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Moishe Bane

Klal Perspectives, The Ben Torah Baal Habayis

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.


My name is Moishe Bane, and I am a baal habayis. Sometimes, saying this actually feels like the beginning of a twelve-step program. First, acknowledge what you are, and only then can you grapple with the implications.

It begins in high school when your more simplistic answers are dismissed by the rebbe as “baal habatish” answers. Then, as a yeshiva bochur, it is overhearing the kollel yungerman’s pitiful reference to his buddy who left learning to, nebach, get a job. Your increasingly frum children suspect that your advice is tainted by your being a baal habayis, yet wonder why the family is not wealthy; after all, you are a baal habayis! You work double shifts, giving it your all, yet still struggle to pay the bills, suffering the humiliation of applying for tuition scholarships. You do not get kibbudim (honors) in shul or at local mosdos (institutions) dinners since you are neither a noted talmid chochom (Torah scholar) nor a gvir (philanthropist), and you struggle to get shidduch dates for your children for the same reason.

But chin up. It turns out that everyone out there has it tough. The economy is challenging for most American families – not just Orthodox Jews, and certainly not only for yeshiva graduates. It is not the unique fate of the ben Torah baal habayis. So why the kvetching?

Because it should be different for the ben Torah baal habayis. The ben Torah baal habayis is not a schlepper who is counting the hours until the next ballgame on television. He is productive, committed and thoughtful. In fact, he is quite extraordinary. The ben Torah baal habayis should be bursting with pride, with a profound sense of satisfaction. He has done what few are doing and what few have done before him. He has partnered with his wife to create a family-centric lifestyle in a society in which the family is faltering. He has nurtured a marriage that is flourishing in an era in which technology, media and social vagrancy have made the holiness of intimacy elusive to all but the most ambitious and brave. He has retained a deep commitment to HKB”H and avodas Hashem (service of G-d) despite a thick, imposing hester panim (hiddenness of G-d’s face), and notwithstanding the challenges he confronts to emunah. He learns, he davens, he gives tzeddaka, he does chesed. In each area of avodas Hashem, neither the quality nor the quantity is as much as he would like, but he is giving it his best shot.

It is not the aspiration of the ben Torah baal habayis to have it easy, nor to shed his responsibilities. To the contrary, he embraces them. He just wishes he felt a bit more satisfied. The bottom line is that what he really wants is to understand why he is incapable of embracing the blessings bestowed upon him, and to simply be happy.

Well, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that the experience of the ben Torah baal habayis results from deeply entrenched communal dynamics. The good news is that they can be changed. All that is required is recognition of evolving facts and realities, and a recalibration that would plainly flow from this recognition.

Many of the current frustrations experienced by the baal habayis result from communal attitudes and practices that were formulated and introduced in an earlier period. At that time, the community faced very different challenges, and was made up of people with far more uniform backgrounds and cultural sensitivities. This essay will identify several of these outdated dynamics and illustrate how the introduction of subtle changes in attitude and practice can, without altering fundamental Torah values, improve dramatically the experience of the ben Torah baal habayis, and vastly enhance the community and its vibrancy.

Let’s begin with a couple of simple definitions.

For the purposes of this essay, a ben Torah refers to an individual who embraces the principles of Torah miSinai (Divine origins of the Torah), hashgocha pratis (Divine Providence) and the imperatives of halachic observance and Torah study. More particularly, however, the ben Torah is an individual who embraces avodas Hashem as his central life mission, not merely as one of several portfolios.

A baal habayis is a family man who spends a significant portion of his time and energy earning a livelihood. The ben Torah baal habayis is the family man who has all the qualities of both a ben Torah and a baal habayis.

