Torah Values in Tension
I’m writing from a slightly different perspective than the other contributors to the first issue of Klal Perspectives: I have had the advantage of seeing almost all the other contributions, and therefore feel free to content myself with making one small observation rather than trying to cover the full panoply of challenges facing American Orthodoxy in the coming decade. That is as it should be in that I do not live in America, and lack a full perspective on American Orthodoxy.
For a variety of reasons, even the most frank observers of the Orthodox community from within tend to describe the community in a sort of bifurcated fashion. First, they describe the community – e.g., its ideals, major institutions, and various subgroups – and then they describe the challenges facing the community. But rarely are those challenges placed in the context of the initial description, as outgrowths of the communal structure or ideals, for instance. Rather, they are treated as independent – as footnotes or qualifiers to the initial positive description.
It strikes me, however, that this approach does not reflect reality, and that the resultant lack of clarity constitutes an impediment to the search for solutions to communal problems or challenges. It would be both more honest and fruitful, in my opinion, to recognize that to some extent the challenges facing American Orthodoxy, or at least that segment of American Orthodoxy with which I am most familiar – the Lithuanian Chareidi community, are an outgrowth of tensions between different Torah values as well as between the communal ideal of long-term learning for every male and certain contemporary realities.
The post-War rebuilding of a world of Torah learning that was almost entirely wiped out is, in many respects, a miracle. When Rabbi Aharon Kotler, zt”l, in America, and the Chazon Ish, zt”l, in Eretz Yisrael, sought in the 1950s to plant the ideal of kollel learning, they did so in unfertile soil. Few, if any, imagined at that time the large numbers of those who would remain in full-time learning for decades. (In the Bais Medrash Elyon, the first kollel in America, stipends were limited to three years, and the budget allowed for only ten avreichim.) Nor could the quality of today’s Torah scholarship have been fully anticipated.
Unquestionably, the ideal of kollel learning has been the crucial factor in the building of a community centered around a passionate commitment to Torah learning. It would be foolhardy to imagine that we can just tinker a little bit with the ideal without any consequences in terms of the quality of Torah learning or communal self-definition. For that reason, no policy conclusions follow automatically from a description of the ways in which the ideal of long-term kollel learning for every male can come into tension with other Torah values.
It may well be that the preservation of the kollel ideal is judged by gedolei Yisroel to be so fundamental to the continued viability of the community that we must simply learn to live with the negative consequences, and seek only responses designed to ameliorate those consequences to the extent possible. In other words, the potential damage to the animating vision of the Chareidi community of a society based on a passionate connection to the study of Torah is so great that we dare not risk tampering with existing ideals or communal structures. In that context, however, it is worth noting that at no time since the dor deah has such a large percentage of the adult male population been involved in full-time Torah learning as today.
Let me suggest three areas in which our societal ideal is intertwined with challenges facing the Orthodox community: (1) with respect to relations between husbands and wives; (2) with respect to the challenges of parnassah facing an ever increasing percentage of families within the community; and (3) with respect to the problem of drop-outs from the community, including those who remain within but in an extremely disaffected state.
(1) The Torah anticipates that the husband will be the primary source of financial support in the home. It was Adam who was cursed that he would henceforth bring forth sustenance by the sweat of his brow, and it is the man who undertakes in the kesuba to support his wife. Moreover, our young women are constantly told throughout their years in school that their highest role is as a mother and source of stability in the home.
Yet the ideal of long-time learning necessitates, at least where there are not considerable parental resources available, that the wife will be the primary breadwinner in the early years of marriage – years which coincide with the primary child-bearing years. Women are being forced further and further afield from the Chareidi community in search of parnassah, with all the attendant dangers involved. In addition, many women are simply not up to the new tripartite role thrust upon them – wage earner, primary caregiver to her children, and a loving and caring wife.
