Kollel is Not Always Forever

[Editor’s note: Rabbi Rosenblum originally submitted this as a comment, responding to one reader’s feedback to an earlier piece. This piece is too valuable to allow it to go unnoticed to the many of our readers who do not look at the Comments section. At my suggestion, therefore, we are publishing it as a stand-alone submission.]

More than anything I’m saddened by the comment of KollelGuyinEY. Probably because I can visualize him writing with a feeling of self-righteous virtue that he has defended the honor of the gedolei Torah. He has not.

KollelGuy seems to think that because he has not seen a front-page announcement in Yated Ne’eman that it is now permitted to work that the exalted figures he mention believe that every yungeman must stay in kollel indefinitely. I would start the other way: Have you ever heard of a yungeman who went to one of the figures mentioned and told him — We have no food on the table; my wife is breaking down; our shalom bayis is a wreck because of fighting over money; or just that he feels that he is stagnating after many years in kollel, with no prospect of any kind of position in sight – who was told that he should nevertheless continue in kollel no matter what? I suspect that I’m a bit older than KollelGuy, and I can say that I have never heard of such a case, and I have heard of plenty of the opposite.

Immediately after the War, there were those who were urged to stay in kollel, even when their chances of success in learning full-time or possibility of satisfaction were slight. In a well-known story, Rav Aharon Kotler told a father who complained that it had been obvious from the start that his son was not suited to kollel: We are in a war, and in a war there are always casualties. The war was one to establish the legitimacy of long-term kollel learning. And, as Rav Mattisiyahu Solomon declared already years ago, that war has been won.

Casualties after the battle has been won are a different matter. As the old Yiddish saying has it, “Even the baker goes to war, but when the war is over the baker is again a baker.” In a similar vein, the Chazon Ish is also widely reported to have said that two generations of full-time learning were necessary to rebuild from the ashes of Europe. Those two generations have now come and gone.

And if KollelGuy asks, so why no announcements in Yated Ne’eman, I suspect he already knows the answer, or should. Ori, a non-Orthodox Jew in Austin, Texas, knows it: The last thing the gedolei HaTorah want to do is destroy the striving for greatness in Torah learning that characterizes the Israeli chareidi community. And any such public announcement would be interpreted as a statement that everything we did, everything we have built over the last sixty years was a mistake. (I emphasized in “Living with Complexity” that just the opposite is the case.) In other words, it would lead to an overreaction more dangerous than the situation it sought to cure.
There is another reason that there will be no such public statements. Any such statement would be met with vicious attacks by the “kenaim,” who would say about the gadol in question precisely what KollelGuy asks me: Who are you? The Chazon Ish did not say what you are saying; Rav Shach did not say it.” Perhaps KollelGuy remembers the attacks on one of the Sages he mentions for his tacit support of Nahal Chareidi. (Even Rav Shach used to say that he was afraid of the stone-throwers.) One of the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the United States told me recently that the gedolim cannot even discuss questions surrounding poverty because if they did the “street” would just label them fake gedolim.

I do not know if KollelGuy is the same person who called me the night before KollelGuy’s comment went up to ask me why I’m against kollelim. But I suspect he is. That question is founded on a mistake and misses the point. Both my married sons learn in kollel, one of them in a ten-year dayanus kollel, and I hope and pray that my other five sons will learn many good years in kollel as well. I also learned 12 years in kollel.

I was not writing primarily about what ought to be, but what is.
Perhaps, as a chutznik, KollelGuy is unaware of the explosion over the last five years of training programs – both academic degrees and non-academic – for chareidi men. Changes are taking place, and that is part of the reality with which the gedolim are wrestling. Nor are the reasons too hard to discern, especially when one remembers that there are no historical precedents for a Torah society built around the ideal of full-time learning for every man forever – an entire society of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai’s. (The number of those learning full-time in Eretz Yisrael dwarfs by many times the numbers of those doing so in pre-war Europe.) The denigration of “working” that one sometimes hears in the Torah community in Eretz Yisrael has scant support in the Torah, and countless sources refuting it — e.g., “Better to

I also suspect that KollelGuy does not have too many economic worries and that his children are still young. In short, he has little first-hand knowledge of the situation of thousands of yungeleit in Eretz Yisrael. I’m not sure whether he feels he is not allowed to think or just not allowed to pasken. But I wonder how he would answer some or all of the following questions:

