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Dr. Yitzchok Levine

During my first visit to Eretz Yisrael in 1983 I visited a friend of mine whom I had known when I lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and who had made aliyah in the early seventies. Dr. Bernie S. earned a Ph.D. in mathematical statistics from NYU. When he moved to Israel, he was hired by an organization doing aeronautical work.

During the course of our conversation Bernie told me that in his neighborhood in Har Nof he and only one other person were employed full time. For the other families, the idea that abba went to work every day was unheard of.

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I asked him how such families managed to live.

“Some get money from relatives in the U.S., some collect tzedakah, and often the women work,” he told me.

I pointed out that these families were raising a generation of children who believed the head of the family should not be gainfully employed. We both wondered how the children and grandchildren of such families would survive financially.

Truth be told, the lack of meaningful employment on the part of fathers has now reached crisis level. A recent report by Israel’s National Insurance Institute (NII) pointed out that while the poverty rate among the Arab population of the state had declined, the poverty rate in the haredi community had increased in 2013 to 68 percent, up from 60 percent the year before. This was attributed to a lack of increase in employment, low earnings, and the government cutback in child allotments. Half the 64,000 children in haredi Bnei Brak live under the poverty line, according to the NII report.

In May, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report showing that, of the world’s thirty-four economically developed countries, Israel is the most impoverished. With a poverty rate of 21 per cent, Israel has a higher percentage of poor people than Mexico, Turkey, or debt-ridden Spain and Greece.

Anyone in America who attends shul regularly is not surprised by these statistics given the endless stream of men from Israel collecting for all sorts of causes.

It has gotten so bad that the Hebrew edition of Mishpacha magazine ran an article several weeks ago about the hidden cause of haredi poverty. The article detailed how parents have been going into debt in order to support their married children.

How bad has it actually gotten?

A Yerushalmi father was taken to beis din as a defendant by his son-in-law and daughter. The young couple was demanding everything that was coming to them under a ‘full arrangement.’…[T]he judges of the beis din see stories like this…on a regular basis.

“More and more, especially in shidduchim, we hear the attitude expressed that a ben Torah is entitled to be spared all life’s worries and to be able to live in comfort in order that he can learn in peace. Such an expectation is both unrealistic and dangerous. It is impossible to protect oneself from all worries: illness strikes, fathers-in-law’s businesses go bankrupt, wives who undertook the burden of parnassah find that they are no longer physically or emotionally capable of doing so six children later, or that the children are suffering from having a permanently drained and part-time mother.”

* * * * *

One should not delude oneself into thinking this scenario is limited to the yeshiva world in Israel. While things are not, to the best of my knowledge, as extreme in the United States, finances play a key role in shidduchim here as well. An elderly neighbor of mine, a Holocaust survivor, stopped me in the street a few years ago and told me that he had several granddaughters of marriageable age who were having trouble finding shidduchim. “No one will talk to them about a shidduch unless the parents can promise a minimum of $100,000 or more in support for a few years. Where are their parents supposed to get this kind of money?”

He went on: “It was not like this in Europe. A few were able to learn full time, but the overwhelming majority of husbands worked if they could find employment.”

A Flatbush newspaper that features a column in which people ask a shadchan questions recently featured a letter from a girl’s mother. The daughter was being considered for a shidduch. However, the mother of the boy wanted to know why the girl did not have an advanced degree so that she would be able to support her son and their future family for many years in “proper style.”

The girl’s mother, upset by the approach of the boy’s mother, asked a number of questions. One was “After all, doesn’t the kesubah obligate the man to provide for the family?” The shadchan dealt with some of the other issues but completely ignored the question of whether or not a husband is obligated to support his family.

I happen to believe that for a couple to spend a few years in kollel is a wonderful way to start a marriage. But it is certainly not for everyone, and not all parents can support such a couple for more than a few years at most.

But what about the prevalent attitude that a young man should learn for as long as possible without any thought of how his family will be supported long term? Is every young man truly capable of learning effectively long term? In short, what is the Torah approach to a husband working and supporting his wife and family?

* * * * *

When reading the following, please keep in mind that Rav Dr. Joseph Breuer, zt”l, headed the Yeshiva Gedolah in Frankfurt from 1926 until November 8, 1938, when the Nazis forced him to close the yeshiva. In February 1939 Rav Breuer was invited to head the minyan that eventually grew under his leadership into K’hal Adath Jeshurun in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

He was both a rosh yeshiva and a rav. This gave him the unique perspective and balance that are reflected in his essay “Vocation and Calling,” which originally appeared in German in the December 1964/January 1965 of Mitteilungen (the bulletin of K’hal Adath Jeshurun) and was republished in English in AUnique Perspective – Essays of Rav Breuer(Feldheim).

Rav Breuer begins by pointing out that one of the major challenges facing parents is to properly guide their sons in the choice of a vocation. (He is primarily concerned with young males since it is they who will ultimately bear the major responsibility for supporting a family.)

“The success and happiness of their children are vitally dependent on the right choice of a profession, which, obviously, should be compatible with their children’s inclinations and talents.”

