According to a recent study by the Van Leer Institute, a stunning 70% of haredi men in Israel do not have regular employment. The question immediately arises: If they are unemployed what are they doing with their lives? The simple answer is that they are involved in advanced Jewish studies.
Indeed the study says that 60% of haredi men claimed Jewish scholarship to be their primary focus. Now, one can either say that haredi Israeli men are unemployed or that they spend their time in pursuit of a higher goal—religious study and spiritual excellence. I prefer the latter approach.
Education has always been the bedrock of Jewish values. Even though throughout the centuries Jews have wandered from land to land and have undergone unimaginable persecution, we have never stopped learning. This is why Jews have been awarded 159 Nobel Prizes in every category.
This love of learning is derived from the religion of Judaism itself. It should thus come as no surprise that those who take the religion most seriously want to spend most of their time studying.
Jewish religious scholars are encouraged not only to delve deeply into the texts but also to come up with novel ideas based on the sacred scriptures and the Talmud. Thus, innovation, within certain well defined boundaries, is encouraged in the hallowed walls of the Yeshiva.
Clearly the pursuit of further learning within the Haredi communities is something to be respected rather than derided. In fact, one of the great achievements of modern Israel is creating a renaissance of Jewish learning.
The problem however is that in the secular world only the very promising and studious go on to pursue a lifetime of fulltime study and research. Most people are not suited to that type of intense study. Undoubtedly this is also true in the haredi communities—most are simply not cut out for a life time of study.
Unfortunately, however, within the haredi communities that follow the Lithuanian school of thought—which seems to dominate in those circles today—there is social pressure to follow that path even if the individual would be better suited to a different occupation.
The reason for this pressure is both historical and cultural. Historically after the emancipation of the Jews in the 1700’s, 1800’s and 1900’s when Jews throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire were granted full legal rights, traditional Judaism was concerned about how the new found freedoms would affect traditional Jewish commitment.
Some religious leaders in the Jewish community felt that in response to emancipation they needed to rebuild the walls of the enclave. One way of doing this was to mandate that all men should remain in the Yeshiva where they would be guarded from secular influences.
This, together with the strong traditional Jewish bent towards study, has contributed to the high rate of unemployment amongst haredi men who spend their time studying religion instead.
This has created a renaissance of traditional Jewish and scholarship but this remarkable achievement brings with it social challenges. According to some reports, 51% of haredi Jews in Israel live below the poverty line. In addition the fact that the Israeli government has to support these families, who for the most part do not go to the army, causes social strife with secular Israeli Jews.
Add to this the fact that most of the students who are studying in the yeshivas and kollels are not quite cut out for full time learning, and it becomes obvious that a change of track is needed. The orthodox world needs to strike a balance between intense scholarship and seeking a career.
Many hassidic groups, such as Satmar, go into the work place and are very successful in business. Others, like Chabad, encourage their adherents to take positions of community leadership and dedicate their lives to Jewish education.
Others are encouraged to seek employment in the broader society after a shorter period of study in Kollel. In addition, Judaism and Jewish law are very much in favor of its adherents working at a trade or business.
It is unfortunate, however, that the ideal of full time religious study is not more respected in Israeli and general Jewish societies. The pursuit of learning is noble and must be supported. But making it into an obligatory full time occupation for the entire society has social consequences that are unsustainable in the long run.
One hopes that the religious leaders in those communities would have the courage to look at other models more beneficial for both their own communities and for Israeli society as a whole.