiva students in Israel, forced into study by their leaders, end up not studying at all but doing other things: sitting idle, or covertly surfacing the internet, or earning money in the black market to ease the burden on their families. None of this is a secret in Israel — which only increases the frustration of the young men involved and the resentment of the broader community.  (For an excellent description of how this works, see the recent book by former Shas MK Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, “In the Name of Reason.”)

Evidence of the system’s failure is to be found in the broad coalition now demanding reform. When Amsellem, Yair Lapid, and Naftali Bennett all agree on the need to get young ultra-Orthodox men into the army and the workforce, there is reason for hope. Nonetheless, nothing will happen until Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox parties, who have resisted all but cosmetic changes.

The specifics are less important than the final goal, which should be this: The State of Israel will recognize the centrality of Torah study to Jewish life, will promote Torah study — and a pluralistic understanding of Torah study — in all of its Jewish school systems, and will provide taxpayer-funded Torah study for a very modest  number of outstanding adult scholars. 

While private funding might be available, I believe that Israelis will be prepared to offer government grants — at higher levels than those now offered — once they are assured that abuses of state-funding have been corrected. Individuals who receive these grants can expect to enjoy the recognition and status to which they are entitled. For all others, Torah study will be enthusiastically encouraged but will be pursued by individuals on their own time and at their own expense, and draft deferments will be ended.

There are many reasons for Mr. Netanyahu to adopt such a policy. Budgetary pressures, the manpower needs of the armed forces, and political considerations all encourage it. But the most important reason is that only in this way can Torah be glorified and magnified. Only in this way can the honor of Torah be restored. Only in this way can the Jewish mission at the heart of Zionism be preserved.

Haredi boys at a school in Jerusalem's Meah She'arim neighborhood.
Gil Cohen-Magen