A curious twist to religious patriarchy

The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are all patriarchal in the roles they assign to genders within the family. The husband is the head of the household and calls the shots and the wives and children follow his orders, at least in theory. Women are supposed to bear children (the more the better) and be responsible for taking care of them and for cooking, cleaning, and otherwise maintaining the household. These roles become more pronounced and extreme the more fundamentalist the believers are.

But there is one major difference between ultra-orthodox Christians and Muslims and ultra-orthodox Jews. In the first two, the man is supposed to be the breadwinner of the family and it is preferred that women stay at home. But in the case of ultra-Orthodox Jews known as the haredim, the men are supposed to spend their entire lives studying the Torah, not engaged in gainful employment.

So what about income? Very often, it is the women who are expected to also earn money to support the family (without being relieved of all their other responsibilities) so that the men can continue their full-time studies. In fact, the haredi educational system seems to be designed with this outcome in mind.

Girls have 12 years of religious and secular education, and then two years of job training at seminaries that began about eight years ago adding classes in software engineering, graphics and architecture. Boys aren’t offered secular courses after primary levels, the IMF said in its March 9 report.

In other words, all that the men are actually qualified to do is further study of the Torah, since the religion-heavy education they receive makes them unqualified to do most jobs, while the women get an education with an eye to them entering the job market. Why having to shoulder all these burdens does not take a massive toll on women and result in burnout at an early age baffles me. What is interesting is that the very fact that they have jobs should make it easier for the haredi women to walk away from this situation if they find it unbearable, unlike Christian and Muslim women in fundamentalist families who have no financial independence. I don’t know what the statistics are for haredi women leaving but these are very tightly knit communities and the psychological barriers to leaving may be strong enough to keep them from doing so, however intolerable they find their daily lives.

Not surprisingly, this practice has resulted in haredi families having high rates of poverty. This is true for haredi families worldwide but the effects are most pronounced in Israel, where the numbers of haredi is large and growing rapidly.

While the ultra-Orthodox make up about 8 percent to 10 percent of the population, they will represent 17 percent of working-age Israelis in 20 years because of their high birth rate, according to the bank. By the late 2050s they will account for a quarter of the population, a March 9 IMF report found.

The ultra-orthodox, along with Arab-Israelis, have the lowest labor participation and highest poverty rates in Israel.

This is causing a major drag on the economy since the government of Israel has to step in to support these families.

Tucker said seminary students get monthly stipends from the government of about 800 shekels ($200) in addition to as much as 1,200 shekels a month distributed by seminaries to married students from money raised through donations. The families also benefit from government child subsidies of as much as 300 shekels per child.

It turns out, though, that there is an additional benefit for the men in Israel to be permanent students of the Torah. By law, all men have to serve in the military when they turn 18 but yeshiva students are exempt as long as they stay in the seminary. The haredim are politically powerful and successive governments have pandered to them and Matti Friedman describes how as their numbers rise, this sense that the haredi are parasites on the rest of Israeli society is causing considerable stress and demands that something must change

Like most very religious people, the haredi have a deep sense of self-righteousness and do not in the least see themselves as moochers. A haredi member of the Knesset said that any man who works for a living instead of spending all his time studying the Torah is not really a haredi. In fact, they say that it is only their devotion to full time prayer and study that is protecting the nation and that the rest of the country, far from criticizing them, should be grateful, as evidenced in an interview on an Israeli TV news program.

“We are keeping you alive and supporting you! It is not you who sustains us, as you believe,” [Rabbi Menachem] Blau insisted, meaning haredi Torah study and prayer were the only reasons Israel exists and thrives, and that non-haredi Israelis should be fawning at the feet of haredi Torah scholars and yeshiva students because of it.

But not all of them felt that they were saving the nation by spending al their time on religious studies.

Then Channel 10 got a random haredi man to speak on camera.

“I want to milk the state, because if I do not take the money it goes to the Bedouins or elsewhere. The government has stolen our budgets and gives us nothing,” the haredi man said.

