Every once in a while the discussion pops up in the blogosphere about whether the ideal for a Jew should be to sit and study Torah (like the haredim) or to work (like many other orthodox). It is unquestionable that we need some people to work otherwise there wouldn’t be any food, houses, internet and all that. But for example there are professors who devote their whole life to the study of some obscure microorganism, medieval poetry or the use of hemp in ancient Egypt. Why is this accepted in secular society and Torah study not. In what way are the two different?
In my mind, there are some clear differences. For one thing, it is not the norm for everybody in society to become a professor or even to aspire to be one. Only few people chose to pursue a PhD, a post-doc and even less people become professors. It is very hard to get a professorship. And if you have one, it is very hard to get funding for staff and projects especially in a field where the use in industry is not directly apparent, for example if you want to study medieval poetry. Only the best and the most ambitious make it. Also, even if these professors may be specialists in their very narrow field and their knowledge there may not be really useful for other stuff, they all had high-level general education before they got there. They have alternatives. People who are not suited for a professorship do not linger around somewhere in waiting for one, they get other jobs.
Second, professors interact with society and contribute to society. Yes, also obscure very narrow scientific fields contribution to society in some way, every piece of new knowledge adds one puzzle to the whole. Knowing about medieval poetry helps us to find out how people in that time thought. The contributions of professors are in some way measurable, they publish papers in peer-reviews conferences and journals, they receive grants for projects which themselves have some clearly defined goal and reports about whether that goal was reached. And they have an obligation to teach and supervise students.
So what about studying Torah? I am all for it! For those who are suited for it and chose it because they want to, not because it is the only way of life they know. And when they carry their learning back into the world, teach others, publish books, run ask-the-rabbi-websites, anything that contributes to society in any way. Then, there won’t really difference between the two.
Inspired by this post by Daas Torah on Torah Study & Working: Shulchan Aruch (156) vs Mishneh Berura and the comments by ‘Englishman’.