Israelis have long suffered from the lies and distortions of the ultra-Orthodox politicians of the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. But American Jews are now suffering as well, as the extremism of Israel’s religious establishment has made its way to America’s shores.
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The American Jewish community is usually happy to receive exports from Israel, but not in this case.
The export here is the claim of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis that all young men in the Haredi world must devote their lives to the study of Torah.
These young men, the rabbis insist, need not learn the practical skills necessary to support their families. They need not provide, through honest work, for the health and wellbeing of their wives and children. They need not serve in the army. Instead, they are to commit themselves to the full-time study of Torah, supported by the Israeli taxpayer. This, say the rabbis, is the way of tradition - the way that Jews have always done things.
Except it is not.
The rabbis’ claims are a total fabrication. According to the Talmud, the Torah scholar is to "combine Torah study with some worldly occupation," and Torah study not so understood will eventually "fail and occasion sin" (Avot 2:3).
Maimonides codifies this view in the Mishneh Torah, and employs especially biting language: "Anyone who makes up his mind to study Torah but does not work and lives on charity profanes the name of God, disgraces the Torah, obscures the light of religion, causes harm to himself, and deprives himself of life in the world to come."
It is true that exceptions were made for truly great Torah scholars. These were the select few who studied in the Jewish world’s most prestigious yeshivas, receiving support from a handful of wealthy families. But the idea that all observant Jews were to spend every day in study was viewed as impossible, both in practice and in principle.
And what was true for all of Jewish history was true in the Jewish state as well, at least for the first 20 years. Until the late 1970s, only 800 yeshiva students were granted army exemptions, and about 90% of Haredi men were employed.
But after Menahem Begin’s election victory in 1977, Haredi leaders, as their price for entering the government, insisted that army exemptions and financial subsidies for yeshiva study be granted to all full-time students who wanted them. And young men were pressured into studying, whether they were inclined to do so or not.
The result, according to recent figures from Israel’s finance ministry: Today in Israel, nearly 60,000 yeshiva students engage in full-time study. Only 51% of Haredim participate in the labor force, a number that has been falling, as compared with 89% for the rest of the Jewish population. Among those aged 25-34, when young men usually join the workforce, the rate is a pathetically low 41%.
Why did this happen? Because Haredi rabbis fear that any contact with secular Israeli society will destroy their young people’s faith. And cowardly secular political leaders, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, sit by in silence while the number of young people avoiding work and army service has been skyrocketing for 40 years.
And that brings us to the situation in America. Here, in theory, there should be no problem of work-shirking Haredi Jews exploiting the political system. After all, in America the separation of religion and state is assured by the constitution, and there are no Orthodox religious parties to pressure politicians. In addition, every state in the Union mandates secular education for every child. And historically, most Orthodox Jews have participated in the workforce.
And yet, a problem has developed nonetheless.
According to the Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jewry, more than 60% of American Orthodox Jews now identify as Haredi, and the overwhelming majority are located in the New York City area and the northeast. In a report issued last month, Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), on whose board I sit, demonstrated that the virus of radical separatism and fear of modernity, so prevalent in Israel, has also infected the Haredi community in New York City.
According to the report, many of the 57,000 students - and nearly all of the boys - in New York’s Hasidic yeshivas will graduate from high school completely unprepared to support themselves.
Since the boys’ education will mainly consist of Yiddish language religious studies, most will speak little English and have no math skills or knowledge of history or science. The result will be that they will possess few if any marketable skills and will depend heavily on various forms of public assistance. The report noted that this assistance has increased dramatically in the last decade, and 43% of Hasidic families are poor.
And why has this happened in the United States of America?
First, because extremism in the cauldron of the Israeli Haredi world foments extremism elsewhere.
And second, because America, like Israel, is not lacking in cowardly politicians of its own. As secular education in the yeshivas has deteriorated, the New York State and City education departments have looked the other way, despite laws mandating adequate education for all children in the New York City system.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio is not the first mayor to shamefully ignore the wellbeing of Hasidic children, but his failures have been especially egregious. With an election coming and aware that ultra-Orthodox Jews vote in large numbers, he has repeatedly delayed completing a promised investigation of Hasidic schools.
If the Hasidic Jews of New York want to be left alone, of course, that is their right- up to a point. America allows that, as the Amish and other separatist communities have demonstrated. But the rule here is that children must be given an adequate education so that they will have the tools that they need to make a living. And the American way is that those who are able to work are expected to do so.
Torah study is a noble pursuit, but Haredim who forsake work and civic obligation to pursue it – whether in New York or B’nei Brak – demean Torah and shame the Jewish people. Returning to Maimonides, he states in his commentary on Avot 4:7 that the rabbinic sages "did not allow themselves to request money from people. They understood that taking it constituted a profanation of the Name in the sight of the multitude," with the result that Torah would be "despised in their sight."
This was true in the 12th century, and it just as true today.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie