Avraham Edelstein

Between a good living and a good life

Haredim have been heading to work without Dov Lipman's help and may have a thing or two to teach about what really matters
'Let's not lose sight of the true values that Haredim bring to the table: true belief in the Torah as the central force upholding the Jewish people' (illustrative image: dancing in Simhat Torah celebrations in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood October, 2012  via Shutterstock)
'Let's not lose sight of the true values that Haredim bring to the table: true belief in the Torah as the central force upholding the Jewish people' (illustrative image: dancing in Simhat Torah celebrations in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood October, 2012 via Shutterstock)

Rabbi Dov Lipman of the Yesh Atid party has expressed concerns about the Haredi community’s challenge of generating enough income to sustain itself. This is fair enough. But Rabbi Lipman has failed to use his oft-claimed status as a Haredi rabbi to communicate the values for which this community stands. This has left him criticizing his own, without telling us why he wishes to belong to them in the first place. Moreover, Rabbi Lipman, is late to the party. Haredi leaders have already for years been executing solutions to the problems every intelligent Haredi recognizes.

Haredim have been going to work in increasing numbers. In fact, last year alone, there were five thousand Haredi males engaged in courses and degreed programs that represented a full range of careers – lawyers, social workers, finance people, architects and real-estate brokers. (The females have ironically been far more qualified than their male counterparts but that is changing.) There is currently a high-level group of activists planning to launch a training program for rabbis to run Haredi communities who are expected to be primarily comprised of working professionals. Mayors of Haredi cities are now encouraging high-tech and other companies to come to their cities.

The mainstream Haredi communities no longer stigmatize those men who go to work. At the same time, they are likely to continue to be pragmatic about value of work as a source of income rather than as focus of one’s self-fulfillment. In a world where we are wont to say “what do you do?” as the first or second sentence in meeting someone, it is refreshing to find an entire community that wants to know who we are – rather than what we are as defined by our shekel-making capacities.

To be sure, since we spend so many hours of our life working, it ought to be something we enjoy and grow from; it ought to provide us with a stimulating and friendly environment. But, we all know intuitively that work is not where it is. None of us want written on our tomb-stones, “Spent long hours in the office.” In death, we know what we don’t always seem to be able to practice in life.

As far as values go, the Haredi community gets it right. It is family, and it is the spiritual that count. Seen in this light, the high level of scholarship of the Torah is a part of a healthy and admirable core. In a world where the millionaire is king, we ought to be finding out some of the secrets of a community which seems genuinely disinterested in materialism.

There is a media image that this is a community that is starving and dysfunctional. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even a cursory walk through an average Haredi community will make it obvious that no-one is sleeping on the streets, no-one is suffering from malnutrition, children are well dressed and community volunteerism is way above average.

But, you may ask, where did the money for even this modest standard of living come from? It is a mistake to think that it was the Israeli government. Government funding of the private needs of the Haredi community never exceeded 18 percent. The answer is that the first generation of full-time scholars, now middle-aged, have or had working parents to support them. We all knew, however, that this was a one-generation phenomenon, unsustainable in the long term. The great sages of the generation articulated the idea that, in a post-Holocaust generation, we should give it all that we have got, to try and rebuild from the ashes what our enemies had tried to destroy. The problems we face today are a function of the success of this vision. The growth and expansion of Yeshivas and the values that went with them now require an adjustment to accommodate the financial realities on the ground. The very success of the model has created a rapidly expanding Haredi population whose fiscal base now needs to be secured.

The Haredi community in Israel is in rapid transition, and some of the leading Israeli sages are behind these moves. Operations like Kemach, among others, are providing financial backing. There are a few tens of degree-granting courses especially for Haredim, just as there are several businesses that have set up locations in Haredi towns like Kiryat Sefer specifically to be able to take advantage of what they see as a responsible and intelligent workforce.

But, in the midst of all of this change, let’s not lose sight of the true values that Haredim bring to the table. Haredim truly believe in the Torah as the central force upholding the Jewish people. On that, we are a part of a broad consensus. Ben Gurion (not usually seen as sympathetic to Judaism) says in his memoirs that there are three pillars of the Jewish people: the Torah, the land and the Hebrew language. The number of secular Israelis who engage in at least weekly Torah study, numbers in the many tens of thousands. Haredim are not unique in adhering to this value. They are unique in the lengths to which they are willing to go to achieve this and what they are willing to give up in the process.

Haredim approach their Torah studies with an unprecedented intensity because they are actually fascinated by the messages of the Torah in a very real way. Let me illustrate. A few nights ago I was in a car with several of my fellow Haredim, on our way back from a wedding. A discussion broke out on the nature of the Torah prohibition of being an accessory to a crime. The discussion lasted all of the twenty minutes of the car ride, and was continued for another ten in the parking lot late at night. Where in the world does one see this – where intense moral discussions occupy the daily conversations of citizens of any state? Why don’t we have delegations visiting the Haredim learning how to achieve this?

Many Haredim want to live simply. I so admire all those who make that choice. What we want is that those Haredim who want to or need to go out to work can do so without stigma. This is what is happening now. There is plenty that can be done to quietly facilitate this process for those who want to help.

The wrong way though, is to stage a showdown. Placing the Haredi-community under siege, pre-determining how many Haredim are going to be shoved into this box or that box – all of this will halt the momentum of progress – and lead to exactly the opposite of the intended effect. This is the work of fools – to attempt to create by legislative fiat a transition that needs, in fact to take one or two decades. Rabbi Lipman is certainly not the first rookie politician who dreams of leaving his legacy through some grand social engineering. He will add his failure to the pile of forgotten attempts.

The deeper problem with these self-styled saviors of the Haredim, is that they fail to recognize the real and important values that this community is providing the broader world. Every day I see the milkman and the bakery drop off stuff and leave it outside the local grocery store of my neighborhood. People who need milk are welcome to take and pay later, when the store opens. There is no-one policing the process. Here is a community where values are not only being studied – they are being practiced. We all want our tombstones to read, “Here lies so-and-so who was true to his beliefs.”Let’s go out and see how it gets done.

About the Author
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the educational director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and is the executive mentor of Olami. He is the author of ‘the Human Challenge – on Being Jewish in the 21st Century.'