Given that this idea that men must forgo work and spend all their time studying their religious texts is not present in the sister religions of Christianity and Islam, it would be interesting to find out how and when that idea came about and managed to convince a significant number of Jews.

The idea of living the life of an ascetic dependent on the charity of others is also found in Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism (I don’t know about Islam) but those numbers are very few and those people renounce the world and all its attachments (including their families), while the haredi seem to want to have it both ways, be part of the world and yet not contribute to it.


  1. Mobius says

    A haredi member of the Knesset said that any man who works for a living instead of spending all his time studying the Torah is not really a haredi.

    Wait a minute.

    This guy is a “haredi member of the Knesset”? Which means he ISN’T spending all his time studying the Torah. Which means he is not really a haredi at all.

    Oh, the hypocrisy.

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “(I don’t know about Islam)”
    Alms-giving (zakat) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Originally it meant supporting the poor in general, but AFAIK many mosques and madrasses (and the mullas working there) get their income from it.

    And didn’t the practise exist among the Jews already after one of the twelve tribes (Levi) wasn’t allocated any land in Israel? They were supposed to run the temple services and as a compensation eat the offerings from the other tribes.

  3. anat says

    Mano, like other forms of fundamentalism, Haredi Judaism arose as a response to modernity, in this case to Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) and non-Orthodox Jewish denominations. In eastern Europe, Jewish men spent who showed promise in their studies at an early age were sent to a yeshiva in the big city, and the custom was that the students dined with the more well-to-do Jewish families on a rota basis. After some years of study they were qualified for one of the religious ‘crafts’ such as religious slaughterers, scribe, schoolteacher, or a rabbi of a community, and they often got sent to a community that needed such a practitioner. The system worked because only a limited number of students attended yeshiva, so the community could support them, and the students eventually graduated to jobs.

    The situation in Israel was created as a result of an agreement Ben-Gurion made with the Haredi leadership, with the goal of restoring religious Jewish learning following the devastation it had suffered in the Holocaust. Like many secular Jews at the time, Ben-Gurion believed religion in general, and Haredi Judaism in particular, were dying phenomena. He failed to appreciate how much Haredi Judaism could grow once it got constant government support.

    While some level of family economic support by women existed among religious and Haredi Jews even before Israeli statehood and is reflected in literature, the Israeli laws requiring men to be either full-time yeshiva students to get government support together with social pressure within the Haredi community on men to participate in this system, whether they are successful at their studies or not, pushed this trend to a more extreme form.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    The Torah isn’t that large. How much more Torah scholarship can still be done? Or are they simply hashing over what other scholars have said about the Torah, and if so, at what point do they all collapse into their own navels in a vortex of recidivism?

  5. anat says

    Torah includes the written law and the oral law. The latter was supposedly transmitted in parallel and explains in great detail the practical aspects of the written law. Then it got compiled and written down in the 2nd century CE as the Mishnah, discussions, elaborations and interpretations of it were compiled as the Gemara, which together with the Mishnah form the Talmud in the 5th century. Those are already some heavy duty books. Then commentaries and discussions of specific cases were added on over the centuries. It never ends, every generation has instances where the laws need to be adapted to the conditions of the time and place (eg how Shabbat laws apply to electricity) or specific circumstances that did not arise previously. Also, people come up with new questions such as the infamous ‘is it permitted to pick one’s nose on Shabbat’ or ‘is it a breach of modesty to have a conversation across a closed bathroom door’.

  6. Mano Singham says


    To follow up anat, there is no end to such discussions even for other religions. There are always new issues that have to be ‘resolved’ through examination of esoteric pieces of the holy text. What is different here is the idea of an obligation to do it full time. You can always find things to fill up the time.

  7. lpetrich says

    “Torah”, literally “instruction, teaching”, is used with several meanings, notably:
    -- The first 5 books in the Tanakh (Old Testament)
    -- Jewish religious lore: the Tanakh and the Talmud
    There’s a lot of Torah in the second sense, and one can keep oneself very busy studying it.

  8. moarscienceplz says

    Ahhh, they say they are doing scholarship all day while the wife’s at work, but I bet they’re just playing Minecraft.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *