The Kollel Masculinity Crisis

Response Article To "Kollel Today: Challenge and Opportunity"

Moshe Maizlish
Moshe Maizlish Kollel Student, Torah Author

Kollel life today frequently presupposes a reversal of traditional gender roles, as men assume a portion of the housekeeping duties while their wives leave the house to provide for the family. This arrangement can lead a Kollel student to sense a certain diminution of his own dignity and stature. He may even feel jealously toward the material success of peers who chose a career path, finding himself questioning his commitment to staying on the learning track. These are issues that require serious reflection.

Adar 5780 / March 2020

It is 9:15 AM, on an otherwise unremarkable morning. Shlomo—R’ Shlomo, as he is usually referenced in his own community—enters Kollel somewhat out of breath from his walk, hangs his hat and coat on the rack outside the coffee room, and takes his seat. Directing a perfunctory “good morning” to his chavrusa Yaakov, he listlessly opens his Gemara. Noting his lousy mood, Yaakov inquires after his friend’s wellbeing. Surprisingly enough, Shlomo, typically not in the habit of talking about himself and his feelings, admits that something is indeed troubling him.

“The truth is, Yaakov,” Shlomo tells his chavrusa, “that I’m a bit depressed. I feel a little empty and unmotivated to learn.” Taken aback by his friend’s unusually candid words, Yaakov inquires further into the source of Shlomo’s malaise. Jumping at the opportunity to unburden himself, Shlomo launches into a monologue: “This feeling didn’t start today; it has weighing on me for a long time now, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was an encounter yesterday with an old friend from yeshiva. At the time he was by no means the most promising among our group. Yesterday, when I bumped into him in the street, he was getting out of an expensive car, very well dressed. He greeted me enthusiastically: ‘Shloimi! How are you? Long time, no see…’ Catching up, he informed me that he left Kollel to study law, is now a senior lawyer in a law firm, and his career is flourishing. ‘Good for you!’ I answered, trying to preserve my dignity, at which he asked me what I’m doing. ‘Baruch Hashem,’ I replied, ‘still in Kollel, learning Torah.’ ‘Very nice,’ he tells me with a hint of sarcasm, ‘Good for you! You are maintaining the world! Keep it up!’

“What can I tell you, Yaakov; this meeting took all the wind out of my sails. I returned home feeing that I’m not doing anything with myself. ‘What purpose is there in my learning all day?’ I couldn’t stop wondering. True, we make progress, learning one sugya or another, but internally I am directionless. Perhaps it would be different if I had a position or did something else part time, but I learn and learn all day. I’m pushing forty. What’s the point? What’s next?”

***

Shlomo’s sentiments are not uncommon among Kollel men today. Increasingly, they find themselves asking similar questions: what’s next and where does this all lead? Such struggles are actually less unsettling for the weaker Torah students; their dissatisfaction is more readily associated with the learning experience itself. The kind of internal tension and conflict described above is especially common among gifted students, whose days are filled with high-quality, successful studies at premier Kollel institutions. Once strong and productive young students in yeshiva, they continue to do well in Kollel. Nevertheless, they remain bothered by the question: given my talents, is learning all day really my purpose?

What lies at the root of their frustration? Why are the community’s top Kollel students, those whose very lives embody our highest ideals, often those who experience so much tension and doubt?

In our topic’s lead article, Rabbi Bochkovsky makes a correlation between the distress of contemporary Kollel students to the relatively few Torah positions available to them. In the not-too-distant past, Kollel students could expect to secure a position as a Rabbi or teacher, their Kollel years functioning as preparation for such future responsibility. Today, given the tremendous growth of the Kollel world, it is no longer realistic for students to assume they will attain leadership or teaching positions. Thus, questions and frustration concerning the future prospects loom large in the internal world of the striving and self-aware student. Rabbi Bochkovsky suggests that in this sense the Kollel concept has seen a significant transformation. While in the past Kollel institutions were an organic part of the yeshiva world, in both study methods and self-identity, they now exist as independent institutions. No longer able to draw guidance from the familiar yeshiva framework, today’s Kollel students must find a meaningful path of their own.