Venerate the Elderly, Our Best is Yet to Come

Yeshivas teach that a significant distinction between Torah Judaism and Western culture is that Western culture venerates youth, while Torah Judaism venerates the elderly. Unfortunately, this distinction is no longer evident, since the contemporary Torah community is also extremely youth-focused. Communal resources and attention are funneled primarily to children and teenagers, in both academic and in social programming. Even in the realm of Torah study, emphasis is placed on learning and growth between the ages of 18 and 25 as opposed to all the years after that.  Almost inevitably, those moving on from yeshiva or kollel sense that their best days have passed.

But this is a problem in society, in general. Why suggest that it is particular to the ben Torah baal habayis? Two reasons: First, because it is worse for the ben Torah baal habayis. Second, because for the ben Torah baal habayis it should be different.

In most well written works of fiction the central character is described as having a “defining moment.” The defining moment is the pivotal period in the person’s life and is really what his life is all about. Everything that occurred beforehand has led him to that moment, and everything thereafter is a product or reaction.

It is my observation that to succeed in becoming a ben aliya (growing person), the ben Torah, regardless of his age or prior achievements, should live every day of his life as if his defining moment has yet to occur. All that he has already done certainly has inherent value, and his prior experiences and accomplishments enable him to address the challenges that will be presented in his defining moment – a moment that has yet to occur. The oved Hashem understands that each day is a gift granted for the purposes of growth in devaikus with Hashem. He also understands that the pursuit of this devaikus is a lifelong journey that makes each day meaningful, with its own inherent value and purpose. Whether young or old, every day is a delicious mystery since “today I may encounter my defining moment!”

Tragically, rather than embrace a journey of growth and ascension, many bnai Torah baalei batim view themselves as traveling in a downward religious spiral. Upon leaving yeshiva or kollel, they no longer aspire to significant religious elevation, and in fact are merely hoping to hang on to the religious achievements they may have reached in their younger years. This tragic attitude of many baalei batim is not the reason that the community venerates its youth more than its elderly. To the contrary, this attitude is a result of the community’s youth-focused approach to avodas Hashem.

The dominant attitude of the Torah community, whether right or wrong, is that the years that one spends in yeshiva studying Torah full time is the pinnacle of one’s avodas Hashem. Some talmidim have the tenacity or enjoy circumstances that allow them to remain in this learning-only mode throughout life. Since the premise is that full-time Torah study cannot be replicated religiously, these fortunate individuals are the only ones who can aspire to life-long growth in ruchniyus (spirituality). For all others, however, departure from yeshiva necessarily means that they are entering into a diminished religious state and are forfeiting any chance of rising above the ruchniyus they had enjoyed while in yeshiva. Forever after they will need to come to terms with the fact that they have abandoned (whether or not by choice) the state of full-time Torah L’shmah and will necessarily be confronting a drop off in ruchniyus.

While full-time Torah L’shmah is surely an elevated mode of avoda, is it a realistic ideal for all talmidim, or even the majority of talmidim, in an era when yeshivas are attended by almost all frum young men? Or, is presenting to the broader student population the aspiration of full-time Torah L’Shmah as a personal ideal similar to suggesting to all Jews that they should aspire to one day performing the avoda of the Kohain Gadol on Yom Kippur? Our practice of emphasizing full-time Torah L’shmah appears to be effective in highlighting its centrality and critical importance, and teaching the community of the elevated role that Torah plays in every individual’s ruchniyus.

The lack of nuance in this presentation, however,  results in at least two significant, negative consequences for the majority of talmidim, for whom full time Torah L’shmah is simply inappropriate and out of reach. First, the message that their years spent in full-time Torah study is the height of their ruchniyus experience teaches talmidim that when they leave yeshiva for the workplace, their most noble days in avodas Hashem  will be behind them. They come away with the sense that all they can hope to do for the remainder of their lives is to attempt to hang on, to some degree or another, to the holiness of their yeshiva days. This view quickly becomes depressing, and severely undermines their best efforts to seek joy and simcha in avodas Hashem throughout their lives.

