I agree with the Haredi point of view. I think that Torah study is an extremely important value and Israel as a Jewish state ought to promote it. And yes, Torah study ought to free young men from military service and the government should even subsidize their livelihood.
My problem is not the Haredi ideology. My problem is that the Haredim do not take it seriously enough. My tax shekels enable young scholars to learn Torah. I pay them willingly, but they are not learning—not seriously, not systematically, not the way it should be in exchange for public funds. I am peeved because I am not getting the proper return on my investment.
Walk into any major yeshiva, such as the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which purportedly has 4,000 students. There is a complete lack of organization and supervision. Students come and go as they please. Sometimes they come in for an hour or two and sometimes not at all.
Walk into any Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak or even Beit Shemesh, and what you see is young men who theoretically should be in the Beit Midrash going to and fro, some taking care of their children, others doing business deals or working surreptitiously.
Some estimates put the rate of actual engagement in Torah study as low as 50% of the population for whom “Torah study is their calling.”
Like any other activity, one can divide Torah study into input and output. The input—young men actually studying—is highly problematic, and so is the output. We have almost no idea what Haredi Torah students actually know after years and years of supposed devotion to study.
Undoubtedly, there are outstanding, talented students who have a great command of the Torah tradition, but the average achievement is unknown. It is unknown because no one has implemented methods or instruments of evaluation.
Haredim say they value Torah study and Torah knowledge above everything else, but they don’t act like it. The yeshiva system doesn’t seem to care whether anybody knows anything or not.
The universities, in contrast, care about whether their students know math, English or science. Talk to any student studying infi (calculus) at an Israeli university and he or she will tell you how tough and tricky the tests are, how much time and effort—many are up past 2 am solving problems—is needed just to pass, much less get a good grade. The universities really value math and science. The Haredim just say they value Torah.
This is reflected is another aspect of output: product. The yeshivot and kollels don’t seem to be able to produce any new works in Talmud or halacha that are innovative and of genuine interest. The last such works—the commentaries of the Hazon Ish, the Kehillat Yaakov by Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky or Yabia Omer by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef—were written 50 or 60 years ago. One would imagine that with so many scholars devoting so many hours to Talmud study and research that the output would be greater.
The parties forming the new government have announced that they intend to double the stipend given to kollel students. I suggest that this is an opportunity to make the Torah study these stipends support into a much more serious and effective undertaking.
First, these funds should be distributed on an hourly rather than a monthly basis. Students should receive additional funds on the basis of how many hours they actually spend in the Beit Midrash. Like government workers, they should punch a clock.
Stipends should also be contingent upon actual scholarly achievement as measured by tests and term papers. Achieving a passing grade in these activities, in addition to Beit Midrash attendance, should qualify students for an enhanced stipend and the ability to extend their state-supported years of study.
Students who spend the maximum number of years of study and submit serious research papers should be given respectable teaching and research positions. Those students who do not meet the ever-increasing standards should be encouraged to join national service (or military) programs.
The current Haredi system does not really honor the Torah. As it is currently structured, it seems to be more of a racket for milking funds out of government budgets than advancing Torah study and knowledge. If greater supervision and achievement metrics were imposed, it would restore the Torah and its study to what the prophet Isaiah called the “great and glorious.”
Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).