Imagine that in some country, they decided that the law schools, which had always set high admission standards, would from then on have to accept any applicant who wished to study law. And that the same country stipulated that all graduates of the school system would continue their studies in law school. Under these conditions, we would certainly expect a sharp drop in the quality of the teaching of law, as it would have to be adjusted to match the intellect of the average student, rather than setting requirements that could be met only by the intellectual elite. Admitting everyone to institutions of higher education, with no entrance exams to assess their learning abilities, brings down the quality of teaching and research.
As astonishing as it sounds, something similar has taken place in the Lithuanian yeshiva world in Israel. Ironically, it was the yeshivas themselves that initiated the change.
Since the founding of the Volozhin Yeshiva, the “mother of the yeshivas,” in the early 19th century, the Lithuanian institutions were structured so that only an elite few could allow themselves to spend many years in the halls of Torah study. The majority, who lacked the appropriate skills, spent only a short time in the beit midrash (study hall), after which they went out to work and support their families. This model ensured intellectual excellence at the summit of the yeshiva pyramid, so that it would cultivate original and innovative scholars.
That was still the case in the early days of Israeli statehood, when it was agreed that only 400 yeshiva students would be exempted from contributing to the nation’s defense — that is, serving in the military or in national-civilian service. This arrangement is consistent with the vision of the beit midrash as a nurturing environment to produce great Torah scholars — a pyramid that many enter at ground level, but in which only a select few make it towards the top and remain there for an extended period of time.
This situation began to change in the early 1960s, when the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community instituted a substantive change in the structure of the Torah world, moving towards what became known as the “society of learners.” Now the yeshiva and kollel were viewed as the destined “home” of all Haredi men, with no screening of their aptitude to stay there. The society of learners gained strength in the 1980s. In 1980, 64 percent of Haredi men joined the labor force (compared to 86% of their non-Haredi peers), but by 2002, only 35.5% of Haredi men were gainfully employed (as compared with 78.5% of non-Haredi men). Since then, the percentage of Haredi men who are employed has rebounded, but for a number of years has stagnated at around 50-52%. In 2022, 41,806 Haredi men in Israel were enrolled in a yeshiva gedolah (age 17 through marriage), along with 96,561 married kollel students.
Much has been said about the price that Israeli society pays for the “professional Torah student” arrangement: undermining the basis of the people’s army and exacting a heavy economic cost on the Israeli taxpayer, who is forced to finance a large group that does not participate in the workforce. However, it seems, that not enough attention has been paid to the price that the Torah world itself pays, since the beit midrash has become a place for all Haredi men, rather than the gifted few. Instead of serving as an environment which cultivates great Torah scholars who can study Torah in depth and leave their mark, the inundation of the yeshivas and kollels by tens of thousands of mediocre students strikes a heavy blow at excellence in Torah knowledge.
None other than the late Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, once dean of the Ponevezh yeshiva and a leader of the Lithuanian Haredi sector, sounded the alarm: “The yeshiva setting is destined mainly for average and above-average men, while the outstanding minds are supposed to study on their own. But because it is difficult to study without a rabbi, they must stay in the yeshivas — and most of these prodigies are lost. By contrast, in the previous generation, since there were no yeshivas and everyone could study on his own or with a rabbi, the brilliant few could follow their own course in their studies, develop in keeping with their intellect, and be a source of pride for their generation” (Ke-ayyal ta’arog).
The current model of the yeshiva and kollel world, in which all men are channeled for long years of study, with no screening to identify strong learning abilities and intellectual excellence, serves social goals of reinforcing and fortifying the religious identity of ultra-Orthodox young men and keeping them off the secular street. This means that the “professional Torah student” arrangement in its current form, supported by immense state funds, is not intended to enhance the Torah world and promote creative scholarship, but rather to keep its young men from joining the Israeli work force. Paradoxically, the main victim is the Torah world itself.
These lines are written by yeshiva graduates who love the Torah world with all their heart and want to see it flourish. We wish to bring to light the price that the Torah world itself pays for the current arrangement of “professional Torah students.” We believe it is a mistake to describe the yeshiva world today as an unprecedented blossoming of Torah knowledge. Rather, it is a problematic tradeoff of mass admission to the beit midrash at the expense of a decline in the level of scholarship. Perhaps in the past this deal could have been seen as essential for the very survival of the religious world and the commitment to it. Today, however, when the ultra-Orthodox are no longer a small and marginal cultural minority, but rather a large sector that is growing at a phenomenal rate, they would do well to the reward of fulfilling a precept against the shortcomings it entails.
The above was coauthored by Eliyahu Berkovits, a research assistant in the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program of the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center for Shared Society at the Israel Democracy Institute and a PhD candidate in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University.
This article is based on a study now in progress at the Israel Democracy Institute on the “Damage to the Torah World caused by the Professional Torah Scholar Arrangement.”