'Holy loafers'

JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review / Oct. 21, 1999 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

'Holy loafers'

By Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN THE LATEST ISSUE of the Jerusalem Report magazine, Ze'ev Chafets wrote an article entitled "The Talmud Market." The article is an attack on the Talmud and the study of Talmud as it is practiced in yeshivas here in Israel and throughout the world. Chafets himself reveals his direction when he writes "I ask a simple question about the Talmud: What's it good for?"

His proof of the uselessness of Talmudic study is purely economic. He writes, "The marketplace is a hard master, it rarely affords a living wage to someone for pursuing a hobby or interest that is of no general use... They [the students of the Talmud] are, as a result [of studying Talmud exclusively], unable to build a bridge, pull a tooth, unstop a drain or grow a tomato. They are fit for nothing but teaching the Talmud to others. Unhappily there is no market for such people." He therefore lumps most of the students of the Talmud into a nasty sounding group of "tens of thousands of holy loafers."

Now Chafets is certainly entitled to his opinions. His vitriolic comments about traditional Jewish life and its beliefs and practices are well-known to those who read his column. However, one would have hoped that he would at least have something new to say about the subject. Instead he is merely repeating the statements made to the rabbis of the Talmud themselves many long centuries ago.


"Of what good are your yeshiva students?" was the question hurled at the heads of the yeshivas in Babylonia in the fourth century. Those students could also not build a bridge, pull a tooth, unstop a drain or grow a tomato. But the rabbis of the Talmud, whose words are still studied and admired today by millions of Jews, stated that "the study of Torah is above all else in Jewish life." And it was and is the study of Torah above all else that has preserved the Jewish people until today. The impractical, non-economically-rewarding, other-worldly study of Torah was the main force that has kept the Jewish people alive, vibrant, creative and stubborn to the core until today.

For the Jewish people itself is basically an impractical entity. And the State of Israel, even today fifty-one years after its founding, is still not a rational or even militaristically or economically justifiable venture. But, since it is Jewish, it need not somehow conform to the rules of the marketplace or the acceptance and blessing of the European Union in order to thrive and survive.

It is the very fact that there are tens of thousands of young men, all of whom could have an easier and more comfortable life if they abandoned the yeshivas (even including army service in the equation), that should cause others to wonder why this phenomenon of intensive and devoted Talmud study continues to persist in our modern society. We should stand back and view the sight of the rebirth and growth of Torah study in our post-Holocaust generations with wonder and echo the words of Moses at the sight of the burning bush - "and, lo, the bush is not consumed!" Torah, the Talmud, its students and adherents are major assets of the Jewish people. They form the link to our past and point us towards our destiny. Without them, we have no claim to this land, to our uniqueness as a people, to our values and system of morals.

While much of the modern world, including many, many Jews, search for meaning and direction in their lives, a meaning and direction over and above what the marketplace dictates, the vast majority of the students of Torah and Talmud have a serenity and stability in life that should be an object of envy and not of spiteful ridicule. But prejudices and shortsightedness are omnipresent in all generations. So I imagine that I should not be surprised by Chafets' repetition of the old worn-out question "What's it good for?" Well, it has been good for Jewish survival for millennia - that is essentially what it is good for. To call full-time students of the Talmud "holy loafers" is not just bad manners and insulting condescension. It is a complete misunderstanding and lack of appreciation of all of Jewish history and Jewish life.

Every educational system and institution is imperfect. There are always misfits, foul-ups and incompetents present in every student body, faculty and educational administration. The schools of Torah are in no way immune from problems and shortcomings. But then neither are the universities or professional schools of this or any other country. It should be the goal of all of our society to attempt to improve the efficiency and performance of all of our schools and students. This includes the improvement of the situation of all schools including the yeshivas and their students in a financial, educational, vocational and national sense.

There is nothing to be gained from a one-sided, bitter condemnation of the Talmud and its students. A large section of even the secular Jewish public senses that there is a hidden, inexplicable and valuable national treasure - the Talmud and its devoted students - that should not be destroyed. It may be very true that many (certainly not all) of the Talmud students are "unable to build a bridge, pull a tooth, unstop a drain or grow a tomato." But not to worry, they will all be able to be columnists.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He resides in Jerusalem. You may contact Rabbi Wein by by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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©1999, Rabbi Berel Wein