A wrong choice can lead to a life of “acute dissatisfaction or, worse, utter emptiness.”

He is in favor of mesivta graduates who have studied Talmud with satisfactory results continuing “their studies for at least one or two years in the Bais Hamedrash in order to achieve more proficiency in ‘learning,’ even while preparing for a professional career [emphasis added]. If it is contemplated to continue one’s Torah studies at another yeshiva, only an institution may be recommended that follows the same ideological path prescribed by our yeshiva and mesivta for our students.”

Rav Breuer then deals with the issue of a young man learning for many years. He writes:

This, incidentally, brings to mind the oft-repeated question whether it should not be welcomed if bachurim express the desire to “remain in learning.” “Remain”? Should not everyone “remain in learning”? Evidently what is meant is the exclusive occupation with Torah study. If this involves the student’s full-time occupation with “learning” for a period of several years before embarking upon a professional career, such a decision should only be welcomed.

We would have serious misgivings, however, if the decision of exclusive “learning” would exclude any thought of a practical preparation for the demands of life. Every profession requires training. This may not be possible at a more advanced age. (The chance of entering the firm of one’s future father-in-law where further training is possible is not normally given to the average student.) On the other hand, few possess the ability to become a Rosh Yeshiva. To be able to “learn” does not at all mean that one is able to teach.

However, learning for many years is not for everyone, as Rav Breuer points out very clearly.

In this connotation, the following word of wisdom comes to mind, albeit in a loftier, more far-reaching interpretation: “Thousands occupy themselves with the Written Teaching, but mere hundreds emerge who actually possess it; tens occupy themselves with the Talmud, but only one actually masters it ­ and thus muses Koheles: “One man I found among thousands” (Midrash Rabbah Koheles 7).

In every case, the responsible officials of our Torah institutions should carefully determine, after a given period of time, whether the individual student possesses the qualifications to justify the choice of Torah study as an occupation, or whether it would not be necessary to suggest to him to concern himself with his professional training (while, of course, continuing to be Koveah itim l’Torah). In many of the latter cases the school officials would do well not to rely on the self-judgment of the individual student.

Is it conceivable that the high praise that Tehillim (128) reserves for the head of the family who labors and cares for his wife and children would be directed only to the “less gifted” among our people? “Happy is he who fears God, who walks in God’s ways.”­ True fear of God presupposes limud Torah in the firm desire to apply all Torah knowledge to a life devoted to the service of God….

He then goes on to make a point that many today seem to ignore:

Torah study that is unconnected with practical work ultimately ceases to exist and results in transgression” [emphasis added]. This means: He who fails to pursue his Parnasah while studying the Torah is in danger of encountering economic difficulties that may not only force him to abandon his Torah studies but even, because of the lack of proper professional training, may cause him, in the quest for Parnasah, to violate the great precepts of straightness and honesty that must distinguish the bearers of Torah, if their lives are to serve as Kiddush Hashem rather than belie the validity of God’s Torah (see Orach Chayim 156).

We most certainly need “Torah Greats” who dedicate their entire lives to Torah and who become a blessing for our people. Their livelihood requires – and justifies –organized support. Alas, these were always, and are today, the precious few. Among hundreds ­ perhaps one….

However, the Mishnah Berurah comments (ibid.): “Not everyone will attain the lofty level where Torah study is the sole occupation; individuals may always qualify for this goal, especially if supporters come forward ready to guarantee their livelihood.”

This was always the case in the history of our people. It was customary for a wealthy man to turn to the spiritual leaders of the Yeshivos, requesting the selection of the most outstanding disciple as a future son-in-law of whom it could be expected that he would become a “great one in Israel.” Frequently, he was promised full support of his family for a period of seven years to enable him to “learn” without the burden of economic worries. This was often the way that produced the “great of our people.” Just as often, it was the women of our people who sacrificed everything to help their husbands to attain such greatness. Those, according to the Mishnah Berurah, were and remain but y’chidim, the few….

For the average person (and we stress: not only for the less gifted) there existed and continues to exist the lofty obligation laid down in the kesuvah of his wife, which the husband takes upon himself at the time of his marriage: “Be my wife in accordance with the law of Moshe and Yisrael; I shall work, honor, sustain and support you, as Jewish men are obligated to work and to honor, sustain and support their wives in truth….”

We need the greats of Torah. But we also need men, solid bnei Torah, who prove themselves as conscientious Yehudim in every type of profession, thus striving towards the lofty goal envisioned by the faithful of our people: to serve with their lives, before all the world, the sanctification of the Divine Will – Kiddush Hashem.

Isn’t it time for the Orthodox world to follow the realistic and wise approach outlined above by Rav Breuer and begin implementing it? To not do this may well lead to a disastrous financial collapse here in America as it has in Eretz Yisrael. This was not the situation in Europe where almost all men worked to support their families. This had been the Jewish derech for centuries. Why have we strayed from it?

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Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He then taught as an adjunct at Stevens until 2014. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

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