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Is there too much endemic poverty aside great wealth? Yes. But as economist Herbert Stein famously noted, “Trends that can’t go on forever won’t.” Israel’s child support allowances, niggardly by European standards, and its highly regressive tax structure (18% VAT) make it impossible to feed large families, even within the parameters of the simple Haredi lifestyle, without gainful employment. Haredi young people are flocking into academic degree programs and into the labor force — though not fast enough to satisfy their critics.
Over the last twenty years, I have become a widely read communal gadfly pushing the community — and myself — to live up to the ideals that led my wife and I to join the Haredi world in the first place. But those ideals provide a language for self-criticism, and common core of assumptions around which communal debate can proceed.
David Goldman notes an interesting pattern. Churches that have lost all religious vitality (including the Church of Scotland, the Church of England, Presbyterians and Episcopalians in America) and nations facing demographic demise (including nearly all of Western Europe) become consumed with hatred for the Jews and the state of Israel. The eternity of the Jewish people, its exemption from the otherwise universal historical pattern of civilizational rise and fall, engenders bitter animosity from those suffering premonitions of their own societal death.
The same impulse animates Michaelson’s screed. His ultimate complaint about the Haredi world is that there are too many of them and they are too high a percentage of world Jewry. But instead of telling me to have fewer children, he should be addressing his complaint to his contemporary American Jews. Urge them to find something that gives meaning to their lives, a set of values dear enough to transmit to future generations by producing children.
And if he and his friends hope for a Jewish future, let them heed the numerous jeremiads of Jack Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who warned that there will be no future for non-Orthodox American Jewry without a reversal of current trends — namely anti-natalism, acceptance, even celebration, of intermarriage, declining sense of Jewish peoplehood, and lack of theological seriousness. Above all let them rediscover, in Wertheimer’s words, “the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia have willingly and gratefully set themselves apart.”
The Talmud states that God took the children of Israel out of Egypt and called them, “my son, my firstborn son,” on account of the two words the nation uttered in anticipation of the receipt of Torah “na’aseh ve’nishmah (We will do and [then] we will understand).”
A Sadduccee once saw Rava learning Torah with such intensity that he did not even notice that he was sitting on his hands, which were dripping blood. The Sadducee charged Rava with being the member of an am pezizah — a heedless, uncalculating people — just like his ancestors who accepted God’s commandments without first knowing what they were.
Rava acknowledged the charge, for in that reckless passion for Torah lies the secret of Jewish eternity. No Jewish community that has cut itself off from Torah observance and study has ever survived for long.
The greatest contribution of the Haredi world is to have miraculously rebuilt in 60 years an entire world of Torah learning destroyed by Hitler, and to have maintained a passion for Torah study that radiates out to the entire Jewish world.
Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Mishpacha Magazine, as well as the author of seven biographies of contemporary Jewish leaders.