In my view, Rabbi Bochkovsky’s guiding assumption that the Kollel was formed as a continuation of yeshiva, offering members the promise of a future Torah position, is only partially correct. Major, longstanding Kollel institutions such as Ponevezh, Chazon Ish, Mir, and others, are filled with older students who continue to learn unceasingly for many years, never expecting that a position will materialize. There is no hint in their learning or conduct that these mature learners are frustrated would-be-teachers. Their devotion attests to a commitment, from their very first day in Kollel, to learn Torah “for its own sake.” Never having expected to translate their learning into a source of income, these Kollel men dedicated their lives to “dwelling in G-d’s house.” For them, the Kollel was always a place that has its own clear, independent purpose.

True, a greater proportion of Kollel students were able to secure Torah positions in the past. But this hardly justifies the claim that Kollel’s initial purpose was simply to prepare students for a future Torah position. Indeed, the argument is not compatible with historical fact. Yeshiva education never encouraged students to seek leadership positions. Rather, it emphasized the personal growth and development of bnei Torah. Even when Rav Cahaneman and Rav Ovadya Yosef encouraged students to emerge from within the walls of the study halls and spread Torah far and wide, they did so out of concern for the generation’s need for Torah teachers, not in pursuit of the Kollel student’s own self-fulfillment.

I agree with Rabbi Bochkovsky’s assertions that more Kollel students today are confused and lack satisfaction, as compared to their peers of yesteryear. But we should not reduce their angst to a single variable—the shortage of available positions. I believe a broader analysis is needed to fully account for the internal struggles of our young Kollel students.

 

The Challenge of Manhood

One of the most obvious issues facing today’s young Kollel student is the challenge to his masculine identity. Masculinity, as a well-defined archetype, is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Whatever their origin, expectations that men will act a certain way pervade general society, our own community included. Indeed, the more traditional a culture, the more entrenched are its prescribed gender roles.

Men in traditional societies are expected to exhibit strength and coolness—character traits that also define a certain division of labor—while more emotive traits such as sensitivity and softness are considered feminine characteristics. Moreover, a man whose behavior fails to meet the rigid expectations of his assumed gender role is considered strange, maybe even slightly flawed. Some will attribute this sense of failing to nature rather than nurture: a man needs to feel that he’s “wearing the pants.” One way or another, masculinity can often be central to a man’s sense of fulfillment, the more so in a traditional society that upholds basic gender distinctions.

Cultural factors will further influence any given community’s understanding of manhood. Our Sages derived from the verse “Place your sword on your thigh, O hero” (Tehillim 45) that weapons of war are a man’s “adornment.” In the eyes of today’s average Charedi man, manhood hardly entails bearing arms or serving in the military. Still, a persisting motif of masculinity, even in our community, is that the husband or father functions as the central “weight-bearing” pillar of the family. A man who must rely on others rather than himself to be the provider is thus likely to feel less manly and less fulfilled; he will feel crippled or insufficient in some existential sense.

Whether or not it bubbles up to the surface, an inevitable conflict around gender roles is inserted into the dynamic of the Kollel couple whose arrangement entails a husband learning in Kollel while his wife works to provide for the family. Traditionally, her identity as homemaker and mother assumes that the woman’s primary focus will be to care for her children, prepare the family’s meals, and see to the various needs of the home. In today’s Kollel families, motherhood may look very different. It might take the form of a career woman who disappears in the early morning and returns in the evening exhausted and worn out. This mother might struggle to find enough energy to provide the love and warmth her children expect of her.

The father’s role is likewise reversed. He is not the provider who sets out to conquer the world in the morning, returning home late in the evening to a calm and welcoming home. Moreover, he is unlikely to be the source of his family’s material sustenance. Instead, he assumes a portion of his wife’s role. He will actively participate in caring for the children, cooking for and feeding them, taking them to the park, and so on. In Israel’s Charedi neighborhoods, it is perfectly normal to see children playing in the park after school under the watchful eye of their Kollel student fathers. In the early morning hours, the streets are filled with fathers taking their children to schools; women are already at work.

I do not wish to address here the fundamental issue of gender equality and whether these arrangements are right or wrong (or whether such judgmental attitudes are even appropriate). Rather, the point I wish to stress here is the simple reality that traditional gender roles are almost entirely reversed in Kollel families, and that such transformation has consequences for the Kollel couple’s relationship and the Kollel man’s self-image.

 

The Loss of Male Identity

The identity of both spouses can be deeply threatened as a direct result of the Kollel family’s gender role reversal. The Kollel student may feel himself losing some of his male identity chasing his children around the playground; his wife, in her need to provide for her family, might find herself suppressing elements of her own femininity and motherly persona. A wife might feel overburdened by the demands on her time and energy, while the husband may sense his identity compromised. He may feel weak and helpless, unfulfilled and deeply damaged. His wife competes with and achieves alongside the men of the world while he is relegated to playground duty. Does she even respect his manhood?

