Shavuot: Choosing a Profession: Torah Considerations

Nov 17, 2014

Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz

Part II – Entering the Professional World: Pros and Cons
Many deliberate over whether to enter the professional world (usually preceded by university study) or to pursue full-time Torah study in a kollel framework. I draw on my experience in the yeshiva, the academic and the professional worlds to present some of the positive and negative sides of a professional life.

Before beginning, two introductions are in order:
A. Whichever track one pursues, a period of intensive Torah study at the beginning of married life is essential.
B. Before I went to university I was priviledged to discuss the issue for about three hours with the Gaon Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky z”l. Near the end of our discussion he said to me, “I’m not going to tell you to go or not to go, but whatever a Jew does should contribute to his avodat Hashem (service of G-d).”

Positive Aspects of Professionalism:
The following is a list of some of the halakhic, moral, and realistic advantages of the professional life. They also relate to some of the problematic aspects of the modern kollel situation.

  1. The mishna lists among the obligations of a father towards his son, “teaching him a trade.” Apparently, one should have a trade that must somehow be learned.
  2. There is a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the Divine Name, when someone is involved in the professional world and lives by Torah and mitzvot.
  3. Living in the professional world enables us to translate Torah values in to practical life. In the Igeret Haramban he cautions his son, “When you get up from a sefer, look for a way that you can practically fulfill what you learned.” Learning Choshen Mishpat and then not putting it into practice involves a certain lack of kiddush Hashem. Applying the Torah’s medical, legal, business ethics, etc., takes the Torah from theory to practice and sanctifies both the person and the world.
  4. The life experience that comes with the professional world facilitates a real understanding of Torah. Part of understanding Torah is understanding the reality it relates to.
  5. A solid understanding of reality ensures the accuracy of halakhic decision making. In order to be able to rule on the complex areas of modern life, poskim (halakhic authorities) must be able to arrive at a clear picture of the halakhic question. Great poskim consult with professionals in order to clarify the practical material their research relates to. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, for example, had a cadre of religious doctors, engineers, etc. that helped him understand issues in modern life, science and technology. A Torah observant professional can be a crucial bridge to the poskim.
  6. For some, the absence of productive work, even when involved in Torah study, can lead to depression and aimlessness. Certain personalities need work, with its concrete results and active involvement, in order to avoid frustration and despair. If some people do not have the eight hours of work they will not do the two hours of learning. As the mishna in Ketubot says, “Inactivity leads to dullness or boredom.” A professional man was presented with the option of early retirement and wanted to begin, after working his whole life, to learn full time. He consulted with Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky zt”l who, knowing the man, advised him against it. The openness and unstructured nature of some yeshiva frameworks can be counterproductive for the underdisciplined. Combining a late minyan, a leisurely breakfast and an undisciplined seder, a weaker kollelnik might drift into laziness.
  7. The poverty that sometimes goes along with a kollel life can hurt a person. In Silver Spring four or five people a day will sometimes visit, collecting money for themselves. Though initially they chose the kollel track to maximize their learning time, they end up spending months on the road trying to get together money to marry off a child or, sometimes, even to support their families. A tragic situation has developed, of intergenerational poverty, of a community without an economic base.
  8. Economic self sufficiency – relying on none other than G-d Himself — is considered a positive Jewish virtue. As we pray every day in Birkat Hamazon, “Please, Hashem, let us not be in need of presents from flesh and blood.” The flip side, getting paid for Torah, is considered morally and spiritually problematic. As the Mishna cautions and the Rambam echoes, the Torah should not be made into a “shovel to dig with”. The Kesef Mishneh and others justify the widespread practice of accepting support while learning and teaching Torah – maintaining that they get paid “sekhar batala,” payment to refrain from doing other things. The modern kollel situation seems to have gone a step further, not only justifying a deviation but redefining a norm.
  9. A scientific understanding of nature, aquired through serious study of the sciences, can bring one to love and fear of Hashem. Appreciating how wonderful the Divine creation is can contribute to one’s religious sensibilities.
  10. Lastly, a professional work week can certainly lead to a greater appreciation of Shabbat.

