When having your nose in a book is a problem

(Image is from here.)

The NY Times today published a story on an ongoing controversy in Israel. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are being subsidized by the state to spend all their working hours poring over the Torah. More than 60% of such Jews are pampered in this fashion, while only 15% of the general population does not work for a living, for other reasons (I say “only”, but this is obviously quite high).

Chaim Amsellem, a member of Parliament, and himself an ultra-Orthodox Jew, suggested that only those Jews intent on becoming rabbis or religious judges should be paid by the State for full-time study of the Torah. For this very reasonable recommendation, he was angrily ousted from his party in a manner that prompted him to obtain bodyguards.

I cannot help but wonder what exactly the Torah is teaching these men. Clearly it is not teaching them humility or responsibility, let alone even higher ideals like helping the poor and the hungry. Instead, it seems to be reinforcing the sense of privilege they seem to feel their society owes them for their pains.

The joke, of course, is on the state for starting such a program in the first place. There will always be people ready to take advantage of state largess, especially when it requires no tangible goods in return. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are simply being smart (albeit unscrupulous) by jumping on the gravy train.

Luckily, it seems that the Israeli government is beginning to come to grips with the scope of the problem (orthodoxy is rapidly growing), and is starting to prod at it with a number of programs that encourage work among the ultra-Orthodox.  If it wishes to maintain its economically competitive edge, Israel will have to stop throwing money down this particular black hole.


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