Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bench Pressing

An advanced student of Talmud who is married, and is supported by the yeshiva for his Torah studies is called a kolel person, and is said to be a member of a kolel. A kolel is roughly the equivalent of graduate school plus postdoc fellowships. They receive a stipend from the kolel, which generally is not sufficient to live on.

In my jargon from yesterday’s blog all serious kolel guys are geeks, as are all serious unmarried yeshiva students. The latter are young geeks, or geeks in training. The charming but dense hero of the sweet movie “Ushpizin” was not a geek, even though he learnt in a kolel. He wasn’t serious and constantly played hookey. In my book he was a thief. He accepted charity money from the yeshivah and spent his time swooning and davening. Yeshivas don’t pay anyone to daven (prey), and he knew that, even before the checks stopped coming.

Since I am sympathetic to geeks, everywhere and anywhere, I am a friend of the kolel movement. I bemoan the absence of kolelim (pl.) in liberal Judaism, especially community kolelim. More on this in the future.

The blogosphere as well as the Orthodox community as a whole are deeply divided in their attitudes to the kolel movement. There is an exponential growth in the number of people studying Torah full time. It is placing a very great burden on the families of the kolel members, their parents and on the community as a whole. The strain sometimes becomes almost unbearable, and yet the movement keeps on growing. In pre-War Europe, when there was never more than a maximum of 12,000 advanced Talmudic students, kolel people were called by its critics (Maskilim, Socialists, Bundists, Zionists,etc.) “benkel kvetchers”, (pressers of the bench), or “laydig geiers”, (ne’er-do-wells). Today there might very well be 12,000 advanced Talmud people just in Jerusalem.

Many believe the whole enterprise MUST end in disaster. Here is the blogger Orthoprax voicing a not untypical sentiment:
“Think about this - if the kollel guy who learns all day and is supported by daddy has ten kids and they all grow up to do what their father does - where does the money come from to support the ten grandkids? The system is economically untenable.”

One hears this argument everywhere. It’s similar to and has the same difficulty as the depletion of resources hysteria that was promoted by Paul Ehrlich and the Greens, President Carter and many others in the 1970’s. My objection to this line of thought can be summarized in one sentence: Don’t bet on it. Any speculator who bet that oil or grain would be depleted because of the exponential growth of population would now be bankrupt. Period. The thesis of the limits of growth was a total failure from the mid ‘70’s until this last recent spurt in 2006. It is illegitimate to start projecting exponential growth rates and compare them to an inelastic supply with no boost from technology.

Yes, if 2 begat 10 and if each of the 10 children produce 10 children then 2 begat 50 and then 250, and on and on. EVENTUALLY, maybe in 100 years, maybe less, the burden will be too great. It is impossible to predict when this will happen. The system, however, is not closed. There are welfare and transfer payments both here and in Israel. There is charity on the part of orthodox who have gone into business. Substantial amounts of money are being transferred to the learning community. The women work, and their income levels might and do vary as their skill sets develop.

And then there are the 2 obvious changes that will occur whatever the Rabbis say. Kolel communities are not third world countries where birth rates are inversely related to income levels. In those countries as income levels increase birthrates decline. Here the relationship will be the other way. If income levels decline the birth rate will decrease. Kolel people are middle class. Many are from bourgeois homes and 10% + are from haute-bourgeois homes. These aren’t rural peasants with no health care system, who have many children so as to guarantee that some will survive and care for them in their old age. These are people who are fully aware of the conveniences and benefits of the modern world, who voluntarily choose an ascetic, simpler life because of their love of Torah and scholarship.

The second change which is already happening is that young people who don’t have an aptitude for study are being pushed out into the labor force, thereby increasing the available surplus to support the kolel system. Orthodox Jews tithe. In short, the system does have some self correcting features. It is far from obvious that the whole system will come crashing down suddenly, without time for change. In this respect the gamble of the Ultra –Orthodox is similar in structure to the bet the entire industrial world is making on global warming.

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