Negative Aspects of Professionalism
Pursuing a university education and entering the professional world is not a simple venture, carrying with it a whole group of spiritual and moral dangers and difficulties:

  1. In the higher education that is a pre-requisite for entering many fields, one is exposed to heretical approaches and opinions, as well as books that are classified as “sifrei minim”. There are exceptions, but it is a serious problem that is not always simple to deal with or avoid.
  2. The social setting of the professional and academic world often leads to accomodation and compromise in halakha – especially Shabbat, Kashrut, and modesty. People will find themselves bending the rules in order to avoid uncomfortable social situations, eating fish that looks kosher, salads in non-kosher restaurants, etc. Amira la’akum, telling a non-Jew to do work on Shabbat, can come up, for instance, telling a non-Jewish secretary to have work ready first thing Monday morning when it is clear that it will be done on Shabbat. The workplace environment is often a very immodest one, given the dress, speech, and physical contact that is often a norm. Ironically, out of fear of sexual harassment law suits, companies often formulate workplace rules that end up sounding very frum. One manual forbids a man and woman to be in a room alone with the door closed and requires women to wear skirts that go below the knees and sleeves that go under the elbows! Here and there the secular world has finally realized the importance of boundaries between men and women, even if it is out of fear.
  3. A number of ethical dilemnas present themselves in professional situations, often making it difficult to both work and keep halakha. In confidentiality dilemnas, especially in legal settings, Halakhic and legal norms might push in different directions. The obligation to tell the truth is often difficult to keep in business settings. Imagine keeping a job as a waiter and being totally honest about the food you’re serving (“If you ask me, the chicken’s not so fresh.”) Even when not lying, one can sometimes end up misrepresenting by only presenting part of the truth. There is, in general, a temptation to compromise on moral issues.
  4. Living in the secular world can create certain destructive attitudes. Our priorities can end up radically different than those of the Torah. When others around us are focusing on financial advancement or power, it is often difficult to focus on avodat Hashem. Even when attempting to hold on to our own priorities, the reality of the modern workplace environment and the competition associated with it can create a kind of obsession with work. If people would, for instance, spend a fraction of their work time on their family life, the divorce rate might drop by 50%. (No one says on their death bed, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”) The Rambam slates a normal “baalabus” for three hours of work and nine hours of learning! We must make sure that we don’t lose track of why we are working in the first place – to earn a livelihood to be able to raise a family and keep the Torah and mitzvot.
  5. The professional and academic world often cultivates negative character traits – aggressiveness, pushiness, arrogance, and hypercriticism – that can destroy our personalities.
  6. Obsession with career issues – preparing for it and involvement in it — can sap our time and energy on endeavors that are only a means to an end. It is a little like someone flying to Israel who spends months learning French because he has a seven hour stopover in France, but never bothers to learn Hebrew to prepare for his main trip. It is strange to spend so much energy, effort, and preparation for earning a living – to enable us to learn Torah and do mitzvot – without expending our main energies on learning Torah and doing mitzvot themselves.

Summing it up:
The glorious ideal of Torah and Derech Eretz is not simple to translate into the day to day reality of the business and academic world. There is great potential for good in the professional world but there are also great spiritual dangers. Those who take on that challenge must work hard at minimizing the dangers and maximizing the good. That demands serious daily Torah and tefilla and the guidance of a rebbe or mentor. Priorities must be kept in line. Career must not replace Torah as the central axis of our life.

Adaptation prepared by Eliezer Kwass

On Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz
Rabbi Breitowitz is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Maryland and the Rabbi of the Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland. He received Rabbinical Ordination from the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in 1976; B.S. with honors from Johns Hopkins University; J.D (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School in 1979; and a Doctorate in Talmudic Law from Ner Israel in 1992. He has lectured extensively throughout the US and Israel on medical, business and family ethics. He has published numerous articles on bankruptcy, commercial law, medical ethics, family law, and halakha.

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