Monday, May 20, 2024

Yes, Poverty is a Problem

In late 1879, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Frumkin, a leader in the movement to encourage Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel, made a trip to Europe to raise funds for the nascent agricultural settlement of Petach Tikva. His travels took him to Konigsberg in East Prussia, and while there he paid a visit to Rav Yisroel Salanter, who was then in Konigsberg.

He posed the following question to Rav Yisroel: “What would you answer to those who have already decided to leave Europe? To what country should they seek to emigrate, the United States or Eretz Yisroel?”


After pondering the question for some time, Rav Yisroel shocked Rabbi Frumkin by answering that he would advise them to go to America.


“Go to America? Does rabbeinu think that they will remain faithful to their religion in America?” Rabbi Frumkin asked.


“It would be hard to believe that,” replied Rav Yisroel.


“If so,” Rabbi Frumkin continued, “how can our master respond that they should choose America?”


“How can I mislead those wanderers with bad advice? From the first day they arrive in Eretz Yisroel, they will lack both food and water. There is no place in Eretz Yisroel to earn even a single agora. Their Arab neighbors will not buy anything from them. Not so in America. True, they won’t earn a princely salary from the start, but they can break their hunger with their peddling from the first day. And whether or not they stay religious depends on their choice, for even there it is possible for them to remain faithful to Hashem. Not so when living in poverty, for it causes a person to transgress al daas kono with certainty,” Rav Yisroel explained (Tenuas Hamussar, Vol. I, pp. 213-14).


In short, the extreme poverty in Eretz Yisroel trumped the likelihood of lost religious observance in the United States because, in Rav Yisroel’s eyes, extreme poverty created the certainty of transgressing religious prohibitions. He was basing himself on the Gemara (Eruvin 41b) which states: “The rabbis taught: Three things cause a person to violate his own will and the will of his Creator. . . and [the third is] exactions of extreme poverty.”


Chazal never idealized poverty as some other religions do. They were acutely aware of the toll exacted from living under constant financial strain. Elsewhere, for instance, they say, “Arguments are not found in a man’s home except as a consequence of [a lack of] grain” (Bava Metziah 59b).


I have often been surprised by the importance the gedolim with whom I am close place on parnassah. More than a few times, I have been asked in the midst of conversations on completely different matters how I support my family or whether I can do so from writing.


A tenured university professor once went to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l to ask him if he should quit teaching and spend his full day learning. He assumed that the matter was clinched when Rav Shach asked him what he taught – an area of humanities to which it can be fairly assumed that Rav Shach attached no independent value. Yet, that question turned out to be merely preliminary to Rav Shach’s real questions: How many hours do you have to spend teaching and on other university-related duties? How much do you earn? How much time do you have available to learn now?


Upon hearing the answers, Rav Shach told the professor something to the effect, “Do you know how many avreichim would jump to be in your situation and to be able to learn so much and still be able to support their families at your level? Stay where you are.”


I suspect that the concern with parnassah expressed by Rav Shach, as well as the gedolim with whom I have spoken, reflects, in part, memories of pre-World War II Europe. Religious observance was in rapid decline between the two world wars, and crushing poverty was a major contributing factor, according to those who lived through the period.


True, the levels of poverty of Eastern Europe are largely unknown today. One does not see homeless orphans wandering the streets in search of bread, as was common in Europe. But, at the same time, it costs far more to live today than it did then. And poverty is, at least in part, a social construct: What is considered “basics” depends very much on the society in which one lives, and relative deprivation also takes its toll. How many teenagers, for instance, don’t have mobile phones, even in the poorest chareidi families today?


On the other hand, what the general society would term poverty many chareidi families view as just living simply. Kollel families are fully reconciled to living without automobiles, with never eating out, with wearing suits until they shine. At a recent chasunah, a friend mentioned to me that his son is living in a two room – i.e., one bedroom – apartment with eight children under ten. And before the conversation at the table had proceeded too far, there were a number of examples “topping” that. Knowing the father and the son, and their intense devotion to learning, I do not doubt that the son is fully content with the choices he has made to remain in full-time learning and that he and his wife (and hopefully their children) have the strength to live under such crowded conditions. But not everyone is at that spiritual level.


It must also be admitted that such young families are living with nothing to fall back on if the mother is unable to keep working for any reason or if there is a medical emergency of any kind in the family. Any chareidi living Eretz Yisroel has grown inured to the klops on the bimah before Aleinu followed by the hastily blurted out story of the father who can no longer function or is crumbling under debts with a dozen mouths to feed at home. It is impossible to daven Shacharis in virtually any shul in America in a major metropolitan center without being swarmed by supplicants from Israel. Some have suffered specific unforeseen tragedies, but many are simply crushed by debts. And those begging in America are but the tip of the iceberg and often not those in the direst straights – at least they possess the initiative to purchase tickets to America and travel from city to city.


What is the point of this litany? First, as a community, we need a clear picture of our economic situation. How many children regularly experience hunger or go to bed without dinner? How many subsist primarily on cheap bread and never eat fruits or vegetables? How many families have no life insurance policy or no supplemental health insurance in the event of a medical emergency? How much debt are families carrying? How many gemachim do they deal with regularly? Have parents saved anything to help married children purchase apartments or to assist them in the early years of marriage? What are the sources of familial income?


After we have a map of the depth and breadth of chareidi poverty, we can then begin to address it. It is by now crystal clear that we cannot place our primary reliance on the government to solve the problem or feed our children. That is not to absolve government for all responsibility, but rather to acknowledge that the political sphere is only one realm of action, and increasingly the least important.


Widespread, endemic poverty, as Rav Yisroel Salanter knew, is not a side issue. It goes to the very ruchani vitality of our community.



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