By the Sweat of Jewish Brows

How might haredi men be persuaded to depart from their yeshivas and start working? The brilliant writings of an idiosyncratic rabbi can help lead the way.

 Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner. Wikipedia.

Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner. Wikipedia.

Dec. 11 2014
About the author

David Glasner, a Washington-based economist, blogs at He is a great-grandson of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner.

Aharon Ariel Lavi’s excellent essay in Mosaic adeptly explains the profound conflict between the majority of Israelis and the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox (haredi) minority. It may be that this conflict, which can seem as irreconcilable as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, can only be managed; but, as Lavi explains, it cannot even be managed unless most haredi men can somehow be persuaded to depart from their yeshivas and acquire the educational tools that would render them capable of finding jobs in a modern economy.

The dominant haredi view, never before put into practice on anywhere near the current scale in Israel, can be summed up succinctly. Advanced Torah study—largely, if not exclusively, the study of Talmud and its commentaries, along with medieval and later legal codes and their commentaries—is the highest vocation to which any Jewish male can aspire. By engaging in such labor, moreover, yeshiva students confer a greater benefit upon the Jewish people and the state of Israel than do those in any other activity, including military service. Men pursuing this advanced calling, therefore, are rightfully entitled to public funds to provide for their own and their families’ material needs, and to exemption from any (other) form of national service.

Lavi impartially explicates this view before outlining a bottom-up approach to addressing it; he offers specific proposals, especially in the realm of education, deserving of careful attention by Israeli policymakers and haredi activists alike. Here I’d like to raise a different question—one that may help clear the conceptual air surrounding the issue of haredi employment. The question is this: what exactly is the religious significance of Torah study in the Jewish homeland, and is the conventional—albeit, from a historical perspective, revolutionary—haredi view the only religiously and theologically valid one?


As it happens, this question was explicitly addressed almost a century ago by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (1856-1924), an exceptional rabbinic scholar and the author of an acclaimed talmudic commentary entitled Dor Revi’i (“The Fourth Generation”). The eldest great-grandchild of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (better known as the Hatam Sofer), who perhaps did more than anyone to shape the modern haredi wordview, and himself an eminent figure in East European Orthodoxy, Rabbi Glasner became an outspoken supporter of Zionism, thereby provoking bitter personal attacks by anti-Zionist extremists from which neither his scholarship nor his distinguished lineage could shield him.

In 1923, Rabbi Glasner, having served for nearly a half-century as the chief rabbi of Klausenburg, emigrated with his wife to Palestine. Addressing a crowd of thousands from the train on which they were beginning their journey to the Promised Land, he implored his listeners to follow his example while they still could—because, he said, “I fear that, if you do not . . . , there will come a time when you will want to go but will no longer be able to do so.”

Three years earlier, Rabbi Glasner had written, in German, an impassioned defense of the Jewish national movement under the title Zionism in the Light of Faith. In his essay, responding to haredi characterizations of Zionism as an anti-religious doctrine, he maintained that, to the contrary, Judaism cannot be properly understood absent its national component, illegitimately minimized or denied by Orthodox critics of Zionism. While much of the essay is devoted to issues specific to its moment, the basic argument remains highly relevant to contemporary concerns.

This is especially the case when Rabbi Glasner comes to the issue of Torah study as a vocation. Addressing haredi fears that the Zionist project would devalue this activity, he counters that Torah study had come to occupy its transcendent place in Jewish religious life only because of the exigencies of the Diaspora. For almost two millennia, he writes, all fields of productive endeavor had been closed off to the Jewish people:

While the ghetto was separating the Jews from the world of business and culture, the fields of art and science, craftsmanship, and agriculture, it was natural that the Jews would devote themselves . . . to the study of Torah. . . . [E]ven after the walls of the ghetto were brought down, and all fields of activity were opened, people thought it proper to confine their young within the four walls of the . . . house of study, because every other activity, being profane and not specifically Jewish, would distance one from Judaism.

The extreme to which this had been carried was, however, deleterious:

[Even] the study of Scripture and the Hebrew language was pushed into the corner, to such an extent that many rabbis had only a weak conception of the history of their nation and could not write a single line on paper without committing gross errors. Instead of the [rabbinic] maxim “at five years begin the study of the Scriptures, at ten the study of the Mishnah, and at fifteen the study of the Talmud” (Avot 5:21), . . . they forced children to begin the study of Talmud at the age of six.

Narrow concentration not just on Torah study but on a mode of study that both ‘‘makes a mockery of all the rules of pedagogy” and contravenes the explicit direction of the Mishnah had produced deeply unfortunate consequences. Hence, in Rabbi Glasner’s view, the urgent significance of recreating a fully Jewish society in all its natural diversity. With the revival of national life in Palestine, all types of labor would contribute to the welfare of the Jewish people and would be valued accordingly.

What, then, would happen to the special place accorded to the study of Torah? Were haredim not justified in fearing that the reawakening of Jewish national life in the Holy Land could lead to what—from their standpoint—would be a tragic outcome?

Rabbi Glasner’s answer: a reduced number of Talmud students was not necessarily a cause for alarm. After all, the “healthy and natural doctrine” was the Mishnaic one cited above and further supported in a later commentary. Quoting a famous passage in Jeremiah, “Is Ephraim [not] My beloved son?” (31:19), the Midrash observes that normally, out of every 1,000 individuals who begin study of the Bible, 100 will succeed in “graduating” to the Mishnah. Of these 100, ten will manage to proceed to the much more difficult study of Talmud. Of the ten, only one—the “beloved son”—can be expected to achieve mastery of the talmudic material.

