Jeffrey Woolf

Haredi Leaders are Only Half Right (and Therefore Wrong)

Parshat Naso, which will be read in synagogues tomorrow, deals extensively with the status of the Levites. The Levites (and their priestly cousins) were sanctified by the Torah, and were to be specifically devoted to the service of God in the Tabernacle, and after that, in the Temple. As a result, they received no portion in the Land of Israel (aside from a set number of cities and their contadi). As compensation for their efforts, they received generous portions of the agriculture and husbandry of their fellow Jews. In other words, they were supported by taxes levied on the community. In addition, the Levites were not drafted into the armed forces (though, they did serve as a sort of chaplaincy, cf. Deut. 20).

In discussing the role of the Levites, Maimonides writes as follows (Laws of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee 13, 12-13):

Why did the tribe of Levi not acquire a share in the Land of Israel and in its spoils together with their brothers? Because this tribe was set apart to serve God and to minister to Him, to teach His straight ways and righteous ordinances to the multitudes, as it is written: “They shall teach Jacob Your ordinances and Israel Your Law” (Deut. 33,10). Therefore, they were set apart from the ways of the world; they do not wage war like the rest of Israel, nor do they inherit land or acquire anything for themselves by their physical prowess. They are rather the army of God…

Not only the tribe of Levi but every single individual from among the world’s inhabitants whose spirit moved him and whose intelligence gave him understanding to withdraw from the world in order to stand before God to serve and minister to Him…behold, this person has been consecrated and God will be his portion forever and ever. God will acquire for him sufficient goods in this world just as He did for the priests and the Levites…(I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, New Jersey 1972, 139).

The Haredi community claims that it qualifies for inclusion in this second group, who are totally dedicated to God and are, therefore, exempt from military (or any other type of service). Following the example of the Priests and the Levites, they justify the support of large scale Torah study, because the Yeshiva world is the successor to the Levites and the Priests, as Maimonides states ‘;set apart to serve God and to minister to Him.‘ In this, they are reasonably not wrong. Judaism has taught for two millennia that the study of Torah does fill the place once occupied by the service in the Temple (May it be Rebuilt, speedily in our days). Hence, at first glance, those dedicated to Torah study do have a claim to Levite-like status. No doubt Haredi synagogues and study halls will echo to the recitation of these Maimonidean statements tomorrow.

However, this interpretation is very one-sided, and therefore wrong.

My teacher, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik זכר צדיק לברכה (who was once described by the founder of the Ponevezh Yeshiva as the greatest Rosh Yeshiva in the world), used to note that the amount that the Priests (for example) used to receive for their services was way out of proportion for what they actually did. According to both the Bible and the Talmud, the priests were divided into twenty-four divisions, which served for a week at a time. Each division was sub-divided into seven families. In other words, most priests worked for only two days a year!!! (Most Levites, I might add, never worked in the Temple). So, asked Rav Soloveitchik, how do the Priests and Levites come to deserve really munificent public support?

The answer is provided by Maimonides himself, and conveniently ignored by the Haredi establishment. ‘This tribe was set apart to serve God and to minister to Him, to teach His straight ways and righteous ordinances to the multitudes.’ The Levites weren’t paid to study. They were paid to teach! They were paid to serve the Jewish people. They were paid to serve as the army education corps in times of war. The justification for receiving support is predicated not solely upon the metaphysical blessing vouchsafed by God on those who support the Torah (a blessing earned in at least as great a measure by Hesder and Mechina student/soldiers), but by giving back to the broader community! It is that arrangement that earns the Levites (and the Priests) their keep. Anything else, I will add, is unjustified and illegitimate.

So, yes, Torah study should be supported by the Jewish State. However, the Torah explicitly sets the terms of the arrangement. You want to be supported in learning Torah? Fine. You are also halakhically bound to teach, to give back to those who support you and put their lives on the line to defend you. If you are not willing to do that, you forfeit your privilege for support.

At least, so says the Rambam.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.