Monday, October 6, 2008

G-d's Pyramid Scheme

I am following with interest the championship tag-team match that is taking place on Reb Daniel Eidensohn's blog - Daas Torah - between the "defender" LazerA in the black and white trunks in the right corner, and the "challenger" Bartley Kulp and his team in the green and gold trunks in the left corner.


This one is going to go all 15 rounds.



To briefly call the stakes, the defender, LazerA, is standing up for the current Kollel system and the challenger is trying to defeat it with a knockout. My prediction is that no matter what the challenger comes at him with, the defender will still be standing after the 15 rounds.


Let's rehash some of the highlights of the match:


  • On Sept. 29th, Rabbi Eidensohn needed to fill some space on his Blog and so he posted the battleworn words of the Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10. Apparently, he wanted to start off the new year with a display of fireworks. Not surprisingly, this re-ignited the usual Blog-brawls with Garnel Ironheart, Bartley Kulp, and Earner extolling the Rambam as an indictment to the Kollel system. LazerA was the lone bulvahn who took on the entire tag-team.
  • I think he did a great job (evidently FKM thought so too) and Rabbi Eidensohn was so impressed that he made LazerA's protracted response the official Daas Torah space filler of October 2nd. Ironheart seemed to have bowed out but Earner stood in for the tag team. Earner is from the school of thought that the idea of Kollel is some modern newfangled invention and did not exist in prehistoric (beyond 150 years ago) times. (I thought they were the "modern" Orthodox!)
  • Subsequently, on October 5, Daas Torah posted a seemingly previously unpublished response from Bartley Kulp (was it submitted by email?) which invoked further responses from LazerA and some choice comments from new tag-team members.
It is too tedious and risky to synopsize the proceedings so I will direct interested parties to the relevant postings. As a cursory assessment, it seems to me that Earner is challenging the Kollel system on its fundamental validity as an institution and Mr. Kulp is challenging it in terms of its financial viability. LazerA handles all of these challenges rather adeptly in my purely objective, unbiased opinion. I truly admire, and perhaps envy, his acumen.

After all is said and done, one paragraph in LazerA's initial response truly summarizes the entire debate:

Again, it seems to me that the bulk of these criticisms are rooted less in actual practical issues but in basic differences in ideology. For those who truly believe that limud haTorah, in of itself, is the key to all of klall Yisrael's success materially and
spiritually, these arguments are, for the most part, non-sequiturs. Perhaps the most dissonant idea is the apparent underlying assumption that we already have "enough" talmidei chachamim. I'm not sure if that is even possible, but, even if it is, I certainly don't think that we are anywhere near that point yet.

These words are a clear echo of the entire concept of One Above and Seven Below as is spelled out in my treatise. (See, for example, the definitions on pages 57 and 60 in the book preview).
As LazerA says, it boils down to "those who truly believe that limud haTorah, in of itself, is the key to all of klall Yisrael's success materially and spiritually" vs. those who don't. And, as in more general fields of belief, the trite adage applies: For the believer there are no questions and for the non-believer there are no answers.

Now, anybody who is still reading this post and made it to this point may notice that, thus far, aside from referencing the debate and placing my own bets, I have not really contributed anything of substance. But, so as not to disappoint my fans (and G.) and being ever the loquacious fool that I am, here I come.

In regard to the initial springboard, the passage from Rambam:

Kollel stipends are not tzedaka. It is money willingly invested into a system by people who want to support Talmud Torah and the money is systematically distributed to those who study Torah as compensation for the time they invest in doing their job. The kollel world sees the Torah studied as a valuable commodity that is being produced even without tangible by-products. Many Jews refuse to view the study itself as a worthy commodity unless they actually see the kollel fellow "giving back" in some tangible and immediate way - such as the emergence of "kli kodesh" (Rabanim, mechanchim, poskim, mashgichim, etc.). These Jews are generally not those that invest (at all or significantly) into the system. Those that do invest see the "production" of Torah L'Shma as a commodity unto itself that benefits them even without direct tangible returns.

