Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Welfare Kings

There is no precedent in Jewish history for a whole community devoting itself to Torah scholarship.

In Israel, where modernity coexists uneasily with tradition, hand-wringing about the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority is a national pastime. Cloistered in poor towns and neighborhoods, exempted from conscription into the military and surviving largely off government handouts, the black-hatted ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, have long vexed more secular Israelis. Now, in the wake of an Israeli Supreme Court decision, this perennial tension has escalated to new heights.

The immediate issue is a decades-old state policy of providing stipends to students who attend religious schools, called yeshivas. In June, the court declared those stipends illegal, citing discrimination against secular university students who don’t qualify for such assistance. Last month, however, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers introduced a bill to reinstate the stipend. “The state sees a great importance in encouraging Torah study,” says their proposal.

Opposition to the bill is fierce, as many Israelis believe that decades of welfare and draft exemptions have created a cycle of poverty and dependence among Haredim. “If they want to live in a ghetto, fine, but why should the state pay for it?” Yossi Sarid, a former education minister, told the Associated Press. The controversy has triggered street protests across Israel, and threatens to topple the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This year the Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Social Policy Studies released a report showing that unemployment among ultra-Orthodox men age 35-54 is 65% and has tripled over the past three decades. Voluntary unemployment has become the dominant lifestyle choice for Haredi men. And even if there was a desire to work, Haredi schools leave students unprepared to function in a modern economy. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox population is expected to double by 2022, to over one million.

While explaining the data to me recently, Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center asked, “When did Judaism become about not working?” The answer is a case study in unintended consequences.

Ultra-Orthodox men attend a Purim celebration in Jerusalem.

The story begins shortly after Israel’s founding in 1948, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion excused 400 yeshiva students from serving in the army—thereby establishing a framework for relations between the state and the ultra-Orthodox. Although secular himself, Ben-Gurion was sensitive to the desire to revive Torah learning after the Holocaust destroyed the centers of Jewish scholarship in Eastern Europe. He also thought that, over the long term, most Israelis would become secular socialists like him.

That has proven mistaken, and today tens of thousands of yeshiva students qualify for draft exemptions. The law bars them from working, so an increasing number depend on public support. It’s socially and financially unsustainable, says Hebrew University Prof. Shlomo Naeh. “We are trapped in a disaster.”

At the root of the disaster is the revolutionary idea that the study of Torah is a vocation. There is no precedent in pre-1948 Jewish history for an entire community devoting itself to Torah scholarship—and certainly no precedent for getting paid to do so.

“Torah study has always been for spiritual, not material, sustenance,” Zvi Zohar, a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, tells me. Moreover, the notion that a man’s primary obligation is studying, and not providing for his family, is “diametrically opposed” to Jewish tradition, Mr. Zohar says. The Shulchan Aruch, for instance, an influential 16th-century legal code written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, states: “A respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man.”

State-supported Torah study has also harmed the quality of Jewish thought, argues Mr. Naeh. Ultra-Orthodox self-segregation has cut “learning off from life,” he wrote in a recent essay. As a result, the current generation of Torah scholars “is far from being one of the greatest . . . despite the existence of tens of thousands of learners.”

Solutions to the current impasse are in short supply, not least because the religious parties oppose any meaningful reforms and wield inordinate power in Israel’s parliamentary system. Asked what’s at stake if nothing changes, Mr. Ben-David doesn’t mince words: “We can survive against our neighbors, but this issue is existential. The ultra-Orthodox will soon be a huge minority, possibly a majority, and then what? Where will we find doctors, engineers, physicists and soldiers?” he says, his voice rising. “Who will defend this country?”

Mr. Goldstein is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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