(1) Do you think there are any differences of kind, not just magnitude, between the homogeneous group of idealists who rallied to the Chazon Ish’s banner and today’s chareidi community of three-quarters of a million nefashos?
(2) Do you have any idea of the degree of poverty in the chareidi world, including among avreichim? Do you see the chareidi world today as vulnerable? What, for instance, would happen if the Israeli Supreme Court ruled definitively that the state cannot fund schools that do not teach a common curriculum? Israeli welfare payments have grown twice as fast as gross family income over the last two decades. What do you think the impact would be if the Israeli government decided that disparity is unsustainable and imposed another dramatic cut in welfare payments, like the cut in child care allowances under Prime Minister Sharon (with Netanyahu as Finance Minister)?
(3) Do you see any cost to traditional Torah family structure from the assumption that the wife will be both the primary breadwinner and primary caregiver to very large families? Do you think most women are capable of sustaining both roles?
(4) Do you think the Gemara knew what it was talking about when it said that the primary source of marital strife is the lack of money? Do you see poverty having an impact on shalom bayis in the Torah community?
(5) What do you think happens to a eleven-year-old who is already struggling and falling behind in cheder when he asks his father what he is going to be when he grows up and his father tells him his only option is to be an avreich?
(6) Is there any point at which the communal cost in terms of drop-outs and broken families is too great to be sustained without being addressed at its core?

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74 comments to Kollel is Not Always Forever

  • SL

    To #43
    You make some very good points. However, judging by the number of tzedaka appeals that appear in my mailbox and at my door, the repercussions of too many people not allowing money to factor into their life’s choices can be heartbreaking. On a personal level, one of things I find most distrubing about the trend of promoting an entire society of full time learners is my own feelings of reluctance to support it; this is all while moved to tears by the desparate plight of the many without sufficient income, and while nurturing a strong desire to support Torah study. I find myself torn between wanting to help (and naturally I do) and not wanting to contribute to a way a life that seems to lead to severe communal distress. (I am referring to the E”Y model)

  • Mark

    Zev,

    I spent 10 years in Kollel and the past ten working in Adult Jewish Education. I have a pretty fair idea of what goes on in each. Many Kollel fellows are well aware that they’re being supported by hardworking BB but that wasn’t the topic of discussion. My point was that when one learns seriously for upwards of 14 hours each day, it’s disheartening to contemplate working when a good BB can hardly squeeze two hours out of his daily schedule to learn. [I accept that there are some who do more obviously but take a poll of your average commenter here and see how many average more than that each day. I'm willing to bet it's not more than 10% max.] It is a fact that many ex-kollel fellows struggle with this reality after leaving kollel.
    If we want more of them to follow the excellent advice offered in this column and subsequent comments, the BB must do a better job of demonstrating that one’s commitment to Torah study need not be diminished [even if the hours will be] by joining the workforce. Right now, BB on the whole don’t do a great job of that. The thought of spending his life attending a Daf Yomi shiur is not appealing to Kollel fellows.
    By now we’ve seen many articles and dozens of comments about the need for people to leave kollel. I think it’s high time to see a few about the need for Baalei Battim to increase their own dedication to Torah study. It would help the first cause immeasurably.

  • Mark

    To Joel #41,

    All maamarei chazal are time and place based. That’s why many of those quoted here in support of working are also irrelevant. One that seems to be pretty universal is the one about working only a few hours a day and studying the rest. Shockingly, few who comment here seem to pay much attention to that one. Why is that? Most likely, the answer is that all realize that each Maamar Chazal must be evaluated in context. This is true for all of them, not just the ones that happen not to fit into one’s personal worldview.

  • DG

    I think someone ought to point out that the gedolim are not “afraid” of speaking out about things in the way many of the commentors apparently imagine. Their “fears” come from being Roeh es HaNolad – anticipating what will happen – and appreciating the problems and damage that will follow. Among those, I would guess, would be rampant confusion about the right derech and what to make of the “Mesorah” we’ve been moser nefesh for all along. What the sophisticated or even just well-educated blogger understands and can appreciate is far more than the klal can. Leading a klal through change borders on the impossible.

