Orthodox Judaism and Italian Catholicism: An Ominous Parallel?

Modern day Israel faces a demographic crisis. Within its Orthodox communities the majority of young men choose to complete their education by attending yeshivot, centers for Torah study, instead of conventional universities (religious or secular) or participating in mandatory military service for their country. Within the yeshiva context, such students participate in exclusive Torah and Talmudic study, to the neglect of other, more marketable knowledge, and in the hopes of becoming rabbis.

At the same time, these students abide by community tradition by marrying young and eschewing any form of family planning. Such an arrangement increases the burden on both the wife and the state, as state subsidies help provide for burgeoning families and wives are left to work multiple jobs to close the gap, in addition to frequent pregnancy, housekeeping, childrearing, and caring for her husband. To increase the burden on the wife, such women are often given a substandard education in order to preserve their belief that such an arrangement is ideal. And as yeshiva students are highly sought husbands from the perspective of the families of these women, high expectations are placed on the women of Hassidic communities to maintain their looks.

Meanwhile, this system places an enormous strain on the larger Israeli society and economy without making any significant contribution. In a society already overburdened by high taxes, interethnic/religious tensions, and global politics, the yeshiva system is an unneeded addition. It produces men who have no knowledge to or intention of contributing to their community, women who have limited earning power, and children who lack both education and participating father-figures in their lives. The Hassidic sects also prefer to segregate themselves from the more secular majority. As such, those who work often refuse to engage with non-Hassidim, and their increasing refusal to abide by social mores and legal system of the country serve only to destabilize an already challenged social structure and unnecessarily complicates the lives of surrounding non-Hassidim.

The whole situation bears a marked resemblance to nineteenth century Italy. Mysteries of the Neapolitan Convents, by Enrichetta Caracciolo is a first person account of the corruption that was found in the Italian monastic system of the mid-nineteenth century. As such, it was used as state propaganda to justify the illegalization of monastic ordination. In all, over 63000 monastics of varying types and both sexes were removed from their orders in a country of some 24,000,000. These individuals had imposed an unbearable burden on the secular populace. They made no contribution to economy, agriculture, or population, but made vast claims on increasingly limited resources, as individuals worked to provide food and goods for themselves, for export, and for consumption by the monastic orders.

Moreover, the devoutly Catholic Italian population of the day enthusiastically put their children in monasteries, and paid to do so. Poor families, for example, would scrimp, or even go into debt, to pay the dowry required to put a daughter into a nunnery—a daughter who could then not care for her parents in their old age, produce grandchildren, contribute to the family economy, or marry advantageously. Boys placed in orders, while bringing a certain prestige to their families, likewise brought no earthly advantage, but cultural mores made such a decision an expensive expectation. Meanwhile, the majority of those who took orders had no real conscious choice in the matter and many who did so should not have been placed in such a situation, leading to rampant crime, corruption, and intrigue within the holy institution. When the monasteries were abolished, their inhabitants were sufficiently unskilled that the government had to provide them with a stipend, as the former monastics were utterly unsuited to productive life.

Ultimately, the abolition of the monasteries went hand-in-hand with the civil war that ultimately created what we know today as the country of Italy. It was a violent and traumatic process for an entire people that shook the foundation stones of their culture. To see similar problems in Israel, a country already threatened by violence from without, does not bode well for the country’s future.
The parallels to Israeli Orthodox Judaism are striking. How many Torah scholars are really necessary to this community of limited size? How many yeshiva students actually find their calling as a rabbi, how many are just trying to avoid work, and how many attend yeshiva in an effort to live up to irrational societal expectations? How many men, discouraged from taking their rightful place in their families, would otherwise use their time being doting and supportive husbands and fathers? How many yeshiva wives would be better mothers and wives if not burdened by the task of putting bread on the table as well? Would these men and women be good soldiers in the IDF, if given the opportunity? Would they be ingenious entrepreneurs? Would they find a productive balance in incorporating work with faith?

The Torah commands us to work six days of every week, and rest on the seventh. If a man studies Torah for six days, how can he dedicate the seventh to G-d in such a way that Shabat is set apart from the other six? The Torah commands children to honor their parents. How can or should that be done effectively, when the mother (who does the work) is excluded from photographs and other durable credit of her labor, while the husband serves as little more than breeding stock until his sons are ready to follow in their father’s footsteps? Men are commanded to toil for the bread of their families. Where are they permitted to unload that responsibility on their wives? We are commanded to provide for our communities, defend the safety of our families, and keep the Law. What we are not commanded is to study the Law rather than live it.

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