A learned ruling

The High Court would've made Maimonides proud.

June 15, 2010 06:33
3 minute read.

maimonides 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

The state, ruled the High Court on Monday, can no longer give special treatment to students of the Torah when it hands out welfare payments. Men who devote their lives to the study of Judaism’s most holy texts can no longer expect inordinate support from the public purse.

As was expected, haredi parliamentarians were quick to denounce the court. The chairman of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni from United Torah Judaism, accused the judges of discriminating against haredim. Shas chairman Eli Yishai vowed to pass legislation that would bypass the ruling. In the present political environment, Yishai might succeed.

However, critics of the ruling would do well to look to the same sacred Torah texts that they rightly revere. So should the approximately 11,000 men who, according to the court, may no longer receive a total of NIS 121 million a year in the form of “assured income” transfers. With a bit of intellectual honesty, they might reach the conclusion that Judaism looks unfavorably upon a man who uses his status as a Torah scholar to receive special benefits. The Talmud, for instance, tells how the greatest sages all worked for a living. Hillel the Elder, before being appointed to the position of president of the Sanhedrin, supported himself as a woodcutter; Rabbi Shimon Hapakuli worked with cotton; Rabbi Yohanan was known as “the cobbler” due to his vocation repairing shoes; Rabbi Meir was a scribe; Rabbi Pappa planted trees.

Medieval sage Maimonides ruled, “One who replaces work with Torah study and lives from charity profanes God’s name, disgraces the Torah, extinguishes the light of the law.”

In short, Judaism implores the faithful Jew to support himself. The rabbis knew the devastating effect that relying on charity can have for a father’s self-esteem, how it can undermine his ability to command the respect of his wife and children. They also wanted a man to be a constructive member of society.

TRUE, THROUGHOUT the ages, communities, no matter how destitute and poverty-stricken, supported gifted Torah scholars. And Maimonides’s businessman brother David helped him make ends meet until his untimely death. But these arrangements were voluntary and limited to a select few. In fact, six decades ago, when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, reached an agreement with the haredi rabbinic leadership and its most dominant figure – Rabbi Yeshayahu Karelitz (the Hazon Ish) – to exempt yeshiva students from military service, there were only a few hundred. It seemed at the time that haredi Judaism, nearly decimated by the Shoah, was on the verge of extinction. Perhaps Ben-Gurion acted out of pity, or out of a feeling of guilt for his own departure from tradition, or out of a conviction that at any rate the remnant of haredi Judaism would soon be gone, or perhaps to maintain that tradition of the most gifted Torah scholars being enabled to study full-time.

Today haredi Judaism, both in Israel and abroad, is enjoying a new resurgence. Its leaders are seen as representatives of “true,” “authentic” Judaism. At a time when other Jewish communities suffer the ravages of assimilation and intermarriage, haredim have not only maintained their own numbers, they are growing and convincing others to join them through intensive outreach. But it is no longer only the most gifted who are being subsidized to study full-time.

The time has come for the haredi community to reassess its standing. It is no longer the weak, embattled minority that it was in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The haredi leadership can no longer justify devoting all of its energies to the singular endeavor of preserving tradition and insulating its flock from “evil” outside influences. It must now rise to new challenges. First and foremost among these is ensuring that while an elite few continue to carry the torch of tradition, others receive the skills needed to integrate into a dynamic labor market.

With or without Monday’s High Court decision, that change is taking place. Thousands of haredi men and women have enrolled in academic institutions with sensitivity to their unique needs. As the IDF becomes more flexible and accommodating and the Tal Law is more aggressively implemented, more haredi men are serving in the military. This is a blessed process that would have made Hillel and Maimonides proud. The High Court ruling accords with it. The likes of Yishai and Gafni should embrace it, not fight it.

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