  • Ori

    Mark: My point was that when one learns seriously for upwards of 14 hours each day, it’s disheartening to contemplate working when a good BB can hardly squeeze two hours out of his daily schedule to learn.

    Ori: Most people need 8 hours of sleep. Do Kollel learners only spend a couple of hours a day with their families? That sounds incredibly low for newly weds with babies.

  • tzippi

    Mark, I wonder how many men are learning 14 hours a day. I suspect that this is not a majority of the learners. As such, maybe these men should continue with what they’re doing, or stay within the “four walls of the beis medrash” as rashei chabura and beyond.

  • L. Oberstein

    A prominent woman whose husband was an early student of Lakewood told me yesterday that they say a lot of things in the name of Rav Aharon Kotler that are just revisionist. For example, there is no eruv in Lakewood because, if Rav Aharon had wanted an eruv, he would have made one. She said that the kollel community was very small are the survival of the yeshiva was precarious, Rav Aharon was involved in hatzalah and in establishing basic principles. Nobody had an eruv in those days, so how can they ascribe it’s lack to a decision on his part. Likewise, these same people forget that in the early years , Rav Aharon permitted the Lakewood Cheder School (not the Bezalel Hebrew Day School) to have co-ed classes through 4th grade. Rav Malkiel Kotler and his sister were in the same class, his former teacher remembers.
    I know for a fact that Rav Aharon told students that it was time for them to go get a job.It wasn’t open ended .

  • Mark

    Joelg #48,

    Your tough talk is impressive but I’m not sure it’s worth all that. Certainly BB contribute mightily to frum society. No sane person could ever deny that. I believe the same is true for Kollel fellows. Every out-of-town community that has a kollel can attest to the immense value they offer the community. Our entire system of chinuch is built on the backs of former kollel fellows who now teach our children and the list goes on.
    If you read my comments you will note that I do not diminish the role of BB. All I point to is the need to make it easier for Kollel fellows to leave kollel by setting a better example. Some can do so, others cannot. It sounds like you’ve got a full plate on your hands so don’t feel any pressure. I was addressing others who can do more and aren’t. There are many Maamarei Chazal to support this but no one seems to be in a rush to quote them.

  • joel rich

    Mark said-All maamarei chazal are time and place based.

    careful-you may get labeled as “modernish” by agreeing with my statement :-)

    Mark- That’s why many of those quoted here in support of working are also irrelevant. One that seems to be pretty universal is the one about working only a few hours a day and studying the rest. Shockingly, few who comment here seem to pay much attention to that one

    I wouldn’t say irrelevant-they are part of chazal’s attempt to transmit the halachic gyroscope which we seek to implant in each of us in each generation. chazal realized life is complex and can’t be boiled down to a cookbook approach (boiled/cookbook – get it :-))

    as i was taught, what you quote was a practical application of a meta requirement to learn when a higher order requirement (e.g. feeding one’s family) was not taking priority. how that plays out in each of our lives over time and in each generation,is its own post (example-if one could invest a week of one’s life in a project which would require they learn 0 (or perhaps just saying shma) for that week but guarantee a lifetime free from material concerns -would one take the week off from learning? (now generalize to college etc.)

    KT

  • Chaim Wolfson

    Rabbi Oberstein,
    In all my years in Lakewood, I never heard that Lakewood does not have an eruv because of R’ Aharon. The Yeshiva community does not use the eruv there because of serious halachic concerns.

    The Lakewood Cheder was not in existence in Rav Aharon’s times. Rav Malkiel Kotler did in fact attend Betzalel Hebrew Day School, as did all the children of the Yeshiva community in those days.