In every class for chassanim I ever heard, the rav giving the shiur always emphasized how important it is for the wife to look up to her husband as a protector and source of security. Yet if one listens to the discussions of bochurim who have reached marriageable age, it is not uncommon to hear them discussing young women in terms of their father’s bankbook and/or their earning capacity – in other words, in terms of the young woman’s ability to provide for them and offer them the most unpressured life possible. In short, they are looking for a woman who offers them security.
At the very least, we are witnessing a partial inversion of traditional sexual roles, and it should not be surprising if there are negative consequences as a result. There are many ma’amarei Chazal warning of the dangers to the spiritual health of the home that result from too great an emphasis on money in choosing a life partner. Young women are not unaware of the emphasis on money in shidduchim, and that awareness can introduce an aspect in insecurity into the relationship. In the aforementioned chassan classes, the primary lesson is always how necessary it is for marital harmony that a wife feel beloved in her husband’s eyes. If she has cause to wonder whether it was really her father’s bank account that was the object of his attraction, her confidence in his love will be diminished.
When the wife is the primary breadwinner for many years after marriage, the potential exists for subtle changes in family dynamics. She will in many cases take on a much larger role in the allocation of family financial resources, and the children may view her as the parent to whom they turn when they want something.
None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that kollel couples do not, on average, enjoy the highest level of marital satisfaction of any population group. That is particularly true where the husband is learning with hasmoda, and has a feeling of constant growth and freshness in his learning, and where he shows his appreciation of his wife’s efforts to make that growth possible by helping around the house and lifting tasks from her shoulders that allow her more time with her children. The refinement of midos that comes from dedicated Torah study and the nature of the marital bond envisioned by the Torah should — and do — lead to happier families.
At the same time, it is widely recognized that divorce rates are rising in the Chareidi world as well, especially in the early years of marriage. The reasons for that rise are numerous, and their enumeration is far beyond this writer’s expertise. But it strikes me as not far-fetched to suggest that overburdened wives, the partial inversion of the traditional sexual roles defined by the Torah, and the overemphasis on money in the shidduchim process have each contributed.
(2) Parnassah ranks near the top of nearly every list of the challenges facing Orthodox Jewry in the coming decade. The cost of raising and providing for the education of a large family requires after-tax earnings many times the national average, and the burden is even greater when parents commit to the long-term support of their married children. (A proper empirical study of how Orthodox families meet these financial challenges would, in my view, be near the top of the list of needed research projects.)
While there are pockets of great affluence within the community, and many are able to meet the above described challenges, a rapidly growing percentage of the community faces considerable stress from the financial burdens upon it. These pressures have been greatly exacerbated by the sustained financial downturn.
Apart from the commitment to religious education and the pronatalism of the community, what does this stress have to do with societal ideals? The answer is that some form of secular education, including at the college level, is increasingly required for earning the kind of income required to sustain a large, Orthodox family. I am well aware that advanced secular education is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the attainment of great wealth. As a Satmar chassid, who offered me a ride from Brooklyn to Monsey, once told me, “Education is useful if you want to earn a living; it’s useless if you want to make [real] money.” We all know countless stories of illiterate immigrants who attained great wealth in America. And we all know many highly educated people who have struggled economically during the recent economic downturn. But, as the old saying goes, the plural of anecdotes is not data.
Many of those community members who have amassed the greatest fortunes have done so by utilizing highly leveraged investments. But such leveraging is inherently risky, and we have seen of late the danger for the community as a whole of a high percentage of communal wealth being generated from high-risk fields that are prone to dramatic bubbles followed by equally dramatic busts. Most of us lack either entrepreneurial skills, which can substitute for formal secular education, or the nerves of steel required to work in highly speculative and leveraged fields. For us, earning a living is the best we can hope for. And for that an education is, at the very least, helpful.
The catch here again is that the acquisition of a secular education runs smack against the ideal of long-term full-time learning. That is not to say that such an education cannot be attained after many years of learning – certainly there is no more rigorous, intellectual preparation than Gemara learning. It is worth noting, by way of example, that over 300 yungerleit in Lakewood have received CPA degrees in recent years, without having attained a secular, undergraduate degree. And they have done so with the blessing of the roshei yeshiva. There is an increasing number of formats for the acquisition of a secular education or of vocational training that permit one to continue learning both first and second seder in yeshiva.