The second, and perhaps even more profound, consequence of the view that the years of full-time Torah L’shmah can never be equaled in ruchniyus is that most yeshivas and roshei yeshiva decline to explore, and certainly do not actually implement, a derech in limud and hanhaga (approach to learning and practice) that trains and prepares talmidim for a life long, post-yeshiva, ambitious ascension in religious growth. Recognizing that most talmidim will leave full-time learning, the most common current approach is to try to provide talmidim with a sufficiently intense connection to Torah while in yeshiva that they will retain some semblance of yiras shomayim (and maybe even learn an hour or two a day) when their yeshiva days conclude. The objective of the yeshiva years is not to prepare talmidim for further significant growth after leaving yeshiva, since that is an inherent impossibility. The yeshiva’s goal is merely to limit the yerida (descent).

While well-intentioned, and appropriate when the greater portion of students enrolled in yeshivas were candidates for life-long careers in Torah study or harbatzas Torah, this attitude and approach is potentially devastating for today’s composition of yeshiva students. Imagine a married couple who views the joyous intensity of their courtship as the pinnacle of their love for each other. Such a relationship is doomed. A seasoned couple, enjoying a magnificent marriage, recognizes their courtship period as having been intensely wondrous, but realize that true depth of love and commitment was developed over the subsequent years. The initial intensity of courtship may have formed a foundation for the long and inevitably topsy-turvy experience of marriage, but that initial intensity can never be understood as having been the peak of their relationship. The courtship and its intensity was primarily a trigger for the true growth that developed thereafter.

Other than for those few talmidim who might be appropriate to learning on a lifelong basis, perhaps the yeshiva experience must be reformulated as being the courtship of the ben Torah’s relationship with HKB”H. Though that period should surely be filled with all the intensity and wonder that goes along with that stage of a relationship, the agenda must be recalibrated to prepare the talmid for much greater achievements in ruchniyus during the years he is a working baal habayis, and thereafter. The relationship between the baal habayis and HKB”H must be expected to continue to grow throughout life, both in depth and in profundity.

A baal habayis who recognizes that his defining moment is always yet ahead, and that his focus can rightfully be on continuing spiritual growth, not merely ‘hanging on,” will enjoy a lifelong religious experience of excitement and awe.

The Celebration of Conformity and the Procrustean Bed

We all struggle with the often-conflicting values of developing our personal identity and continuing to belong to a community. On one hand, we each have personal ideas and inclinations, a unique personality, an intellectual point of view and an eagerness to express and actualize creativity and talent. On the other hand, we also desperately want to fit in. We want to be part of a chevra, part of something bigger. The world is a very scary place and a sense of belonging makes the big bad “other” a little less ominous. So people join clubs, fraternities and religious orders. They wear ball-team sweatshirts and cheer for the home team, or attend “Trekkie” conventions and alumni reunions. Social media is perhaps the greatest reflection of this deep urge, adding an even more complex and confusing expression of this need. We all simply want to belong.

Fitting in, however, requires conformity. Every community and group – even a country club – imposes rules for dress and behavior, and every fraternity demands adherence to customs and traditions. The deeper the emotional connection sought among the group’s members, the more demanding the conformity. And the more expansive the conformity, the more compromised the individuality. As a result, it is inevitable that there will be a tension between individuality and the desire to belong. For many people, including many bnai Torah baalei batim, a proper balance between staking a claim for individuality, while simultaneously connecting deeply with a social community, is difficult and often elusive.

But this is a problem in society, in general. Why suggest that it is particular to the ben Torah baal habayis? Two reasons: First, because it is worse for the ben Torah baal habayis. Second, because for the ben Torah baal habayis it should be different.  

For the ben Torah baal habayis, individuality is particularly elusive. In light of the “outsider” role he plays in the workforce, he is deeply invested in being part of his community. But the frum community demands conformity with particular ruthlessness. The concessions he must make to conformity are sometimes so extensive that he is left wondering what part of him is real and what is communally imposed.

