The statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain.
(photo credit: ANNESOV VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/CC BY-SA 3.0)
In a recent episode of Israel’s popular series Shtisel, a young hassid with a talent for painting is given a prestigious award. At the awards ceremony, the hassid’s father, a rabbi, is asked to speak. He immediately turns to the visiting wealthy American donor who has sponsored the prize and asks him to give money to his yeshiva.
The son, embarrassed, runs out of the room.
While the show may be fictional and the actors not even observant, the scenario is all too accurate and the embarrassment all too real. A culture of schnorring and a generation of beggars have grown up in our midst, and they are, sadly, an embarrassment to Judaism.
Go to any synagogue during services – or even to events like weddings or circumcisions – and you can find dozens of people begging there for money.
When services are over, later at night, they may come house to house, or stand on street corners or go table to table at restaurants. This is true not only in Israel, but also in Jewish communities abroad, such as Zurich, London, New York or Paris, where collectors come all the way from Israel to set upon the locals for donations. While some are (supposedly) collecting for institutions, most are asking for help for themselves.
There is a legitimate need for institutions such as yeshivot, Jewish community organizations and food banks to engage in fund-raising and there are truly indigent people of all faiths who depend upon help from the more fortunate to survive. The Torah (Deuteronomy 15:11) bluntly proclaims, “The poor shall not cease from this Earth.”
It is the institutionalization of poverty and the denial of the essential tools to escape from this condition that is truly appalling. The lack of professional training in certain circles – indeed, the ostracizing of those who do choose to pursue a university degree or career or serve in our armed forces – is cruel and unusual punishment for those trapped behind the walls.
Studying Torah on a regular basis is unquestionably praiseworthy and a necessary component of proper Jewish living. But where is it commanded that one may not also acquire a trade, a skill, a profession so as to support his own family and not rely on others to get by? Were not all our great sages working men? Maimonides was a doctor; Hillel was a woodchopper before he became president of the Sanhedrin; Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai a successful businessman.
Abba Shaul was a grave digger; Rabbi Meir a scribe; Rabbi Yohanan Hasandlar a shoemaker. Rabbi Huna was a farmer and raised cattle; Rabbi Papa was a beer brewer, Rashi a vintner and on and on and on. Even the sainted Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen, the Hafetz Haim, ran a small grocery store with his wife.
All were elite Torah scholars; all also earned an honest shekel – or dinar, or dollar.
The very structure of ancient Jewish society from its earliest beginnings embodied this diversity and division of duties.
The spiritual leaders came from the tribe of Levi and all of Israel embraced their teachings, while other tribes engaged in commerce, served in the army, tilled the fields, built the roads and so on.
Ethics of the Fathers, in more than one place, strongly mandates combining Torah study with gainful employment.
Not only does this assure a person of participating in the welfare of the general society in which he resides, it allows him to hold his head up high and feel good about himself, knowing that he is a giver and not just a taker.
Without losing our sense of humility, we are meant to consider ourselves among the elite of this world, as an interesting law in the Talmud affirms.
When loaning money to another person, says tractate Bava Metzia, the lender may take an article of clothing, such as a coat, as collateral. But if he wishes to sell that coat to collect his debt, and give the borrower a coat of lesser quality in its place, he is forbidden from doing so. Why? Every Jew is considered to be a king and a prince, says the Talmud, and deserves only the best and the finest of all things.
Israel’s secular society may rightfully resent the fact that it is called upon to support the (growing) segment that neither works nor serves in the IDF, but it is to the non-worker, the non-soldier to whom I address my comments. Do you yourself not want to do your fair share, to feel good about yourself, to make your own ends meet, to be seen as a prince, and not a pauper? With apologies to Tevye, while it is certainly no disgrace to be poor, it is no great honor, either.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana email@example.com