Our label-driven community, in which everyone must be neatly pegged and categorized within seconds of meeting them, tells us that there are two types of “boys”: those who would be Learners, and those who would be Learner-Earners. The former refers to those who presumably devote their entire waking existence to learning Torah, and by necessity are supported by others. The latter refers to those who support themselves, but make learning Torah a fixed part of their daily schedule.
My distaste for labels is oft expressed, but I particularly loathe these labels and what they signify. For starters, it is difficult to find merit in the notion that a young man who has accomplished little and contributed virtually nothing to the community, prodigy though he may be, should presume entitlement to an all-expense-paid journey through this world. Shouldn’t one have to earn the right to not be an Earner, and shouldn’t that require more than the declaration that one intends to be a Learner?
I further take exception to the notion that anyone should refrain from doing his utmost to support himself and his family without resorting to charity. I realize that this is a radical suggestion in a generation that lauds impoverishment by choice and idealizes neglect of the most basic requirements of the kesuba, all for the sake of greater Torah study. Nevertheless, we should all be Learners, and we should all be Earners, and the two traits enjoy a harmonious co-existence even — especially — in the best and brightest among us. The God Who created this world surely put enough time in the day for us to support ourselves without foregoing the opportunity to become Torah scholars of the highest caliber — and take a vacation now and then, too.
The mere existence of a Learner-Only category insidiously implies that those who earn a living as well are either not as serious about learning, not “cut out” to learn “full-time”, or unwilling to “sacrifice” enough to be true Learners. Why else would anyone choose to attach anything to an otherwise pure and perfect Learner label? The existence and usage of these labels alone — without any commentary or explanation — implicitly denigrates those who work for a living as being either lesser learners or lesser Jews. Indeed, our social culture is rife with such snootiness by the Non-Earners that fully committed Jews who give to others and are a burden to no one have had the self-esteem beaten right out of them.
A succession of recent letters to several different columns in the Jewish Press illustrates this in stark fashion. Young men have written in complaining that they have a difficult time getting dates because the young women in their circles (or those of their shadchanim) would not even consider someone who works and earns money. Such a man is simply beneath them. These young men apologetically explain that they have devoted themselves to Torah study full-time in the past and still learn regularly, but feel a responsibility to be able to buy things, pay their bills, etc. They decry the fact that they are thought of as lesser people for this and wish to be given a chance.
Several young women have written in that they are actually looking for men who are this unique blend of wage-earners and Torah-learners, as such people seem to be an endangered species (has Yeshiva University closed without anyone telling me?). One young woman lamented the emotional abuse she suffered throughout her Bais Yaacov and seminary years by teachers, administrators, and peers over the fact that her parents worked for a living. Not once was she taught that working was acceptable, while her teachers were uniformly negative toward the idea of anyone working and learning. She learned to keep her feelings to herself.
However, her stated main purpose in writing the letter was to inform the working young men out there that women who favor the idea of a husband earning a living do exist, and “there is nothing wrong with us...[w]e are good girls...[w]e are frum girls”.
What pitiful defiance.
Another young woman noted that the same administrators who subjected her and other daughters of working parents to “hurt” and “trauma” have no problem approaching these same parents for fundraising purposes.
One father wrote in with an interesting point. Everyone takes for granted that young couples are supposed to get a free ride from parents and in-laws for the sake of their Torah learning. But what about his own Torah learning? Why is it unacceptable for young men to work, but it is perfectly acceptable for him to work for the rest of his life to support his children indefinitely — at the expense of his own learning, no less?
That question hangs in the air with no answer.
Naturally, not one letter was signed, since signing a letter demonstrates minimal self-esteem and conviction in one’s ideas.
What bothers me most is not that much of our community has bought into a bizarre, unsustainable way of life and crowned it with the mantle of God’s Torah. That has happened many times before, since studying Torah, living a moral life, taking care of oneself, and contributing to the world with one’s talents and knowledge seems to be far too boring a formula to sell to everyone. We need extremism in one form or another to make things more interesting.
What bothers me most is the way our working people and their children have been reduced to plaintively seeking acceptance as good kosher Jews. Surrendered is the notion that working for a living is actually more praiseworthy and desirable than being supported by others. Surrendered as well is the notion that working for a living is even “just as good”. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that learning full time is “ideal”, and those who work are simply not as good. At best they can seek penance and unburden their guilt by supporting those who are true learners. But equality? Never. Admiration? Forget about it.
To the working parents who are reading this I say, be proud! God thinks the world of all that you do to serve Him, and supporting yourself and your children is a key part of that service. He expects nothing less.
To the children of working parents I have one simple request. Go to your parents, give them a hug, and tell them you are immensely grateful for all they have done to provide for you. Then promise them that you will work just as hard to do the same for your children.
I have no doubt that your parents will not be disappointed, nor will they accuse you of not being “cut out” for a life of Torah. They will be proud of you. They will also be relieved to learn that you will take care of yourself and your children — so they don’t have to.