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.

Redefining the Weekend

One of the major things that Israel unique is a rather unexpected one — the weekend, or lack thereof. The standard Israeli work week is from Sunday to Thursday, and some offices, as well as schools, have abridged hours on Friday, too. This means that a day of rest is pretty much limited to its Torah origins — Shabbat.

There is a movement underway and recently backed by Prime Minister Netatnyahu to reduce the work week to four days plus a half day on Friday. The idea is to get Israel will be in sync with other “developed” countries, which don’t work on Sundays, while being sensitive to those who observe Shabbat. I’m uncertain that this will be feasible for every industry and long-distance commuters, but it sure sounds nice. Sometimes I feel that one of the biggest sacrifices I’ve made by making aliyah is giving up my Sundays — the day for brunch, picnics, hikes, and sleeping in.

Though working Sunday through Thursday produces the same number of hours of work and rest as the traditional Monday through Friday schedule, the result is not the same. With Shabbat just hours away, especially in the winter, Friday becomes a day of chores and preparing for Shabbat for many families. Stores close early and buses stop running hours before Shabbat, so day trips for folks like me without cars are limited. And when Shabbat ends, it’s back to work. There is something nice about making havdalah and then preparing for the work week, rather than facing another day off, but when we say “Hamavdil ben kodesh l’chol”, I sometimes think that I’d like to get a little bit more out of my chol.

In the United States, Sunday used to be the day for shopping, getting together with friends, and enjoying the outdoors. Of course these things can be done on a Friday or on Shabbat, but in a much more limited way. Fridays are crunched, and Shabbat is limited by melachot and the special nature of the day. One of the most difficult things for me initially when beginning to observe Shabbat was to pass on my Saturday hikes. Ironically, upon moving to Israel, I’ve had to pass on the Sunday ones too.

Ilene blogs at

Wearing My BT Badge with Pride

This is a response to the post, Can and Should BTs become Virtually Indistinguishable? I wish I could have seen the entirety of the letter for the Kiruv organization that was quoted. My immediate gut reaction was insult. In a frum community, if all members are following halacha and more or less the same customs, what is the issue with being a little different?

It reminds me of some conversations that I’ve had with the ultra-Orthodox community I studied with as I began to take on mitzvot. I asked why the men would all wear black suits. Where was the individuality? I was told that once you’re in the community and get to know people, you notice little accessories or personality traits that makes each person individual.

There is a lot to be said about conformity and community, but personally, I wear my BT badge like I do my American accent that won’t go away when I speak Hebrew — with pride. I don’t need to flash it around, but I don’t stuff it away either.

Just a few days ago I was at an ultra-Orthodox wedding. Putting on a black headscarf to accompany my black dress and black tights, I certainly looked like I belonged, but it felt a bit like a Purim costume. I wondered if others could see through the veneer. And then, once the party started, oh the dancing. I can’t ever get those circle dance steps right. Could anyone tell I was out of sync? Part of me hoped so. And then, back at the table, I was asked about a family I might know from my hometown. When I didn’t, she asked “You’re not chozeret l’tshuvah, are you?” and I felt a little embarrassed to say “Yes.” Given my outfit, would she know that was not my choice? Why did that matter?

The following day I put on a different outfit for running errands in town – a tunic shirt, cotton skirt, and headscarf, all in bright blues and purples. To carry some of my belongings I had an Israeli army צה’ל bag. I looked the part of a typical daati leumi woman. I felt stares. “Do they know I’m a poser American who would be too scared to actually live in a settlement?”

While I wear a head covering and skirts in part because I want to be identified as religious, I struggle with the idea of being like the man in the suit.

While trying to find a place among the choices of religious communities in Israel, I still hold on dearly to my secular past. I’ll hum zemirot to myself while shopping for Shabbat, but all a friend or my husband has to do is to say a word or a phrase that will send me off into a pop or rap song with the same verse. And when I bust a rhyme, I hope people overhear me.

I agree with the e-mail that “it is possible and almost always advisable to maintain many relationships from the past, especially familial ones.” It is my belief that Jews are not to sequester themselves away from the outside world, but rather to uplift it, and to be a “light upon the nations”. BT’s can be a strong chain in the link between the two worlds. I would argue that, within reason, it’s okay and even advisable to maintain the most precious elements of our lifelong relationships, hobbies, and habits, for they were placed in our lives for a reason, and they too are a badge that reminds us we made a choice.

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