Scholars and thinkers who study the traditions and ideas of our founding texts add great value to society. In addition, an observant Jew has a religious obligation to study Torah each day. Thus, Jews who adhere to the Torah will aspire to become a Torah scholar.
The problem is that not every person is suitable to become a scholar. Many just don’t have the intellectual capacity or character needed to succeed in that pursuit. They often, however, have talents and abilities which are best used in other fields. But many of the haredi communities, especially in Israel, have an unreasonable one-size-all expectation from their members that they spend their lives solely in the pursuit of Torah study.
Over the summer I had the pleasure of hosting three yeshiva boys who were studying in the famous Lithuanian-style yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. One of them explained the following absurdity that exists within his community. Many young men who attend the yeshiva in Lakewood know that they do not have what it takes to spend their entire life studying in a yeshiva or kollel. But in order to attract a bride of the caliber they seek they have to give an impression that this is what they want.
A few months later we had a guest who was attending a Bais Yaakov school. She told me a similar thing: From a personal perspective many haredi girls don’t want to marry a guy who will learn all his life and would rather one who would be able to make a decent living. But a boy from their community who has aspirations other than Torah study would not meet the quality of man they wished to marry.
This is a preposterous situation by any account – neither the young men nor the young women like the status-quo of their community but they resign themselves to it saying that they cannot change the system.
But clearly something must change. The people suffering most from the expectation of lifelong full time Torah study for all are the youth caught up in a system with unreasonable expectations. But where should the change start? I was therefore greatly encouraged by that Yeshiva student “Yehoshua” who stepped forward to talk to Yedioth Ahronoth about how the stipends given by the Israeli government were exacerbating an already difficult haredi culture.
Change must come from grassrootsClearly the government must stop giving these stipends carte blanche to every student. There needs to be strings attached and it should only be given to serious students who meet the criteria of being a bona fide scholar. Others need to be encouraged to find their unique, God given talent and passion and put them to work for the benefit of humanity. As the eleventh century Jewish ethicist Bahya ibn Paquda wrote (Chovat Halvavot) working in an area that concords with our talents and abilities is part of our God given mission on this earth.
Change, however, must also come from the grassroots and that is partly the reason for writing this article. I was brought up as part of the haredi community. I studied in many yeshivot including in some prominent Lithuanian style yeshivot in Israel. Most members of this community will agree with me that the status quo must change but are afraid of talking out because of the potential social repercussions.
But without the rank and file member of the haredi demanding it nothing will change. The Israeli government must reform how they give out the stipends to yeshiva students. But the average person in our community must also work towards a more practical and reasonable approach to religious life, one that allows every member of the community – not just those born to be scholars – the possibility of fulfilling their purpose in the world in its entirety.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts
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