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Learning The Hard Way (Part II)

I am still getting calls and e-mails from mothers and grandmothers with girls for “Avi” (a non-New Yorker), the ben Torah “earner” who was having trouble finding girls in his community willing to go out with him because he was not learning full time.


Many of the phone callers decried the current attitude in the heimische community – that married men should be “professional learners and not professionals who are earners.” They felt that the failure of young married men to have the responsibility of supporting their family, the way it has been for thousands of years, has resulted in an unhealthy “es kumt mir – I deserve” mentality. There is an expectation that their financial needs be fulfilled – without any effort on their part – by their wives, parents, the community and even the government.


Yet inexplicably, in many frum social circles learning boys are in great demand, sought after by girls who have become very idealistic (via their high schools and seminaries) and have what I call the Rachel Syndrome – patterning themselves after the wife of Rabbi Akiva, a girl from a wealthy family who gave up a pampered lifestyle and embraced a life of dire poverty when she married the illiterate shepherd Akiva, encouraging him to learn. Parents may secretly not be happy with their daughter’s choice of a learning boy, but go along with it since it seems everybody’s kids are into learning and they want to “fit in”. Their choices are dictated by “What will my friends think?” I truly believe that their friends have the same thoughts – “I have to accept my son’s learning lifestyle/ my daughter wish to marry a learner – or what will my friends think?”


And so they toe the line and allow their daughters to date learners or allow their sons to become full-time learners – whether they have the talent to learn or not. Rabbi Akiva became a leading sage in Israel with thousands of students. However, a great number of the young husbands today who are full-time learners are not made of the same stuff as Rabbi Akiva – not in their learning and not in their acceptance of a materialistically-challenged existence. Many have a very strong sense of entitlement, which leads to another issue that was brought up by several of the distraught mothers who called. The families of learning boys will not give the slightest consideration to a girl whose family “does not have money”. It doesn’t matter how amazing the girl’s middos or personality is, the family has to have money (or incredible yichus). The boy’s family understandably does not want to shoulder the whole burden of support on their own – they want a daughter-in-law whose parents will share the load with them. Hence many wonderful girls are hitting their mid-20s unmarried, since their family finances don’t measure up. And yet many of these girls still insist on marrying “learners” – refusing to date “earners” and possibly “marrying down”. To a certain extent, the “shidduch crisis” may sadly be self-induced.


This phenomenon of supporting a young learning couple has been going on for years and is commendable when it involves serious, gifted learners. The sacrifices made by both sets of parents in the name of Torah are admirable. But there are two issues that have changed the nature of full-time learning. One is that every Yankel, whether qualified or not, can become a learner – and may do so for the wrong reasons; some in order to avoid having to learn a trade or get an education due to a lack of motivation or laziness; some because they also want to “fit in” or get a “good” shidduch; some because their parents insist they do – either because they have their hearts unrealistically set on their offspring being a talmid chacham – or again because of “appearances.” Supporting these young men who don’t belong for a long term in a beth medrash is a mistake.


The second issue is that times have changed and whereas one income used to adequately support a household, two barely do. The price of a house and rent are sky high. Even when both spouses are working, their parents often need to help out. And usually there are married siblings who are being assisted by the same set of parents. It is unrealistic to expect a wife who is juggling work and children as well as parents who have their own financial responsibilities – to pay the bills while the father of the household is in the beth medrash learning – or just schmoozing. Even the well-intentioned but mediocre learners should reconsider their choice. For while it is true that man does not live by bread alone, it is also clear that “im ein kemach ein Torah,” if there is no meal there is no Torah.


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