As compared to other communities, the frum community has elevated its procrustean practice of conformity to an art form. Draconian consequences are imposed on those who fail to conform. People are especially viewed as outsiders if they fail to carry the party line in their views on social and religious standards, priorities and expectations. Conformity, however, is also demanded in behavior, appearance, style of speech, field of occupation and even hobbies. These are all grist for the judgment mill through which every frum individual and family is assessed, reassessed and then reassessed again. The Torah mandates that the Jew emulate the behaviors, as it were, of the Creator. Unfortunately, contemporary Orthodoxy has enthusiastically embraced this directive with a particular emphasis on G-d’s role as Judge.

Unlike other communities that achieve conformity by simply applying peer pressure, the frum community forcibly imposes conformity through certain communal practices, such as school enrollment and the shidduch system.

Children may be denied enrollment into their school of choice if their parents do not accommodate to community rules. For example, certain schools will deny enrollment to families having (or perhaps better said, admitting to having) a television or Internet access; some will only accept children whose fathers are in kollel, or perhaps begrudgingly in klai kodesh. When reviewing enrollment applications, schools also consider how parents dress, where they daven, and with which cultural segment of Orthodoxy they associate.

The shidduch system, which is likely the most effective communal watchdog, is even more powerful in imposing conformity, especially in the New York/New Jersey area. Shidduch concerns influence peoples’ selection of yeshivas and seminaries, camps and bungalow colonies. Shidduchim influence the way both singles and their parents dress, as well as the institutions with which they affiliate. Shidduchim are a consideration in choosing the car to drive, the vacation to take and the friends to keep. Shidduchim are also perhaps the largest assurance of adherence to halachic standards and Torah study. It is neither being paranoid nor frivolous for one to avoid a non-conforming statement or behavior because it could “shter a shidduch.”

While the tension between individuality and conformity is inescapable, it can be reduced on an individual basis with some forethought and effort.

First, acknowledge to yourself your competing needs for both individuality and communal affiliation. Once it is on your radar screen, you can begin to identify ways of expressing the real “you” without offending the “system.” Very often, a person is pushed away by the community – not because what he is doing or saying is all that radical, but rather because he is viewed as having rejected the community, or failed to sincerely want to fit in.

The community’s tolerance for individuality expands significantly when the person acting differently sends very strong signals that he is invested in the community, makes clear that his individuality is not intended as a rejection and that aside from a particular expression of individuality actually belongs and identifies with the community. Some thoughtful people find it very effective to go out of their way to show particularly expressive forms of conformity in areas in which they do not mind forfeiting individuality, and thereby enjoy greater latitude in being individualistic in those areas in which self-expression is important to them.

Earlier in this essay, we discussed the frustration imposed on the ben Torah baal habayis by the realization that his ruchniyus has apparently peaked while he was still a young man in yeshiva. If that would change, and the baal habayis would view his entire life as an opportunity for reaching new heights in his relationship with HKB”H, the challenge would then turn to how he would best achieve ongoing personal growth in devaikus. How would he find his own, individual path while also being a member of a community with a culture of intense conformity in all areas, including how to serve HKB”H?

For many baalei batim, time spent in daily Torah study is an invaluable and primary expression of connecting to HKB”H. Others learn daily, but despite trying many alternative limudim, do not find the spiritual connection in their learning for which they continue to thirst. Yet others are simply incapable of learning at all. It is, therefore, obvious that every person must find those aspects of Torah and of avodas Hashem in which they can best express their personal growth in ruchniyus. In order for someone to enjoy this approach to individuality as an adult, he must spend his earlier years searching for his individual voice. He should be assisted in both identifying his own talents and strengths and in discovering aspects of Torah and avoda that fit him most closely. In most situations, the home is the natural context for someone to receive this guidance and nurturing.

In the frum community, we typically blame “the yeshivas” for every problem. Whether the discussion is on a lack of middos, or a lack of shalom bayis or a lack of honesty, the causes of all ills are the yeshivas. In actuality, of course, that is simply a crutch on which we rely to shift the blame away from ourselves. In almost all instances, the responsibilities and the failures take place in the home, and not in the yeshiva. The failure of many to find their individual approach to avodas Hashem is a perfect example.