Moreover, we view the entitlement of ameilei b'Torah to communal funds as akin to the entitlement of the Kohanim and Leviim to the trumos and maaseros as compensation for their service to the Klal - cheleph avodaschem - which procludes them from a personal career. This is clearly alluded to in Midrash Tanchuma (Devarim Re'eh 18):

עשר תעשר . עשר, בשביל שתתעשר. עשר, כדי שלא תתחסר. רמז למפרשי ימים, להפריש אחד מן עשרה לעמלי תורה.

Tithe you shall tithe: Tithe so that you should become wealthy. Tithe so that you should not lose capital. This is a hint to those who go overseas (on business trips) to set aside one tenth for ameilei b'Torah.


Note that this Midrash singles out the ameilei Torah even though the pasuk is really talking about maaser rishon (for the Leviim). As such, Rambam himself (yes the same Rambam who wrote Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10) equates any person who dedicates himself to the service of Hashem to the bnei Levy (Hilchos Shmitta V'Yovelos 13:13).
The resulting rule of thumb is:

Those that kvetch do not support and those that support do not kvetch.

In my view, it is elementary that the Rambam is not talking about kollel stipends. He is talking about people who need to go begging door to door or to take money from standard tzedaka funds (e.g. Yad Eliezer or Vaad HaRabanim) in order to stay in full-time learning when he has the option of gainful employment that can offset the need for this undignified income and does not totally impinge his capacity to learn.

The question of whether government assistance programs for lower income people should be termed as the kind of charity that the Ramabam is eschewing and is a chillul Hashem should be directed to qualified Halachic authorities. In my personal view, I think that while it certainly may be a chillul Hashem for one to take WIC and foodstamps and drive a late model car and maintain a bungalow in the mountains, for a qualified person to take advantage of these programs - which he pays taxes for, by the way - is no more a chillul Hashem than receiving a Pell Grant (legally) or a subsidized student or small business loan.

In regard to Earner's comments and Bartley Kulp's diatribe on financial viability of the system:

Here the debate is fought on two levels:

  1. The economic cost/benefit to the community and the viability of the system.
  2. The economic cost/benefit to the individual Kollel student and to his family.
Issue 1 - Earner's comments

The first issue is primarily championed by Earner and I am specifically focusing on these remarks:

Perhaps it is time to accept that the Jewish people cannot support a significant percentage of families whose head of households do not work.

The affluence of the last generation of American Jews is now a memory. If we will expect women to support large families, we will have to repeal the Takana against marrying more than one wife because statistically women earn significantly less on average than men.

The system is bankrupt and it is not fair to raise our sons without a parnassa (which is the same as raising him to be a criminal) or our daughters to be beggars.


Evidently, this entire debate is being conducted on a rationalist and pragmatic platform. This makes sense for rationalists and pragmatists. However, proponents of the Kollel system are by nature religious idealists. We believe in G-d's pyramid scheme.

What is G-d's pyramid scheme?

The pasuk says in Devarim (14:22): עשר תעשר . עשר, בשביל שתתעשר. עשר, כדי שלא תתחסר

The Midrash Tanchuma explains that when one gives a proper tenth to G-d, then his investments are blessed ten-fold. He is the baalhabus and G-d is the "Kohen". But if he neglects to give a proper tenth, his capital is reduced to a tenth of its value. G-d is the baalhabus and he is the "Kohen". Thus we have a pyramid effect, when the "earners" give a tenth of their income to the proper causes, their capital increases thus enabling them to give a bigger sum the following year. This should cause a further increase thus enabling larger contributions, etc, ad infinitum. Unlike a man-made pyramid scheme, there actually will be enough money at the end of the day to pay everybody. G-d has as much as we need.

Conversely, when G-d gives us the capital up front and it is not properly tithed, the next year (or whenever G-d is ready to pull the plug) there will be 10% less capital. Thus a smaller cash base to contribute the funds that are anyway below the required level (sub-prime). All of a sudden, the pyramid goes the opposite direction. The capital shrinks, the inadequate tithes shrinks, etc. ad nihilo!