  • Robert Lebovits

    I’ve been told by reasonable sources that in fact most avreichim in Lakewood do enter the workforce at some point – though it may be years later than many of us might deem optimal. The number of long-term kollel yungeleit (those learning beyond their mid 30s) is relatively small, perhaps 10-20%. Nevertheless the system itself has serious flaws that create future problems as well.
    The kollel world has at best paid lip service to the chashivus of the typical Balabos. Other than as providers of material support, Balabatim are NOT recognized as the backbone of the frum world & as such valid role models for yeshiva bochurim to follow. How many of you have heard of a yungeman being given a hearty seudas praida for his decision to move on in his life & join the ranks of Balabatim? Moving on into chinuch, rabbonus, or kiruv, yes; going into business or some professional activity, no. What message is conveyed when a yungeman is allowed to leave kollel with a heavy heart, to do his life’s tavkid (surely a wonderful step forward!), forevermore believing himself to be a lesser soul as a result? Every move toward achieving one’s purpose should be celebrated, not shamed.
    Kollel yungeleit all too often have not been given guidance & direction as to what path their lives should take. When is it time to leave? How long should one stay? For years I have suggested one small action that could have profound effect on the kollel system. In Lakewood most yungeleit attend chaburas given by well-respected older avreichim, Roshei Chabura. It’s not an official position from the Hanhala, & so they have no hierarchical standing. Yet if once a year every yungeman were to sit down with his Rosh Chabura for a review of the past year & projection for the coming year (sort of an informal Cheshbon Hashana), so as to get objective feedback & consultation without the need for any record-keeping or discussion with the Hanhala, the benfit would be great. Avreichim could make these most important life decisions with greater confidence & determination.
    The fact that Gedolim fear speaking out about most sensitive subjects is much more a reflection on us as followers than on them as leaders. When, for example, Rav Mattisyahu knows that there are community members who for whatever reasons hold sway, who would actively pursue his downfall chas v’shalom were he to take a postion they oppose, should he step forward in any case & engender chaos and chillul Hashem? I’m thankful that’s a call I don’t have to make.

  • JoelG

    Mark,

    I don’t mean to diminish the positive role of kollel, especially Community Kollels. What I can’t abide are the prima-donnas who look down their noses at work and those who perform it. Every BB I know is setting the best example they can by doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing and trying to balance all of life’s demands. If certain yungeleit have issues with that, they need to grow up, take personal responsibility and stop making judgments about others. I worry about answering to HKB”H, not to some 20-something who expects to be handed everything on a silver platter.

  • Bob Miller

    The comment by DG — December 16, 2009 @ 4:04 pm said,
    “Leading a klal through change borders on the impossible.”

    Who led the klal through previous major changes, and how was it done?

  • dr. bill

    The Yeshiva community does not use the eruv there because of serious halachic concerns.

    Comment by Chaim Wolfson — December 17, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    I have heard of serious issues in a major city, but in lakewood it is more aptly described as a unique chumrah, that is contrary to established/normative jewish practice in almost all european cities where geonai olam were morai horaah. The Rav ztl (with whom i happen to have learned Eruvin) did not use an(y) eiruv, but would always encourage their construction.

    BTW my friends and neighbors – grandchildren of betzalel goldstein a’h -after whom the school was named can easily substantiate R. Oberstein’s comments about who attended and what went on in the betzalel school with a great deal more specificity.

    RAK ztl was slightly more maikil on co-education than RMF ztl. But as rav Hutner ztl famously said back then, there are two shulachan aruchs – one for NY and one for out of town.

  • DG

    To clarify that comment, I meant to initiate change rather than to lead through changing times. the current derech is quite entrenched – I don’t know of any example of leaders successfully initiating a change of course in an environment like this. Does anyone else?

  • L. Oberstein

    Rabbi Yosef Tendler, who learned for 10 years in Lakewood told me that the Lakewood Cheder School was started in Rav Aharon’s lifetime and while he was in Lakewood Kollel. He told me on several occasions that it was co-ed through 4th grade. He also told me that in his day, the yeshiva kitchen served regular milk and Breakstone Cream Cheese. When his grandson was in elementary school in Lakewood in recent years, the rebbe was expounding about Rav Aharon. The child raised his hand and said that his grandfather told him that there was no cholov yisroel in Lakewoood in Rav Aharon’s time. The rebbe responded “it’s a lie,Rav Aharon would never have allowed that.”
    Rabbi Moshe Heinemann personally told me that it is a total falsehood to say that Rav Aharon was against a boy’s high school having a secular curriculum. He personally knows that Rav Aharon tried valiently to induce a high school to open in Lakewood and that he offered that they could have their food from the Lakewood kitchen. That high school would have had secular studies. I asked him why people like him and Rabbi Tendler and others who know the truth keep quiet, and he answered me that these people have an agenda and that what RavAharon actually did is not their concern.
    The source of my comment was the wife of an early Lakewood talmid who was so told by people currently in Lakewood. I think that there is altogether too much revisionist history that takes away any diversity or legitimacy to any shita but that of whoever is ascendant at the moment.
    Tell me, is it true what I saw on Matzav.com that the Lakewood Co-Op tool Mishpacha Magazine off their shelves and won’t sell it because of the current issue’s interview with Rabbi Hershel Schachter about his rebbe, Rabbi Solovietchik. If that is true, I rest my case.

