Torah and Livelihood

Ki Tavo By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Sep 20, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary | Israel

Among the cascade of curses that pour forth in Parashat Ki Tavo, one in particular grabs my attention this year, not because of the vividness of its brutality (others surpass it), but because of its later application in a talmudic dispute. Our reading of a text is often a function of what we have on our mind. I refer to a fairly generic articulation of the fate of national subjugation: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve – in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything – the enemies whom the Lord will let loose against you… (Deuteronomy 28:47–48). The phrase “ve–avadeta et oyvekha – you shall have to serve your enemies” is the link to a discussion in the Talmud about the issue of just how much of our lives are we expected to devote to the study of Torah.

It is a fascinating dispute because it pits the Talmud’s supreme rationalist, Rabbi Yishmael, against its quintessential mystic, Rabbi Simon ben Yohai, who much later was held to be the author of the Zohar. The point of departure is a clash between two contradictory verses of Scripture. In Deuteronomy (11:14 – the second paragraph of the Shema) we are told: “You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil,” while in Joshua, God instructs Moses’s unsure successor: “Let not this Book of Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night (Joshua 1:8).” In other words, how is a religious culture predicated on learning to reconcile the demands of daily life with the ideal of total dedication to the study of Torah?

Soberly and succinctly Rabbi Yishmael declares: “Couple the study of Torah with work.” Whereupon, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai erupts with the impatience of the romantic: “If one were indeed to plow, sow, harvest, thresh and winnow at the appropriate times, what would happen to the study of Torah? Rather, when Israel complies with God’s will, their work is performed by others, as it is written: ‘Strangers shall stand and pasture your flocks, aliens shall be your plowmen and vine–trimmers (Isaiah 61:5).’ Conversely, when Israel fails to comply with God’s will, they will be obliged to do their own work, as it is written: ‘You shall [have to] gather in your new grain… (Deuteronomy 11:14).’ And as if that were not enough, Israel will even be forced to do the work of others, as it is written (in our parasha): ‘You shall have to serve your enemies (Deuteronomy 28:48).'”

At first glance, Rabbi Shimon seems to have overwhelmed his circumspect adversary with conviction and passion and eloquence. Absolute faith and not prudential reason is to resolve the tension between attending to the burdens of the real world and the transcendence that comes with total immersion in a life of Torah. God will surely protect and sustain a nation wholly absorbed by its divine mission.

But remarkably the editors of the Talmud do not give the nod to the uncompromising temperament of the mystic. They chose to conclude the exchange between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Simon with the views of two later renowned Babylonian teachers who incontrovertibly reject an all–or–nothing approach. “Abaye attests that many [scholars] who heeded the counsel of Rabbi Yishmael succeeded, while those that tried to live by the words of Rabbi Shimon failed. Moreover, Raba said to his students: ‘I beseech you not to appear before me in the [harvest] months of Nisan and Tishre so that you will not be troubled by lack of food the rest of the year.'” Thus, despite the priority of Torah study in the scale of talmudic values, there is no predilection to denigrate the dignity of human labor. Students of Torah are not urged to lead a monastic life nor exempted from the duty of providing for their families. Zeal is to be balanced by responsibility.

But in contemporary Judaism moderation has been tossed to the winds. Ultra–orthodoxy in Israel has utterly repudiated the normative view of Rabbi Yishmael. The discarded extremism of Rabbi Shimon prevails with a vengeance. Some 200,000 young men from high school age on up are currently dedicated to the proposition that their only task in life is to study Torah. No need to prepare for a livelihood, no duty to defend their homeland. I cannot stress vigorously enough that this constricted and dependent conception of Jewish piety is a radical departure from traditional Judaism.

Rarely have good intentions gone so awry. The key to this massive corruption of Judaism is the longstanding agreement by the Israeli government to exempt any student of Torah from military service as long as he studies full–time in a yeshiva. In addition, the government will support that student and his expanding family [in the year 2002 every tenth child in Israel will come from the family of a yeshiva student] till age 49, when the duty of military service lapses. And since that funding never flows directly to the student, but rather through the conduit of his yeshiva or its political party, the government has created a burgeoning population bereft of all political and economic independence. In the past eleven years the number of yeshiva students has increased by 322%.

The direct consequence of this misguided policy is an unprecedented degree of poverty among the ultra–orthodox. B’nai Brak, a town outside of Tel Aviv whose population is almost entirely ultra–orthodox, is one of the poorest cities in Israel. No less disturbing, a declining percentage of wage earners must carry an ever larger, artificially inflated welfare population. In 1993, only 85.7% of Israeli men between the ages of 25–54 were working, the lowest rate among a list of nine western, industrialized countries.

In sum, the Jewish state has unwittingly given rise to a religious monstrosity. The seeds for an ideology of “Torah only” may have been sown in eastern Europe, but harsh economic reality prevented it from ever becoming a way of life for more than a few of the most gifted and fortunate. But in the “fertile” soil of Israel, without the application of any standards of excellence or government oversight, the seeds have proliferated wildly, endangering all other expressions of Judaism. How sad is the irony that Zionism has produced not only a new Jew, its original goal, but also a travesty of the old.

The fine line between a life–long study of Torah and nothing but the study of Torah is in fact a gulf separating normative Judaism from its counterfeit. As Rabban Gamliel, the son of the patriarch Rabbi Yehuda Ha–Nasi once taught: “The study of Torah is commendable when combined with a gainful occupation, for when a person toils in both, sin is driven out of mind.”

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee 
and Harold (z”l)