So to respond to Earner: The system can support any number of families where the head of household does not "work". It is cheleph avodaschem in the "ohel moed". The money doesn't originate in the community. It is G-d's bounty to the community for participating in his pyramid scheme. G-d has as much as we need. Don't you worry. It is only when the community doesn't invest the proper amount that the funds fall short. And then - the pyramid scheme collapses like a house of cards.

Thus, although I might agree with Earner that: "It is time for our Rabbonim to recognize that the system is broke and needs fixing" for, today it truly is, I do not agree with him as to who is responsible for fixing it and how.

G-d tells us that this is one problem that we can actually solve by "throwing more money at it" (and we won't have to repeal any Takanos against polygamy - sorry to disappoint you).

Issue 2 - Bartley Kulp

Firstly, I agree with LazerA that the trend is that responsible Kollel fellows know when to quit. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. I also agree with Bartley that for them to break into the high level earnings market after Kollel is a formidable challenge. But I do think Bartley is a bit removed from the Kollel man's mindset.

The Kollel fellow may need to leave the Kollel but he does not want to leave learning. His objective is not to transform from a learnaholic to a workaholic. It is to make the necessary changes that are required to remain "above water" without selling out on his Torah hashkafos. True, they will undoubtedly lose their intensity but they do not need to be discarded. This is the delicate balance of הוי תורתך קבע ומלאכתך עראי (Brachos 35b) that is all but impossible to maintain in today's economy.

What Bartley seems to advocate is the standard right wing Modern Orthodox perspective that Yeshiva boys should actively pursue higher education before Kollel and before marriage to "ensure" financial independence. One of LazerA's responses is that financial independence is still not ensured. I agree to this. What he did not point out and I wish to add is that while finacial independence may be more readily achieved and is not ensured, the exposure to the outside world at that point makes a decline in Kedoshim tiyihu absolutely inevitable.

When we look at those who have gone that route, we see it.

There is no argument that the chareidi / Torah /kollel community is more insular than the non-chareidi community. We see it as a virtue. Perhaps you see it as a shortcoming. Though we all crave for financial independence, from a hashkafic perspective the chareidi community does not admire the Modern Orthodox. The anti-Kollel arguments act as self-supporting proof that the TIDE perspective comes at a price. And the argument that I put forth earlier about G-d's pyramid scheme tells us that it is a price that there should be no need to pay.

Bartley's last issue about kollel becoming a "social obligation" is a very pertinent issue; but it stands on its own. It doesn't affect the integrity of the system nor it's financial viability. I can agree with Bartley in theory that a person's sacrifice for Limud HaTorah should be his own and not at the expense of beleaguered parents. As much as I am pro Kollel, I also do not think it should be a social obligation. Parents should not force kids into it and kids should not force parents into it. Kollel is, after all, only for those who want it (even if I think that everybody should want it). If a parent does not want to or cannot support his offspring in Kollel, then don't! In such a situation, one who goes into Kollel has to be willing to do it without parental support. Many people - including Rav Elyashiv, Shlit"a, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlit"a and Rav Shlomo Zalmen Auerbach, ZT"L, Rabi Akiva, and thousands of others have managed to stay in learning without any parental support. It can be done. (I do recommend moving to Eretz Yisroel). But it won't be easy. Especially today.

My point is that although now that the money is indeed scarce and we need to proceed with caution, our efforts should be to strengthen it and not to weaken it. It is a system that has given us back more than we have given it. If we buy into G-d's pyramid scheme we will eventually rake it in.

י הביאו את כל המעשר אל בית האוצר ויהי טרף בביתי ובחנוני נא בזאת אמר יהוה צבאות אם לא אפתח לכם את ארבות השמים והריקתי לכם ברכה עד בלי די



עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה ותמכיה מאשר

1 comment:

G said...

Not for today, be back later.