A yeshiva is, by its very nature, an academic institution, and is necessarily focused on nurturing hasmoda in learning. The primary job of roshei Yeshiva and maggedai shiur is to encourage personal growth through Torah learning. That is who they are, how they have grown significantly in their own avoda, and how they should be expected to encourage their students to grow. It is neither the job nor the training of a magid shiur to spend more than a small portion of student time on areas other than actual academic learning.

Moreover, it is simply a practical impossibility for the educator of a large class of students to identify the often subtle strengths and talents of each student, and then to draw out those strengths and match them to possible areas of avodas Hashem. Since such individual attention is critical if the child is to capture the individuality necessary to flourish in an otherwise conformity-driven community, this responsibility falls to the home. Only in the home can children, whether younger or older, be inculcated with a deep appreciation for the power of their individuality and the need to find their personal route to growth in ruchniyus. In homes that take this responsibility seriously, children will be far more likely to grow up with the direction and courage to be true to themselves, and thereby to be spiritually vibrant and satisfied.

It’s About Who You Are, Not What You Do

While growing up, a typical American boy wants to be a ball player, an astronaut or a fireman. These days, he may also aspire to be a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs. The frum family takes pride when their young child expresses different aspirations. Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, used to tell us that a family can be identified as being Litvish or Chassidish by their young son’s reply when asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” The child of a Litvish family will inevitably respond that he hopes to be a talmid chochom, while the child of a proper Chassidish home will respond that he hopes to be a tzaddik.

Unfortunately, Rav Weinberg would no longer be correct. Rather than aspiring to become a talmid chacham, even the frumest Litvish school boy is more likely to respond that he aspires to be a rosh yeshiva. Reflecting the attitudes he encounters, the child no longer focuses on what kind of person he will grow to be, but rather what role and title he will have. We are hurting ourselves by defining ourselves this way. Self-satisfaction is likely to remain elusive as long as we identify ourselves by what we do for a living rather than by who we are as people.

But this is a problem in society, in general. Why suggest that it is particular to the ben Torah baal habayis? Two reasons: First, because it is worse for the ben Torah baal habayis. Second, because for the ben Torah baal habayis it should be different.

When a ben Torah allows his job to define him, he is not only doomed to frustration and despair, he is also compromising his central Torah values. When he eventually recognizes this compromise, his despair will grow even deeper. A ben Torah must appreciate that the essence of a person is his choices, his commitments and his actions in serving Hashem. When our children identify their aspirations in the form of titles and positions rather than character growth and personal accomplishments, we should be alerted that the message that they are learning is this misguided attitude.

The problem is even more complicated because when we discipline ourselves, apply Torah values and thereby recognize that the “job does not make the man,” we find ourselves confronting a new set of challenges.  We tend to react to society’s over-emphasis on job and career with our own over-emphasis on denigrating the role of job and career.  This over-reaction results in many of us belittling how we spend much of our adult life, which inevitably results in our belittling ourselves. Even worse, the community’s dismissive view of job and career does not allow for the effort and focus that is needed for most people to be matched with an appropriate career.  As a result, far too many of us ultimately pursue a career that is ill-fitting and that provide little enjoyment and minimal satisfaction. Furthermore, when the pursuit of parnassa is not considered a fundamental aspect of avodas Hashem, but viewed as an after-thought at best, there will be an increased vulnerability to ethical and halachic lapses in the context of the pursuit of parnassa.

