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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

Reform Reflections: The Honor of Torah Study

by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

More Jews today are engaging in full-time Torah study than ever before in the history of our people. The question is: Is this a blessing, or – in the words of Maimonides – a profanation of God’s name?

Our rabbis have always held two distinct views as to the status of individuals who engage in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.
One view is expressed by Rabban Gamliel in Avot 2:3: “It is well to combine Torah study with some worldly occupation, for the energy taken up by both of them keeps sin out of one’s mind; all Torah study which is not combined with some trade must at length fail and occasion sin.” Maimonides codifies this view in the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study, 3:10, and employs especially biting language: “Anyone who makes up his mind to study Torah but does not work and lives on charity profanes the name of God, disgraces the Torah, obscures the light of religion, causes harm to himself, and deprives himself of life in the world to come; for it is forbidden to derive temporal advantage from the words of Torah.”

In the view of Rabban Gamliel and Maimonides, the responsibility of Talmud Torah does not relieve the Torah scholar from the obligations of daily life, but rather is in addition to these duties. In their view, one who engages in Talmud Torah at the expense of others is emptying Torah study of its religious meaning. For them, the burden of Torah rests on every Jew and is not to be entrusted to a professional class of scholars. The Torah student, like everyone else, is to support his family and meet his communal obligations.

But there is another view as well. By the 17th century, there had developed a school of rabbinic thought that argued the opposite: that the Torah student should be excused from all outside burdens, which were to be passed on to other Jews, so that the dedication of the students to Torah could be complete. Nonetheless, even those who accepted this view understood that full-time Torah study was appropriate only for the most talented student. It was the illui – the truly superior student – who would devote his life to study, while others would return to full-time employment. Indeed, even when the great yeshivot of Eastern Europe were at their height, the number of students was relatively modest and smaller than the number of full-time Torah students in Israel today.

Only in the last 30 years have we seen a change in these patterns. Until 1977, Israel’s Defense Ministry could by law grant no more than 800 deferments to students who intended to study Torah full-time rather than enter the Israeli army. However, as the price for entering the Likud coalition that year, the Agudat Yisrael party extracted from Menachem Begin the promise that the quota would be lifted and that generous subsidies would be made available to students entering yeshivot. The number of full-time Torah students rose dramatically, and has remained high ever since.

As mentioned, those who support this new development can find a foundation for it in our sources. Nonetheless, the vision of Maimonides is far more compelling. Maimonides sought to foster study of Torah among the general population, and saw Torah study as compatible with the general responsibilities of citizenship. At a time when the majority of Jews are blessed to live in a sovereign and democratic Jewish state, and that state is obligated to impose a crushing burden of taxation and military service on her citizens, the honor of Torah can only be preserved if those who study it most intensely help to ease this burden by sharing it fully.

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