Israel’s most urgent agenda with its ultra- Orthodox population is not
propelling haredim to the front lines against Hezbollah, but pulling them out of
the unemployment benefits lineup. Not giving them guns, but helping them earn
their own butter honestly. Not busing them to Tel Hashomer, but enticing them
Consequently it is time to change the focus of the debate
over the place of haredim in our society.
Drawing them into the working
world is as important as drafting them, or even more so.
The haredi world
is admirable in so many ways: It lives modestly, prioritizes Torah study and
spiritual aspirations, is suffused with good works and social assistance
ventures, is meticulous in observance of mitzvot, emphasizes family values, and
is generally free from the drugs, booze, pornography, sleaze and slavish
devotion to stupidity (as expressed in most TV shows and movies) that
characterize much of modern society.
But three problematic rules are
corrupting and pauperizing the otherwise estimable haredi world. First and most
destructive of all is the rule that bright and healthy young men cannot work or
study for a profession. Not if you want to be respected. The ideal is to stay in
yeshiva and study only Torah, for as long as possible.
means that many haredi families are impoverished and dependent on charity of one
form or another.
Rule No. 2 is that despite rule No. 1, one has to buy or
own an apartment the minute one gets married. This is called a “siddur maleh,”
an all-encompassing marriage arrangement that provides the young couple with
housing and all the necessary furniture and appliances.
This is what
tripped up Arye Deri. At his trial, he provided a fascinating study into an
ailing ultra-Orthodox world of marriage, dependency, poverty and pride. Deri
said that he was a “hot catch” in the haredi world and therefore outright
entitled to a siddur maleh. But Deri’s step-in-laws had provided no such
backing. Facing the stigma of poverty and wanting to get ahead – but untrained
for anything other than political panhandling – Deri worked things out illegally
with his buddies. They “arranged” the coveted housing for him (in return for
other deals that Deri threw their way).
People not shackled by crippling
haredi codes simply rent an apartment or take a mortgage and work to pay it off
(while serving in the military and going to university, often
The third haredi rule, which applies to all those who
don’t have Deri’s friends, is that the government must solve the problem. If
housing is expensive, the government will build subsidized housing in preferred
areas at ridiculously low prices, exclusively for the ultra-Orthodox
If schools, health care, youth groups and municipal taxes are
expensive, the government will reduce the fees to almost nothing if you are in
kollel, or provide the services outright.
government-support system for those studying in yeshiva creates an unhealthy
trap. It simply doesn’t pay to leave kollel.
The minute a 35-year-old
kollel man attempts to enter the working world, municipal taxes triple, health
care and education costs double, and the study stipends end. What
high-enough-paying job can he possibly obtain, without any skills relevant to
today’s hi-tech workplace, to offset these automatic leaving-yeshiva losses? And
thus created is a haredi world of living off the dole. Crisis-level poverty has
been a result of this self-imposed isolation and asceticism. Sixty percent of
our country’s 750,000 haredim live under the poverty line, including half of the
64,000 children in haredi Bnei Brak. Only 40% of haredi men are working (as
compared to 82% in the general community).
Unless something changes,
these distressing statistics are only going to get worse. A whopping 50% of
haredim are under the age of 14! By age 22, 70% of Haredim are married and
The natural growth rate of the haredi community is 5%
(as compared to 1.3% in the general community). One-third of all elementary
school children in Israel are now ultra-Orthodox.
Just 57% of these
haredi students are taught the (reduced) material in core curriculum subjects
that the Education Ministry assigned to be taught in haredi schools. Just 0.7%
of haredi youth complete high school with a full set of matriculation
The situation is not only unsustainable, it is sacrilegious. The
modern-day haredi credo of “Thou shall not work, only study” is a perversion of
tradition. “A father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem the
firstborn, to teach him Torah, to marry him off and to teach him a profession,”
instructs the Talmud (Kiddushin 39a). In order that he “should not become a
burden on the public.”
“It is preferable that man eke out a livelihood
bitter as an olive through work, and trust in God, than to accept honey-sweet
support from another man,” teaches the Talmud again (Eruvin 18b).
craftsman who studies Torah but simultaneously supports himself merits all the
honor and good in this world and in the World to Come,” asserts Maimonides (Laws
of Talmud Torah 3:10).
Make no mistake about it, Maimonides warns
sternly, “one who studies Torah professionally and fails to work – counting on
charity for a livelihood – desecrates God’s name, shames the Torah, extinguishes
the flame of religion, harms himself and abdicates his place in the World to
Come... Torah that is not accompanied by work has no staying power and
inevitably draws one into sin. As Rabbi Yehuda taught in the Talmud (ibid.), the
man who fails to learn a profession or to work – ultimately will come to steal
Current haredi rabbinic leadership, however, feels
differently than the Sages of old. It is not only blocking forward movement on
the military draft issue – even the mildest of reforms – but fighting a
rearguard battle against the so-very-necessary integration of the ultra-Orthodox
into the economy. It is tragically trapping haredim in an impossible world of
imagined strictures and limitations, deeming what we would call normal,
productive life “assur” (forbidden).
Still, things are beginning to
change. Quite a few academic training centers for ultra-Orthodox men have opened
in recent years. But the late start in seeking an education and a livelihood
makes this an enormous challenge, a solution that works for only a stalwart few.
And the innovation has taken root only at the margins of the haredi
Our new government must help haredim out of the hole they have
dug for themselves by ending the all-encompassing government support system for
those not even attempting to get a modern education or earn a living. The “world
of Torah” will be strengthened, and Israeli society healed.