I, Too, Have Come to my Senses: It is Time to Rethink the Haredi Role in Israeli Society

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Dr. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar proposes a model that resembles the secular educational system of colleges and universities to identify the most gifted torah scholars, who would receive a generous stipend. Others must rethink their role as part of Israeli society.

Ponevetz yeshiva student.Photo by: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

We were sitting in a research group on ultra-Orthodox society in Israel. One of the participants presented his study of the Lithuanian Yeshivot, including data on each of them. One of the slides was a table depicting the number of students in each institution. The total was a few hundred. I waited patiently for him to advance to the next slide with the rest of the table. Instead he moved on to a different topic. I raised my hand and asked him to go back to the table. “I see only a few hundred students here. Where’s the table with the rest of the yeshivot?” There hadn’t been any other yeshivot, he replied; there were a handful of men learning Talmud in batei midrash in local communities, but no reliable statistics are available about how many. “That can’t be,” I replied. “Where are the tens of thousands? Where is the world of Torah that was destroyed in the Holocaust?” All the historians in the room burst out laughing. One of them turned to me: “Rivka, you've been reading too many ultra-Orthodox newspapers.”

The people around the conference table explained that these are the true numbers. There were only a few hundred Torah scholars in that time and place, and most of them were young and still bachelors. Only a few married men continued their studies, supported by a wealthy father-in-law for a certain number of years. When I repeated this to an ultra-Orthodox relative, she was shocked. “That’s the nonsense that they’re selling you today in the universities. But we know the truth! There were tens of thousands of Torah scholars who were incinerated in the Holocaust. We have to rebuild the Torah world that was destroyed.”

I keep thinking about this anecdote as part of the process of coming to my senses that I am experiencing now. Prior to October 7, I always spoke out and wrote that we should exempt the ultra-Orthodox from serving in the IDF, but should also require their schools to teach the core curriculum. I argued that the main thing is for them to join the labor market and not be dependent on government payments. I was also afraid that, in the long term, a large percentage of Israelis would grow old without savings for retirement. Now, my thoughts are completely different.

My focus today is not on the question of Haredi conscription, though as Israel grapples with a new social contract between the state and its citizens, this arrangement, too, must be reconsidered. My focus is on education. The current situation, in which more men are fulltime Torah students than ever in Israeli history, at a time when Israel needs more soldiers and more workers, is intolerable.

I propose a model that resembles another educational system—colleges and universities. The overwhelming majority of their students and their families pay their own way, a few receive partial scholarships, and a tiny fraction receive generous stipends that permit them to invest all their efforts in their studies.

The mechanism I propose would employ tests and interviews to identify the true elite of the most gifted Torah scholars. The numbers can be negotiated (a thousand outstanding scholars? Two thousand?). They would receive a generous stipend that makes it possible for them to study Torah and support their family. Many Israelis deem it important that there be Torah scholars. I assume that society would agree to support them, just as it supports students in other fields.

Beyond that, the state would not provide any funding at to the yeshivot themselves or to the young ultra-Orthodox men, just as it doesn’t support other young adults. Today the state incentivizes even mediocre students to stay in yeshiva, with discounts on their municipal property tax, daycare center tuition, and other services and of course military exemption. Instead, the state would provide incentives of another sort—generous funding of the core curriculum, supplementary courses, and vocational training, along with support for those who wish to complete their education and join the labor market.

To members of the Haredi community who say it is unfair to end funding and incentives to Yeshivot and their students, I say this: it certainly isn’t fair to fight, be wounded, or die for the country—and we do. Nor is it fair to be called up for weeks of reserve duty every year. It certainly isn’t fair to have to devote three years to mandatory IDF service. Large sectors of society contribute, and do not receive. Now, we must ask other sectors to stop receiving, at the very least, even if they still don’t contribute. The division of resources simply has to change in order to create a state that treats everyone fairly and integrates all sectors of society. This is not a call to take anything from the Haredim: but there is a vast difference between “taking” and “no longer giving.” The state would not impose a new tax, but it would alter its priorities as part of the new arrangement we must implement after the war.

Many Haredim I know will be furious with what I have written; but then they will confess in confidence that they are being crushed by the burden of their community and economic obligations and debts. The scale of poverty in the Haredi sector is unimaginable. Given the norms of large families and buying an apartment for newlyweds, ultra-Orthodox society will collapse economically unless there is a major change.

Torah study is very precious to me. I spent my childhood in various yeshivot, peering out from the women’s gallery at the men who were praying and studying. When I was a little girl I used to fall asleep to the sound of my father and his study partner learning Talmud. It is precisely because Torah study is so dear to me that I want to preserve it in a logical and sustainable model.


This article was published in Haaretz.