Indeed, on account of the reversal in traditional roles, the woman in a Kollel home might slowly transition into the home’s central pillar. Sure, her husband will (hopefully) remain the spiritual beacon and religious leader of the family, but he is nevertheless confined to the home. He becomes the homemaker, while his wife is a worldly, sought-after individual with a robust and demanding world outside of the home.

The above illustration draws on an extreme (though not uncommon) stereotype of a Kollel family: the career-seeking wife whose Kollel-student husband takes on much of the traditional feminine roles, pursuing no personal interests beyond the narrow framework of his Kollel learning. But even if these examples are extreme, they still capture an existential tension that afflicts every young Kollel student—especially the more successful ones.

Rabbi Kessler, Rabbi of the Charedi city of Kiryat Sefer, has been confronting this issue for some time. When Matrix, a mid-sized tech startup, established offices in Kiryat Sefer, he advocated against the high salaries the company was offering to Kollel wives. Citing Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz zt”l as his source, Rabbi Kessler argued that “it is far better when women’s salaries are not too high, for two reasons. For one, people should make do with little; second, to preserve the husband’s authority in the home.” In a recent speech, he reiterated these concerns, making specific and critical reference to the phenomenon of Kollel men who cook for their families and even exchange recipes at Kollel. I do not wish to evaluate his comments and their consequences. I merely wish to show that community leaders are actively concerned about the tensions attendant to reversed gender roles. Rabbis understand that a threat to the Kollel student’s male identity poses a danger to his psyche, his relationship and standing in his children’s eyes, and ultimately to the very fabric of the Torah world.

Many of us are accustomed to seeing Kollel men rushing between their homes and the Kollel beis midrash—the traditional study hall—from which the sound of intense Torah study continues to emanate. Unfortunately, we have also become accustomed to seeing these same Kollel students exhausted and drained of energy. Of course, one might argue that they are exhausted from studying until late at night (or perhaps from attending to their small children until the wee hours, so their wives can be well rested for work). It seems to me, however, that their lethargy also attests to a lack of mental and psychological energy. Masculinity seeks an outlet for expression; the daily life of the Kollel student does a great deal to suppress his natural tendencies and drain his productive energy.

 

The Pioneering Generation and Us

It is specifically the younger men, the current generation of Kollel students, who are most challenged by changing expectations around the male role. Many older Kollel students, those of our parents’ generation mentioned above, have confidently and permanently chosen to establish themselves in the beis midrash; some are already marrying off grandchildren. Despite many years in Kollel, they show no signs of crisis, exhaustion or weakness. On the contrary, they are content and productive, exhibiting none of the crumbling resolve so apparent among younger students. What is the secret of their success that seems so elusive to their younger peers?

Rabbi Bochkovsky sees the evolution of the Kollel world as a process of maturation. While in the past Kollel students remained under the wing of their yeshiva alma maters, today’s young men must independently forge their own paths. As I noted above, I think this description is incomplete. It would seem more correct to describe the Kollel world as having transitioned from a “founding generation” to an established community. Whereas the early groups of Kollel students were suffused with a sense of pioneering mission, today’s young men assume they will join Kollel as a matter of course.

In the not too distant past, before Kollel became institutionalized, the choice to devote one’s life to full-time learning was far from not obvious. Other options existed; conscious sacrifice was required on the part of anyone who opted to remain in the beis midrash. The very choice to do so was an act of bravery in itself. Indeed, those who stayed on in the beis midrash were full partners in the enterprise of building a Torah world and preserving its character. The project itself demanded motivation and purposefulness, enough to satisfy the human need for productive activity and to earn the man his status as the head of his household. Driven by a mission, the Kollel student could see himself as a hero of sorts, and perhaps expect to be perceived as such by others. Needless to say, things are very different today. Our Torah world has become established, institutionalized and politicized; the pioneering spirit is all but lost, and the act of learning alone hardly confers stature upon the Kollel student, whether in his own home or outside of it.

Moreover, economic and social pressures have brought about changes in Kollel wives’ occupations. Previously, the Kollel wife would have typically worked as an educator or in a related field, thus mitigating somewhat the effects of the gender role reversal. With both of them engaged in either learning or teaching, spouses would have been more likely to sense a shared purpose and partnership in strengthening the Torah world. Our generation of Kollel wives is presented with a (by necessity) far broader range of employment options. Today’s young Charedi woman is far more likely to relate to her occupation as a career. This is true even in education; it is certainly the case when it comes to other professions. Even those who are not seeking career advancement and professional development still see their work as a job, not as a Torah mission.

