Whenever I am asked to provide an overview of the chareidi community for those coming from outside, I always begin by stressing the central value around which chareidi life is organized: the primacy of Torah learning.
As I was preparing such a speech this week, it suddenly occurred to me that there are several different measuring rods that might be used to determine the importance of Talmud Torah in our community and to mark changes over time. For instance, one could simply use the numbers of those learning in yeshivot or kollelim as the key measure. Or one might attempt to make some kind of qualitative assessment based on the numbers of outstanding talmidei chachamim being produced. A third possibility would be to consider the percentages of those born into chareidi homes who remain deeply attached to the community and its values, i.e., for whom Torah learning is the highlight of their day and who aspire that their sons should be talmidei chachamim and their daughters should marry one.
Those are only three possible measures. I'm sure readers could come up with many more. But what struck me as I thought about the list is that the choice of the measuring rod used, and thus the goal of communal policy, can potentially result in very different policy choices. Indeed, the goals might, at least in some instances, exist in tension with one another.
If the highest communal goal is to produce outstanding talmidei chachaimim, it is at least arguable that a greater percentage of communal wealth should be directed towards those of proven potential at a certain age, even at the cost of fewer yungeleit in kollel. Such support was the de facto situation in Eastern Europe, where the scholars of the greatest potential were highly sought after spouses for the daughters of the very wealthy. If, however, the goal is maximizing the numbers of those in kollel, then it makes sense to cut the overall kollel pie into more pieces, however small they may be.
One communal imperative based on the qualitative marker would be ensuring that there are more positions teaching or as communal rabbonim open for the leading young talmidei chachamim – perhaps by moving to a system of smaller yeshivos or more shiurim within the larger yeshivot – so that exceptional talents do not leave the world of full-time learning for other pursuits because they see no future for themselves within the world of Torah learning.
Clearly numbers do not translate automatically into quality. In Europe, in large part due to the overwhelming poverty, full-time learning was primarily an elite activity. Yeshivaleit were often known by the name of their hometowns—e.g., the Dohlinover – because there were rarely more than one or two talmdim from that town. Baruch Hashem, today we can afford to support virtually every young man in full-time yeshiva learning until marriage and usually long beyond. But no one claims, as far as I know, that we are for that reason producing talmidei chachamim of greater stature than in pre-World War I Europe, even though there are many times the number of those learning full-time.
The tension between quantity and quality is only one expression of the potential conflicts between different goals. If, for instance, the maximization of the numbers of those in full-time learning is the goal, then it makes sense, at least in the short term, to provide as narrow a curriculum as possible so that those raised in the system have few options for leaving. And even giving the message, subtly or not-so-subtly, that anyone who leaves yeshiva or kollel, either because of economic pressures or because he no longer feels fuffilled in full-time learning for any one of a dozen possible reasons, has failed or even betrayed the Olam HaTorah could be justified on the same basis.
But that approach might have implications in terms of both the other markers of the centrality of Torah learning. If large numbers of young and not so young men remain in institutions of full-time learning only because they perceive themselves as having no options, over time they cannot help but dilute the intensity of those institutions and constitute a drag on those who still feel themselves to be growing and flourishing.
And from the point of view of commitment to Torah learning for oneself and one's family, negative messages directed at those who leave full-time learning can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies causing those at whom those messages are directed to feel alienated from the Torah community and less subject to its norms. In time, that approach could even cause the chareidi community to shrink and have a negative impact quantitatively as well.
Some of the quandaries described above may exist only in potential and not in actuality. Perhaps there are ways of reconciling different goals that my cursory summary has overlooked. And it could be that changing circumstances, such as great communal wealth, can mitigate the tensions.
My only point is to note how complex matters are, even when there is a consensus about the overarching goal of maximizing Torah learning. Different Jewish communities have made different decisions over time about which measuring rod to emphasize. Differences over the measuring rod to be made paramount might even help explain some of the bitter divisions in the Israeli chareidi world today.
When considering the complexity of the issues, those of us in the bleachers, albeit profoundly affected by the choices made, can only rejoice that we have gedolim to weigh all the different factors and balance the various goals in the optimal fashion.