And precisely here, in Rabbi Glasner’s view, lies the essential religious difference between work in the land of Israel and work in the Diaspora:

Work in the land of Israel ennobles and refines, because it raises the level of happiness of the people and advances the prosperity of the homeland. It is therefore altruistic, and as obligatory as are prayer and the study of Torah in the Diaspora. This idea finds powerful expression in the Midrash: when Moses foresaw that the Holy Temple would be destroyed and the [offering of] first fruits would be interrupted, he was moved to decree that Israelites should pray three times daily.

Thus, in the view of the Midrash, daily prayer in the Diaspora was instituted as a substitute for work in the land of Israel. The reference in the Midrash to the commandment of bikkurim (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), the ceremonial offering in the Temple of the first fruits of the harvest, provided Rabbi Glasner with a powerful example of the religious importance attached by the sages to work in the land of Israel:

Besides its religious meaning, the commandment of the first fruits encouraged the people working the land to an intensive and exquisite cultivation of its crops. . . . The Mishnah describes the crowds and musical accompaniment with which the first fruits were brought to Jerusalem. All the artisans, before whom those carrying the first fruits passed, stood up, ceasing to work out of respect for the bearers of the first fruits, though workers have no obligation to stand for a Torah scholar

Not, however, that productive work was unimportant in the Diaspora. There, too, even mundane labor, undertaken within the appropriate moral and religious framework, could contribute positively to the development of the individual, while idleness and boredom posed a grave danger to the nurturing of proper character traits. This, Rabbi Glasner observes, was similarly understood by the sages. For example, the Mishnah (Avot 2:2) teaches:

The study of Torah is appropriate together with pursuit of a livelihood, for in combination the two cause sin to be forgotten, and any Torah that is not accompanied by work is destined to be nullified and to cause sin.

Along similar lines, the Talmud warns (Kiddushin 29a) that “whoever does not teach his son a trade is like one who teaches him robbery” and extols (Berakhot 8a) “one who derives benefit from his own effort” as “greater than one who fears heaven.” Commenting on these talmudic injunctions to engage in productive work, Rabbi Glasner writes:

 [T]he fear of heaven associated with an easy life is very far from being powerful enough to resist sin and evil inclination and sin, and does not protect against evil character traits, while the expenditure of energy, distracting a person from his weakness and his evil inclination, brings upon the worker a noble spirit, so that jealously and hatred, suspicion and oppression are almost unknown to him.

On the danger of idleness, even for the God-fearing, Rabbi Glasner draws a lesson not only from the Talmud but from Scripture as well. At pain of death, Adam was commanded by the Almighty to derive no benefit from the tree of knowledge. Adam, Rabbi Glasner observes, “certainly feared heaven, but, being idle in the garden of Eden, he failed to withstand the test. Seeing that fear of heaven had not deterred Adam from sin, the Lord provided him with a more effective means: ‘with the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread’” (Genesis 3:19). He concludes:

The talmudic saying that one who derives benefit from his own effort is greater than one who fears heaven is therefore exceedingly correct, for one who works is better protected from sin than one who, though fearing heaven, is idle, for the idle one is more easily caught by the tests of sin than the one who works.


All of this brings us back to the problems facing haredi society in Israel. The low rate of labor-force participation among adult haredi men, coupled with the exceptionally high birthrates and limited skills of working haredi women, has inevitably led to appalling poverty. Given the recent withdrawal or reduction of government assistance and the diminishing willingness of other Jews inside or outside Israel to continue supporting an obviously dysfunctional way of life, it is clear that, however unwillingly, haredi society must find a way of extricating itself from the impasse in which it is now stuck.

As Lavi notes, some internal voices are beginning to call for change. And yet, to an extraordinary degree, haredi society is still governed by an ideology that confers authority only on its recognized rabbinical leadership, a leadership mostly drawn from an elite and largely hereditary group of aged scholars, yeshiva heads, and scions of hasidic dynasties.

Two related challenges confront this cloistered leadership as it seeks a way out of the current crisis. First, a reorientation away from full-time Torah study by adult males would threaten the livelihoods of all those now employed in the overextended network of haredi educational institutions—the core constituency of the leadership itself. Second, even a tacit acknowledgment of the need to reform the way of life encouraged, if not mandated, by haredi leadership over two or three generations would be a humiliating admission of failure, difficult for its followers and acolytes to comprehend or accept.

How to proceed? Here once again Rabbi Glasner comes in. One way might be to declare, correctly, that the large numbers of erudite talmudic scholars produced by haredi society in Israel represent an undeniably impressive and historic achievement—but that this was also an emergency measure, required to restore the level of Torah scholarship attained in Europe before the Holocaust, and now the times demand an adjustment. Of course, Rabbi Glasner, despite his preeminence as a talmudic scholar, is not one from whom most haredi rabbinical leaders would gladly take instruction, being tainted by his identification with Zionism and a reputation for independent thinking. But his arguments for the religious value of work in the land of Israel—not to mention somewhat similar arguments made by his greatly revered great-grandfather, the Hatam Sofer—are the kinds of arguments, and are derived from the kinds of sources, to which haredi society is accustomed.

In any case, this society cannot long defer its accommodation to necessity. One can only hope that the availability of arguments like Rabbi Glasner’s will help ease that accommodation, to the good of all.

More about: Haredim, Israel, Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Ultra-Orthodox