Kollel institutions themselves have been compromised by these developments. In the past, choosing a Kollel life was an act of defiance against the outside world, a declaration on the part of the couple that they want nothing to do with society at large and its values. First generation Kollel men grew up surrounded by men who worked for a living; breaking from the mold was a rebellion of sorts, a shunning of temporal life in service of eternal values. Those early Kollel students conceived of the beis idrash as a “Noah’s Ark,” protected from and objecting to foreign influences. Today’s reality is entirely different. Kollel life is now simply an expected norm, the assumed lifestyle for many Charedi families. Kollel students, no longer in an environment they chose as shelter from the concerns of the world, do indeed care and talk about earning money and providing for their families. For these men, whose wives are also far from sheltered from the influences of the outside world, there may be strong appeal in calls for them to “move on” and pursue material success and its associated comforts.

Rabbi Bochkovsky also notes the flourishing of new learning initiatives within the traditional Kollel environment. Specifically, he mentions mastery of Shas and expertise in particular areas of halacha, suggesting that these have succeeded as a type of antidote to the feelings of purposelessness facing many students. I find it hard to believe that these changes will provide a solution to the malaise we are discussing. At best, these initiatives—such as preparing for and taking the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s certification tests on vast sections of halacha—can provide cover for or distraction from the core issues that need to be addressed. Offering the Kollel student an illusory feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment does little to address the essential problem of finding meaning in full-time learning. In a few years, when mastery of Shas or halacha becomes the norm, Kollel students will once again sense the same lack of enduring satisfaction. What will we offer them at that point?

***

Shlomo’s situation could be better; he might even be on the brink of a personal crisis. He and countless others like him experience deep emotional difficulty. At times they are likely to struggle to keep themselves afloat and their families intact. But it is important to stress that their solution does not for the most part lie in leaving the beis midrash and going to work. Beyond the spiritual challenges entailed therein, which must be addressed separately, doing so will do little to solve our Kollel student’s distress. His angst is not (primarily) a product of economic difficulty, but of existential turmoil. The Kollel student’s pathway to fulfillment and self-actualization should not necessarily lead him beyond the walls of the beis midrash.

Imagine if Yaakov were to respond to Shomo’s musings with the following response: “You know what Shlomo? Maybe it’s time to close your Gemara, find yourself a job, earn a degree, and make some money.” Let’s assume for a moment that Shlomo would get past his wounded ego and register for courses. A mature and respected Kollel student (let’s say he’s already close to hitting forty) devoted to learning Torah, he now takes his seat alongside classmates some two decades younger than he. Let us further posit that he will succeed in completing the necessary studies and earn a law degree, computer programming certificate, or the like. Now what? Would Shlomo, a forty-year-old talmid chacham immersed in the nuances of Abaye and Rava’s debates, be capable of spending long hours in an office job? Only few are able and willing to make the transition.

Going to work will not solve all the our Kollel student’s problem. It might even make things worse. Leaving Kollel and becoming a working Jew who sets aside time for learning is Shlomo’s nightmare. Doing so would ultimately destroy his world. Raised on Torah learning, he knows of no other ambitions or aspirations. Some will change as time goes by, and adopt new ambitions. But for Shlomo (as an archetype), even if some portion of his present distress is economic, he would rather stay in Kollel and live frugally than take a step that sacrifices his dignity in pursuit of material comfort.

Solutions to the Kollel student’s angst must come principally from within his world and value system. He needs to find a way to draw satisfaction, meaning, and dignity from his life of full-time learning. He must embrace his role and appreciate his own value. After all, successful Kollel students love learning and believe that Torah study is more important than anything else. For the most part, they would truly not want to be engaged in any other worldly pursuit. Their agita points to a lack of purpose and appreciation for what they do, which derives from the present reality that their path is no longer unique or even optional. Renewed appreciation for and a sense meaning within learning are needed to ease their struggles.

In summary, the Kollel world is evolving and we must give serious thought to our culture, to issues of male identity, and myriad other variables and factors. A formulaic approach, one that suggests a change in learning style or emphasis as the solution, will fail to address these issues and may even exacerbate them in the long run. We need to establish an open dialogue around these issues, alongside a renewed and passionate commitment to Torah study.

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