On the Worrying Economics of Torah Observance

Tablet Magazine recently ran a story about the rising costs associated with maintaining Orthodox-level Jewish observance (the article focuses on Toco Hills in Atlanta, a heavily-Orthodox suburb). From food to housing to education, the article notes, it’s always been costly (when compared with how others fare) to be strictly Torah observant. It’s expensive to keep kosher in a manner that will pass muster in those communities. Housing costs get driven upward because of the need to live within an eruv (a legal fiction that defines a kind of private space in which the laws for carrying items between public and private spaces on Shabbat do not apply) or otherwise be within walking distance of a synagogue. And public education simply “won’t do” because no one teaches Torah and Talmud in the public schools.

(“Legal fiction,” by the way, does not mean that something is false. It means that the entity, concept, etc., is created by a legal enactment because it would not otherwise exist. Your Latin lesson for today: “fiction” comes from the same Latin verb–facio–as our words “fact” and “manufacture.”)

You could say many things about the economic circumstances at work here. It’s possible, for example, to “blame the victim.” I won’t do that here, and wouldn’t do so in any case. My concern is a systemic one.

A quote from one of the article’s sources, a baal teshuva who has depended upon loans to remain in the Toco Hills area of Atlanta, is instructive here:

And if I’m going to struggle through this Torah, then my kids need to have friends. They need to be in the community.

It’s the “struggle through this Torah” that catches me.

Challenge and struggle with matters that are personally important is essential to being a full person. But there is a distinction to be made between self-actualization and adhering to a system that calls for self-harm as a proper path.

To be sure, halakhah has always had exceptions and allowances for certain situations. Pikuach nefesh–preservation and/or saving a life–is the most notable one, allowing one to violate other commandments in order to save a life (in part because pikuach nefesh is not only an exception to some commandments but is, itself, a commandment). There are also allowances made for the obligation of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of objects associated with mitzvot) so that one should obtain the best object one can afford. But other than inflicting hardship upon oneself, there is no real allowance for not living in the eruv (one can live outside the eruv, but it makes life considerably more difficult on Shabbat and holidays), for not keeping kosher, etc.

(And as the power of minhag (custom) renders some of the more strict approaches binding, I can imagine a time when “it’s best to send your child to an Orthodox-oriented private school” is ultimately considered to be a binding Torah obligation. That continued addition of stricture is pretty well inherent to how the law develops in much of the Orthodox world, as one generation’s machmir (strict) minhag becomes the next’s chumrah (stricture) and the third generation’s takkanah (decree).)

None of this, I think, is a good thing. We should be worried when “being a good Jew” comes to require indebtedness and even impoverishment for a significant portion of a community. And that’s the portrait painted in the Tablet article by insiders who want to be part of the frum world in Toco Hills.

All of this points out the inaccuracy of the picture we often paint of Judaism. Many within the Jewish community like to talk about Judaism as something inherently kind of humanist: from Maimonides’s seven forms of tzedakah (charity) to concerns for preventing cruelty to animals (tzaar baalei chayyim), from a regular sabbath when work stops to the system of sabbatical and jubilee years, there’s a lot to be said for some–some–components of Jewish tradition.

But all of this is limited. The forgiveness of debts during the sabbatical and jubilee years–a practice called shmita–is not observed. That’s been so since the time of Hillel, because no one would loan money in the year prior to a sabbatical year for fear of never being repaid (this is the famous Prozbul–another legal fiction–that made certain debts transferable to the courts, allowing lenders to collect and borrowers to borrow). Tzaar baalei chayyim is important. But when animals are struggling under a load, one helps Jewish-owned animals before gentile-owned ones, provides more help to the Jew, may seek payment from the gentile, and must help the gentile only because of the suffering of the animals–not out of common decency. Pikuach nefesh requires preserving life; but it may also disregard the quality of the life so preserved in some cases (this is a particularly troublesome question in the world of medical and bioethics for those on life support systems).

Humanistic values often necessarily clash with traditional Jewish values. To be honest to the traditional sources and their messages, we need to confront those value issues head on. Secular Humanistic Judaism has one answer; frum Judaism has another.

But if the purpose of the mitzvot is to live by them, what kind of life is it? It shouldn’t be the one lived by some in Toco Hills, which may effectively institutionalize dependence and a struggle for simple survival.