A conservative (small “c”) manifesto: Government is not the solution, It’s the problem


[OK, I’m finally going to start discussing the manifesto I promised earlier. Here goes – aiwac]

People who know me know that I am a convinced Reaganite, hence the titular slogan. But what does this have to do with Orthodox-Jewish society, you ask? Well, everything. The story of Orthodoxy in the 20th century has largely been one of an ever-growing, ever-expanding (bloated, really) religious “welfare state”.

What do I mean? Well, it’s simple. Once upon a time, religious institutions and services were almost entirely local, based out of the community. Education, mikvas, shuls and more were provided locally, with people from the community. Rabbis who wished to serve as the head of the community needed its approval.

Then came modernity and emancipation. For a variety of reasons, the community disintegrated – whether because of social collapse or legal fiat. Those that remained frum realized that not only was the kehilah gone, but that they would need much stronger voluntary institutions to survive. To ensure its survival and maintain the frumkeit of each new generation, Orthodox communities now went into “institution-building overdrive”.

This means a whole network of day schools, high schools, yeshivot &c on a scale that simply did not exist at any other point in Jewish history. Every new challenge required new institutions. A good example is actually the Mizrachi crowd. When they saw that religious educated kids could only attend secular high schools, they established yeshiva high schools. To help prevent OTD in the army, they established yeshivot hesder, Mechinot &c. So great is this institution-building mentality, that in a discussion of how to help religious Jews deal with campus life, an author suggested building a “pre-university mechina (!)”.

But there’s more. Take Kashrut, for instance. Once upon a time, this was a localized affair, learned through tradition in the home and with the community. Nowadays, it is dictated by trans-national religious organizations the members of whom no-one elected or even met and they are subject to no real oversight. Indeed, a strong case could be made that kashrut is more a identifying social marker than a sign of halachic stringency. Add to this the network of gmach”im (religious charities), shidduch organizations and more, and you have what amounts to a “cradle to grave” system meant to cater to your every religious need.

The same goes for halachic authority. Where once it was vested in the local community (unless there was great need), now it is fully given over to trans-national leaders who are given far more authority than they had back in the days of the kehilot. Where once you had major poskim but also a strong contingent of local Rabbis, increasingly the attitude is to bend one’s will to the Roshei Yeshiva and Gedolim who are disconnected from the community.

So What’s the Problem?

Ostensibly, this is great. As an Orthodox Jew, everything is done for me – the kashrut is checked, tefillin and tzizit are made and education is provided into the late 20s. There is, however, a heavy price to all this. Let’s start with the obvious:

To create this great service structure requires a great deal of man and woman-power. It means creating a huge network of professionals, middle-men (otherwise known as askanim), and paper-pushers. As anyone versed in government knows, these are the people who actually run our daily lives, not the people on top (government or gedolim). While we can debate what various religious authorities say, they are not the ones who make the actual operational decisions. The “chumra mentality” in particular works perfectly with the bureaucratic mindset – the one that cares less for getting things done than ensuring that every regulation is carried out.

Bureaucracies tend to become ever-more convoluted and inefficient the more they grow, and the religious bureaucracies are no exception. I have lost count of the number of news stories about the complete lack of quality control of religious professionals, be it Rabbis, mohels or just plain functionaries.

The lack of quality control is not helped by the fact that the overwhelming majority of high religious institutions (i.e. yeshivot) have a very dim view of professional training, including the Rabbinate. The result is that many of the people who end up in the religious welfare state are far from being ‘the best and the brightest’. In fact, many are simply people who ‘couldn’t cut it’ in yeshiva and are thus relegated to second or third class religiously.

However, even if we were to solve these problems by introducing rigorous quality control and getting yeshivot to stop looking down on practical work, it still wouldn’t solve the biggest problem.

The “Welfare State” Mentality

Welfare states create a culture of dependency that is not at all healthy. Instead of cultivating individual powers to make decisions and simply to help them when they’re down, expansionist welfare states tend to see their public as children who need to be coddled. Instead of “father knows best”, it’s “the government knows best”.

We see this all the time with the constant complaints on O blogs. The argument is always that “the system” (or gedolim, or teachers, or askanim) should be replaced or steo up to the challenge &c. The phenomenon where people ask their Rabbis the silliest, most trivial questions is tied to this conception that individuals are incapable of making up their own minds and make their own decisions.

