Friday, October 5, 2012

Other People’s Money. Payment for Idealistic Occupations

I never told this to anyone before”, the Israeli man sitting across me last night in the Succah[i] says. “When I was a child we would walk two kilometres from our home in Jerusalem to the Synagogue. The Rabbi was a really humble man. He did not take a salary for his work as a Rabbi. He made his living working for the burial society. He lived 4 kilometres from the Synagogue and he would walk home with us and stop our place each Saturday on his way home…I never met another Rabbi like him”.

I have been thinking about whether being paid for community work is a problem. In my own case, my heart is set on promoting inter-religious and cross cultural respect and eradicating hatred, an issue I have worked on full time for the last 6 years. Yet, my livelihood is derived from the existence of the problem that I am trying to address. Noel Pearson touches on the role of bureaucrats in entrenched in an article the Australian Newspaper “Their purpose is to keep the poor under harness, forever dependent on what they call service delivery…using them as fodder for the service delivery industries of the welfare state[ii]”. This post is about what my traditions teaches about being pair for work in idealistic occupations.

Torah Students Supported by Others
One of the trends among a section of the very orthodox Jewish community is for men to study the
Torah, full time, for many years continuing even after marriage in institutions of study called Kollels. The families of the Kollel scholars are supported partly by the income of the wives working, but often living off philanthropy and government benefits.

One early source for this practice is hinted at in the Torah reading this week. “And of Zebulun he (Moses) said, rejoice Zebulun in your going out and Yissachar in your tents[iii]”. The verse is interpreted as relating to a partnership between the tribe of Yissachar to study Torah[iv], while Zebulun engaged in commerce and supported the tribe of Yissachar. The reward for the Torah study would be split between them[v].

The Dependence Disgrace
Despite a tradition of patronage for Torah scholars, this practice has been harshly condemned by Maimonides. He writes, “though I decided not to refer to this subject again…I have changed my mind, since what I have to say will not please most if possibly all the world of Torah scholars. Know! The phrase (don’t use the Torah) “as a spade to dig with[vi]” means that you must not use the Torah as a means or instrument of livelihood…but men have distorted the plain obvious meaning…[vii].Whoever deliberately sets out to devote himself to Torah (study) and not work for a livelihood, but depend on charity has desecrated the divine name and brought the Torah into disrepute[viii]”. He cites many examples of scholars who earned their livelihood separately from their study. His argument is bolstered by the widespread disgust felt by many secular Israeli Jews about their religious countrymen who study all day and don’t work for a living. Yet, the practice continues.

Practical considerations
While it is true that great scholarship has been achieved after hours and a lot of community work is done on a voluntary basis, there is more that can be done if people are able to devote themselves full time to it.

Maimonides own experience is worth considering, for many years he was supported by his own brother David who was a wealthy merchant while he studied and wrote. After his brother’s death he did support himself by working as a doctor for the Sultan, but it was hardly conducive to scholarship. He described his daily routine in a letter to a friend who he advises not to bother visiting because he would only be able to spare a few minutes as much as he longs to see him.

“I live in Fostat and the Sultan lives in Cairo (a mile and a half distance)…I must see him (the Sultan) every morning to check on his health… by the time I come back to Fostat, half the day is gone. Under no circumstances do I come earlier. And I am ravenously hungry by then.

When I come home, my foyer is always full of people – Jews and non-Jews…people who love me and people who hate me…, all of whom have been waiting for me to come home… I get off of my donkey, wash my hands, and go out into the hall to see them. I apologize and ask that they should be kind enough to give me a few minutes to eat... Then I go out to heal them...Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes – I swear to you by the Torah – it is two hours into the night before they are all gone. I talk to them and prescribe for them even while lying down on my back from exhaustion. And when night begins, I am so weak, I cannot even talk anymore[ix]…”

Perhaps Maimonides would have been better off in the situation of another Doctor-Torah scholar, the Rashbatz, who was prevented from practicing medicine by an oppressive Government. He then felt justified in accepting payment for his religious work[x], and probably did a much better job of it than anyone can do on top of a full time job.

A way around the issue of being paid for teaching Torah is to think of it as compensation for lost income[xi]. The Rabbinic Judge, Karna, one of the examples cited by Maimonides, earned his living as a water carrier rather than as a religious functionary. However, when Karna was asked to adjudicate disputes based on Torah law, he asked the litigants to pay for a replacement water carrier[xii] so that he would not lose out on his meagre income.

I think the most serious issue here is the one raised by Noel Pearson, in which people harm the very people they are entrusted to help. In the same passage that Torah scholars are urged to combine their study with work, there is a warning for all who occupy themselves with the community, to do so for altruistically “for the sake of heaven[xiii]”. All of us who have the privilege of meaningful work in the community sector are obligated to be alert to ulterior motives, whether these are ego or job security. Good governance and accountability are also critical for maintaining checks and balances.

It make a big impression on me as a child when my father came home from a newly formed “community representative body” or parliament one night and said we decided to disband the group as soon as it has achieved its purpose rather than it continue to exist and become a new “monster”.  All of us in in the community sector must justify the wages we take in terms of the benefit we provide to clients and the community and the impact we have. We dare not do any less.  

[i] Temporary dwellings used during the festival of succot
[iii] Deuteronomy 33:18
[iv] We find a reference to member of the Yissachar tribe acting as scholars “understanding of the times” In Chronicles I, 12:33
[v] Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma
[vi] Pirkey Avot 4:6
[vii] Maimonides commentary on Pirkey Avot
[viii] Maimonides Yad Hachazaka, laws of Torah study, 3:10-11
[x] Chill, A, (1991) “Abarbanel on Pirkey Avot”, Shepher-Hermon Press, New York, p.247 (this book also includes a compilation of other commentaries as well drawn from Midrash Shemuel
[xi] Abarbanel makes this argument in his commentary to Pirkey Avot, I am sure there are other sources
[xii] Talmud Ketubot 105a, cited in Maimonides commentary on Pirkey Avot
[xiii] Pirkey Avot 2:2

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