Healing haredi work ethics

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.

Haredi national service enlistment 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi national service enlistment 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 into hi-tech.
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.
Inevitably this 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 simultaneously).
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 public.
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.
The all-encompassing 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 having children.
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 exams.
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).
“A 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 from others.”
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 community.
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.