It certainly would appear that the ben Torah baal habayis will be emotionally and spiritually compromised if he does not appreciate that his job plays a significant role in his avodas Hashem. First and foremost, it is through one’s job that one addresses his responsibilities as the family breadwinner. For many people, it is fundamental to their mesorah that supporting one’s family is a primary dimension of avodas Hashem. Many bnai Torah will also recognize that their occupations provide the opportunity for significant contributions to others, and to society, at large. The more sophisticated ben Torah baal habayis will also appreciate that his job presents myriad additional opportunities in avodas Hashem if he focuses on the workplace’s many halachic challenges, ranging from honesty to gender relations to Shabbos to kashrus. And the most sophisticated ben Torah baal habayis will even recognize the incredible workplace opportunities to be mekadesh Shem Shomayim.

Unfortunately, the dominant communal attitude in the yeshiva world towards work is that it is not much more than a necessary evil. Such an environment makes it quite difficult for the baal habayis to feel good about the forty to sixty hours a week he spends on the job.

Another consequence of the community’s diminished respect for the role of a career is that most yeshiva students are not afforded the opportunity to match a career path to their interests and skills. Many yeshiva graduates, therefore, simply fall into a job arbitrarily, rather than seeking out a career that fits who they are.

Many yeshivaleit do not begin to search for a job until the pressing needs of supporting a family are acute. At that juncture, however, it is usually too late in the game to pursue a career tailored to their skills and interests, and in any event the community rarely provides sophisticated career guidance. Prior to that time, most yeshiva students are counseled that their chances of becoming talmidei chachamim will be enhanced by deferring any thoughts of future career choices until they first spend several years in kollel, avoiding the distraction of profession-oriented preparation.

For certain bochurim and yungerleit this may, in fact, be true. There are, of course, many highly-motivated students whose years in yeshiva are intensely and successfully focused on learning, which would be seriously compromised by any distractions. As discussed earlier, however, the vast majority of today’s yeshiva bochurim are interested in Torah study, but certainly not to the exclusion of all else. For this majority of bochurim, the advice to ignore entirely their future career plans does not enhance their hasmoda, but it does compromise the likelihood that they will enjoy satisfaction from their careers.

When career choices are considered only after having two or three children in tow, the range of practical career options is dismally narrowed by the prohibitive financial price tag of both professional school tuition and the cost of supporting a growing family. Moreover, those on the extreme right of the religious spectrum forgo high school secular studies, altogether. With the exception of particularly gifted students, most graduates of that system face even more limited job options since they do not have even the most basic secular skills necessary to pursue many occupations.

Aside from the late start, even those bnai Torah who consider career choices earlier rarely enjoy access to the many readily available vocational guidance tools that could help them identify the most appropriate occupations. It is true that introducing these focuses too early could distract students who would otherwise become significant talmedei chachomim, but surely, attentive parents will know in which direction their son is heading by the age of twenty-one or twenty-two. Parents who fail to provide access to career guidance for their twenty-one year old son who has not yet hit his stride in intense hasmada should consider whether they are culpable of parental neglect. Moreover, the actual percentage of yeshiva graduates who hope to enter klai kodesh is further diminished by the reality that positions in klai kodesh are increasingly scarce and thus parents must consider that even the most serious yeshiva graduates are increasingly unable to find suitable shtellers.

The effort to ensure an intense focus on Talmud Torah, of course, remains the core objective of how we educate our children. But consideration might also be paid to how to increase the possibility that emotional and psychological satisfaction will be found by the eventual baal habayis in the job that will occupy the majority of his waking hours for decades.


The ben Torah baal habayis is a most impressive oved Hashem. One can only imagine how much more he could be if taught to appreciate the growth he can yet achieve after leaving yeshiva, if he were allowed and even encouraged to find his personal voice within an understandably conforming-oriented community, and if he were assisted in choosing a career that complements his strengths and interests. While effectuating these suggestions may sound monumental, in actuality they require only minor recalibration and tinkering. The greatest challenge is acknowledging the challenges and believing that they can be addressed. Once attended to, even the smallest adjustments may prove to be game changers.


Moishe Bane is a partner at Ropes & Gray, LLP and a member of the Editorial Board of Klal Perspectives.

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