Furthermore, the existence and expansion of the welfare state also ensure that the possibly vibrant and productive “private sector” (in our case, ba’alei batim) will always suffer because of the encroachments of the “public sector” (the religious service sector). Think about it – how much effort, money and just discussion is put into the creation of a robust populace of learned ba’alei batim, as opposed to perpetual yeshiva students or educators?

In the challenges we face ahead, we need the strengths of all sectors of Jewish society. We need to start focusing on the individual and not just “the system”. To put it in a more pithy style:

Less government, more private initiative. Or “long live the baalabus”!

So how do we do this? More on that in the posts ahead.



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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2 Responses to A conservative (small “c”) manifesto: Government is not the solution, It’s the problem

  1. Shlomo says:

    Kashrut organizations (certainly outside Israel), gmachs, shidduchim organizations, mohelim, sofrim, and to a large extent schools are simply examples of specialization in the free market. There are many service providers, each of which can perform a task more efficiently than you can do it yourself. Rather than having the choice made for you, you choose the one which best fits your needs. Could there be a more conservative system than that?

    Several other points that do not fit into the above framework:
    1) Halachic authority: due to the modern ease of transportation and communication, it makes a certain sense that a community should span more than one physical location.
    2) Religious schools are no more of a “government bureaucracy” than the secular schools the same students would have otherwise gone to.
    3) Whether religious soldiers, university students, and so on should try to avoid interaction with secular people is up for debate. The issue of within which building the preferred surroundings may be created is secondary.
    4) Asking “the system” to address problems or else be replaced is no different from what we expect of secular authorities in a democracy – another “conservative”-compatible institution. Not everyone can be expected to be a leader (just like not every unemployed person can be expected to start their own company).
    5) “a robust populace of learned ba’alei batim, as opposed to perpetual yeshiva students or educators” – I think this would be more precise to describe apportionment of time rather than attaching labels to human beings. How much time should a person devote to Torah study, as opposed to professions that do not consist of Torah study? How much variation is acceptable in this regard between different people? Phrasing things this way makes more clear the tradeoff between priorities and the possibility for unique individual arrangements. It also alludes to the fact that different priorities may best be emphasized at different times in life (i.e. intensive gemara study in post-high-school rather than married-child-raising years – thus a person is a “perpetual yeshiva student” at one point and a “balebas” at another).

  2. AIWAC says:


    Thank you for your response. I agree with some of your arguments, disagree with others, but I very much enjoyed it, and I appreciate your taking the time to read through the whole thing.

    You are certainly correct that kashrut organizations &c are “service providers” operating in a free market. However, it is more complicated than that. They tend to operate less like “direct” service providers (i.e. I pay you money and you provide me with a service) and more like the “third sector” (i.e. NGOs). This is problematic on a number of levels. I will name the primary ones:

    NGOs tend to be secretive and against transparency. The possibilities of corruption and mismanagement are rife. People who contribute to a charity (as opposed to direct service providers) tend to not keep an eye on how the money is spent and whether they are contributing to problems such as duplication of efforts. While it’s certainly a “free market” of service providers, those that contribute unfortunately do not act like involved shareholders, something which I believe is necessary. For a true free market to function and flourish, consumers need to keep their chosen companies honest. This kind of thing is too important to leave to the religious tabloids (i.e. the religious media).

    Re: Halachic Authority

    True, it certainly makes sense that communities would expand beyond the local in an age of modern communication. This is not my problem. My problem is the “imperialist” tendencies of a number of communities to brow-beat or co-opt others (i.e. Daat Torah, the Rabbinate on some days &c).

    Re: Religious Schools

    You are certainly correct with regard to Chutz La’Aretz, though in Israel there is a serious problem of bureaucratization.

    Re: The “System”

    No. Conservatives, at least the “limited government” branch I subscribe to, place more faith in individuals and tend to spend time fighting the encroachments of government, technocrats and bureaucracy. The idea being that they have a limited role, and the rest should be left to private initiative.

    Re: Learning

    The problem is that most people are going to spend most of their lives as “baalei batim”, and most people are not going to get much from gemara study that is aimed almost primarily at a specific niche of highly analytical people. I would want there to be “baal bayit” tracks where an emphasis is placed on the practical living of Judaism rather than theoretical stuff most will forget or consider irrelevant to their daily lives.

    I believe RYBS once spoke of certain masechtot that all “good Jews” should learn, not just talmidim chachamim (or those that aspire to such).

    Again, thank you for your response and Shabbat Shalom.


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