  • L. Oberstein

    I checked with Rabbi Moshe Heinemann and he confirmed that the teacher of the co-ed class in the Lakewood Cheder School was the wife of Rabbi Moshe Eisemann and she had Rav Malkiel in her class. He also told me that at Rav Shneor Kotler’s wedding there was mixed seating in the dining room of the Lakewood Yeshiva.
    Rabbi Heinemann is very much in favor of separate seating at Agudah dinners and certainly at weddings and Rabbi Tendler is the one who brought cholov yisroel to “out of town” including Baltimore and Lakewood. What they are saying is that it wasn’t always the way it is now.

  • Chaim Wolfson

    Rabbi oberstein,
    I’m not sure whar R’ Tendler may have meant, but the Lakewood Cheder is running an ad campaign leading up to their 45th anniversary dinner, and according to my calculations (correct me if I’m wrong)that means they were founded in 1964 or 1965.

    You won’t have an argument from me about high schools in Lakewood. All the talmidin of Rav Aharon I’ve heard from say the same thing Rabbi Heineman does.

    “If that is true, I rest my case.”

    Perhaps you should not rest your case until you find out if it’s true. I personally find it very hard to believe, and would venture to say that I know Lakewood better than you do.

  • Observer

    To #9 (Tzippi)

    You don’t address the issue. What you suggest is great IF AND ONLY IF you can accept that Kollel forever is not the only appropriate way in life. If you can’t get past that, then all of those role models don’t do much more than assure people that you can leave kollel and not be totally and truly frei. But, it’s still only a model for totally second class “barely there” status.

  • tzippi

    To Observer (69): You’re right. B”H this isn’t an issue in my family. My kids have seen excellent role models in their father and grandfathers, they haven’t gone to institutions where they’re made to feel second class for entertaining the possibility of not being in kollel all their lives (or such kollel wives). As my sons mature, and go onto different yeshivos, I can only hope that we’ve given them an adequate foundation.

    As I’ve mentioned, I think that in chutz l’aretz (for now) such models and expectations are still viable.

  • yea

    Notice that kollelguy did not respond to even one of Rabbi Rosenblum’s 6 questions. He says that he doesn’t “want to get into a full discussion about this”. Why not?

  • Daniel Weltman

    I for one would like a definitive list of the “gedolei yisrael”, with contact information for each one.

    If a vague group with constantly chaning membership is deciding things, and there are Jews who follow what they say absolutely, it behooves the Jewish community to know who we are talking about.

    There is a video available here on the internet, where you can view the zealots literally extracting “piskei halacha” (if you can even call them that) of their own desires from Rav Elyashiv. He doesn’t even have a chance to tell them what he thinks. The pernicious, cynical, and disrespectful use of a weakened and elderly sage they exhibit is enough to make anyone lose their breakfast. If this is “da’as torah”, it is a serious commentary on how much da’as torah is worth in this day and age.

  • Shlomo Radamska

    Reb Leonard: I am a graduuate of the Bezalael Hebrew Day School in Lakewwod (1958) and Reb Schnur’s children did indeed attend Bezalel. Just ask Rav Malkeal. It was co-ed until 4th grade and seperate for limuda kodesh after that. Secular classes were mixed thru 8th grade. Different times and a different era. Economics were very hard and BHDS did the best they could with what they were given to work with.

  • Jay Saphire

    Seems to me that an underlying issue not discussed here is the assumption in the Yeshiva-world that ‘Gedolim’ – usually meaning the people who were Iluyim in their yeshivas – are automatically suited to leadership and possess the perspective and wisdom needed to give guidance to the community at large.

    This is almost axiomatic in the frum (Charedi and Chardal, and to a lesser extend, MO) world. There is a mitzva to do ‘K’chol Asher Yorucha’. It doesn’t mean that someone who’s a genius in the Beis Medrash should be making leadership decisions.