Sunday, June 22, 2008

Taking What They Giving 'Cause I'm Learning for a Living

In my 'hood and in my Jewish social network lately, there have been a lot of young 'uns getting married. This is not a totally new phenomenon; it was not unusual for Jewish teens to marry in the old countries. It was a way to keep them out of the czar's army and such.

Here however, I'm profoundly disturbed by the circumstances. To be specific, I'm dumbfounded by how these young couples are making a living. When I get stupid enough to ask what the chatan (groom) will be doing, the answer I increasingly get is "oh, he's learning."

Learning, in this context, is usually shorthand for: he will be using this time to study Torah, Talmud and related Judaic texts. And also shorthand for: he won't be working or supporting himself or his family anytime soon.

As a Jewish educator, I am rather astounded that one could "learn" for a living. Back in the day, we considered learning (of Jewish texts or of anything) to be something we did throughout life. As a matter of fact, it is safe to say that any study of Torah that is not accompanied by a person working will lead to sin [OK, I didn't originate that idea, it was Rabban Gamliel in Mishnah Avot 2:2].

By the way, it was only reluctantly that rabbis permitted the idea of one being paid to teach Torah or to serve as paid rabbis. The idea of being paid just to study Torah was probably so unthinkable that the Sages never even bothered to address the possibility.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to people immersing themselves in Torah study for a part or even all of their lives. But, as the Mishnah stated, some real "work" ought to be attached to it. For example, there are places in which young men and/or women do not enter the full time work force but are engaged in full time Torah study and related work: in the U.S., the "community Kollel," in which men study but also teach the community is one such example. In Israel the hesder yeshiva is a place in which young people combine their Torah study with army service. These are but two examples of many in which some valuable work is being combined in important ways with immersion in Jewish study.

But the idea of being supported for indeterminate lengths of time by family. or even worse, by community tzedaka, is unacceptable. One should make his Shabbat into a weekday before he has to rely on others. [OK, I didn't make that one up either. It was Rabbi Akiba, quoted in Talmud Shabbat 118].

This isn't simply an individual issue. There are ramifications for what tomorrow's Jewish community may look like economically that flow from this issue. But that's for another blog entry.