Should Jews be Paid to Study Torah?

I signed up this year to participate in a Bet Midrash program for international students studying abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The program pairs local English speakers with students to study in a one-on-one chevruta. I had participated in a similar program as a young professional back in Washington, D.C. and got so much out of it that I committed to studying full-time for a year in Israel. Feeling like I also want to share Torah with others, I was excited for this opportunity. Plus, I’ve been looking for a weekly chevruta anyways.

It turns out that there is another program that also sets up students with a chevruta, but it pays them and their partners to learn. I’m familiar with this arrangement. I recall being approached as a college student to participate in a weekly learning program, at the end of which I would receive $800. Not bad money, especially for something I was interested in. But, the money offer turned me away. I’m suspicious of a product that can’t sell itself!

In encouraging fellow Jews to come closer to Torah, why do we feel we have to provide a financial incentive? I’ve heard two basic arguments:

1-Busy people need to choose wisely how to spend their time, and if you offer a financial incentive, it allows them to dedicate time to Torah instead of a part-time (or full-time, but I’ll get to that later) job.
2-Paying a stipend for someone to learn is widely accepted in the secular world (academic scholarships and stipends), so why should it be so for religious studies?

I haven’t had an answer for a while, though my gut instinct still wouldn’t accept it. Here is what I think makes offering money for Torah study problematic:

1- While it’s true that we need to be judicious in how our time is spent, $800 really wouldn’t offset the income from a small part-time job, and there are a lot of things one can learn from working, especially when studying already all day long.
2- Torah study in and of itself is free. There is no cost to going to a local synagogue, private or public library, and sitting down with a sefer, or reading many Torah articles online or listening to shiurim. In fact paid shiurim are a pretty modern phenomenon (I’m not against those by the way).
3- Paying someone to learn full-time requires its own discussion, but I believe that the kollel lifestyle of learning all-day long, for protracted periods of time, especially at the expense of serving in the army in Israel, is against what the Torah explicitly says. (Let the barrage of comments begin!)
4- Paying someone to study Torah is different than an academic stipend, because academic stipends are conditional – you need to be receiving certain grades, produce a thesis (which then becomes property of the university), etc. Paying someone to study and expecting nothing in return than to listen to the material provided, is different.
5- When you’re paid, you’re beholden. There are 70 faces to the Torah, and when one explores freely, they have access to 70. When you’re paid to come to shiurim, you’re going to be fed a certain outlook, and it’s more difficult to challenge someone when he is holding a check.

Not everyone is going to buy, but I believe that the Torah sells itself. By being a mensch, a good person whose ways are influenced by the Torah’s teachings, and by opening up our hearts and our homes to fellow Jews, many will be attracted in a much more authentic way.

8 comments on “Should Jews be Paid to Study Torah?

  1. Your love for Torah is beautiful as is your concern that Torah be sold even for a penny. If you don’t mind I would like to pose a flaw in your argument. That is, the money given is not a salary. Rather, it should be viewed as charity because a person who learns full time is comparable to a poor person. By looking at the nature of money you can understand this. Money is a form of bartering, which is trading one physical object for another. It is impossible to trade a physical object for something spiritual since they exist on two different planes. Furthermore, the spiritual is worth a trillion times more than the universe itself. Putting this into perspective, we see that someone who learns provides no physical benefit that can be traded for with money. Therefore, the money given is charity. Keep in mind the person should not be given more that he needs to live (housing, clothing, food ,etc…).

  2. Bob,
    I don’t believe that participants needed to stay in the program. It would only make sense that they’d have to stay for the whole time in order to receive $800. I don’t think that the organizers were closed to discussion. After all, someone who gets involved in outreach has to be prepared to answer some tough questions and rebuttals. It’s just that in principle it’s more challenging to argue with someone who is paying you money. Think about it. If you disagree with your boss at work, do you argue with him about it? Even if you do, can you understand why many people wouldn’t want to rock the boat?

    See Steve’s comment. I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes sense. I do know that when Ben-Gurion compromised with Haredi leaders upon the founding of the Jewish State and gave them the exception from serving in the army, there were 400 bochurs who were going to learn in Yeshiva. Now there are tens of thousands. All of our great gedolim in earlier generations set the model of learning and working. Rashi was a vintner, Rambam was a doctor, and the list goes on.

    Since when should we operate on “b’dieved” mode? Should I build my sukkah with some questionable walls because b’dieved they make the sukkah kosher?

  3. I think that there is a comment of Rashi that if one learns for five years and sees no success, he should seek another endeavor.

  4. WADR, one should look at the well known views of Rambam both in the Yad and Perush HaMishnah on Avos on being paid to learn for a living as well as Rambam’s own description of his average day on this issue.

  5. Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: “A person should always engage in Torah and good deeds, though it is not for their own sake, for out of [doing this] not for its own sake comes for its own sake.” (Pesachim 50b). Chazal recognized that Torah doesn’t always “sell itself.” I don’t think that anyone feels we “need to pay” – it has been definitively tried and true that, on average, the response to a paid program garners a higher quantity and quality response than an unpaid program. It would seem therefore that even though it may be “b’dieved” but if that is what motivates people to get involved in Torah, Chazal encourage it.

  6. You listed 2 half-hearted pros, and 5 passionate cons. It sounds like you decided.

    In many yeshivas, money is offered for saying over a certain amount of blatt of gemorra (outside). It’s a little different, but I think it’s a great thing, and we look for sponsors all the time.

  7. Ilene,

    1. Would you be OK with the $800 if it was conditional on some minimum test score afterwards?

    2. If you could walk away from the paid study program at any time, would you still feel pushed not to challenge the instructors’ points of view? Anyway, why do you feel the instructors would be uncomfortable being challenged? Maybe they’d love the give and take.

  8. I have written a lot against kollel. But now I am rethinking this. A place that learns the Talmud seems to me to be a source of value in the Jewish people. perhaps I have seen too much how the idea of yeshiva and kollel has been distorted beyond measure and that made me hostile to the very idea in itself. But as the romans used to say, “Abuse does not cancel use”. I think a place that spends most of the time learning the Babylonian Talmud should be supported a place that learns hasidut which is pseudo Torah should not be supported. and place that is a factory for orthodox rabbis– a place that learns so called halacha should not be supported because the problem with people that learn halacha is that they never know halacha. they don’t understand the gemara from where the halacha comes from and therefore every halacha they say is against the actual halacha as it appears in the gemara itself and in the shulchan aruch. This applies even to litvak types of kollels where they learn to be rabbis.

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