But even these possibilities depend on having acquired at an earlier age basic literacy and numeracy. What we are witnessing today, however, is a growing disdain for those basic skills and a feeling on the part of young bochurim that their study constitutes bitul Torah to a degree largely absent from yeshiva high schools of twenty years ago.
(3) Many contributors to this forum have begun by noting the rapid growth of the Orthodox community over the last two or three generations, and that the difference between then and now is not merely one of size. Those who rallied to the banner of Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, in America, and the Chazon Ish, zt”l, in Israel, in the 1950s were a small, self-selected, highly motivated, and largely homogenous group. They might be described as an eidah. Today’s community is over a hundredfold larger, and inevitably consists of people of varied intellectual and spiritual levels. By and large, they were born into the community, as opposed to having chosen it for themselves. We have moved from an eidah to a tzibbur. And the question to be addressed is: Can the standards of a self-selected, elite group be imposed on a much larger, much more diverse public?
Many explanations have been offered for the drop-out phenomenon. Dysfunctional families, learning difficulties, the easy access to illicit material via the internet, and sexual abuse are all pointed to as the chief explanation by one or another expert in the field. I suspect that one or more of these factors is present in most cases of kids dropping out, though I’m not aware of any conclusive study that would determine which one is the most common factor.
But I’d like to add one other factor: a sense of being trapped or crushed by the society into which one is born. Two of the gedolei hador shared with me the view that the Chareidi communities in which conformity to communal norms is most tightly enforced are the ones that produce the highest number of drop-outs.
Human diversity is a fact of life of which Chazal were fully aware. Not everyone can be crammed into one box. Take, for instance, a young boy, who struggles to keep up in Gemara learning. One day, he asks his father what he will be when he grows up, and his father tells him that he will be a kollel yungerman, of course. Might that boy not feel trapped? Might he not feel that he has been doomed by his society to always feel himself to be a mediocrity at best and an utter failure at worst?
It could even be that he has the talent to eventually succeed in Gemara learning, but that his panic at being trapped prevents him from ever trying. That young boy may love much about his home and Torah life. He may even have been blessed with the personality to succeed in many areas and with exemplary midos. He might even enjoy learning for its own sake, if it were not, in his eyes, the only respectable model for spending the majority of his time as an adult. But to the extent that excellence in Gemara learning is held up as the sole respectable “occupation,” this boy is at greater risk of eventually dropping out of the community than need be.
One final point. A number of contributors have focused on the lack of communal structures. I’d like to just mention one area where the phenomenon is particularly evident: chinuch banim. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla (Bava Basra 21a) established the first system of universal, public education, based on the principle that the education of our young is a communal function.
That ideal was largely maintained in the early days of Orthodox education in America. Torah Vodaath and Yeshivas Chaim Berlin may have been formally organized as semi-private institutions, with their own board of directors. But the former served the Williamsburg community and the latter Brownsville. It would have been very rare for anyone from the neighborhood being served by one of those yeshivos to be turned away. (Nor did they compete with one another for students – at least not in the days of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz.) The same remains true today in areas with large Chassidic populations: A child from that particular Chassidic group is very unlikely to be turned away at the door.
Yet today, many yeshivos and seminaries in large metropolitan areas are effectively owned by one individual or by a group of individuals. They serve the interests of the proprietor and perhaps those of the parent body at that moment in time. The problem, however, is that when chinuch institutions become a private business, just like fruit stands, there is too often no forum for the representation of the overall communal interests. In every major Orthodox center today, there are Jewish children who cannot find an institution that will accept them, and who are, as a consequence, left sitting at home at the start of the school year. This is a disgrace to the millennial legacy of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, and calls into question our right to refer to ourselves as a community at all.
Rabbi Yonoson Rosenblum is a columnist, author, biographer and lecturer.