Free Markets and the Price of Peace of Mind

For frum families, one of the greatest struggles is meeting the cost of education. The need to school our children privately, coupled with the fact that our families tend to be quite a bit larger than what is considered average in most other societies, means that families need to spend an incredible amount of money on tuition. Occasionally, there is talk about how to alleviate this burden on middle-to-low-income families, and such discussions, if productive, should continue.

However, there are times that this (legitimate) concern is invoked in an effort to shy away from addressing other, equally important issues. The issue I am referring to in this week’s column is the salaries we pay our rebbeim.

There is an effort currently underway to raise the salaries of rebbeim by $10,000 across the board. Already, one of the larger yeshivos in Lakewood, Yeshiva Orchos Chaim, has committed to doing so, and the hope is that many other schools will follow suit.

Hardly anyone will take the position that our mechanchim are in any way overcompensated when trying to make the case against this initiative. That is because it simply is not true. Rebbeim are woefully undercompensated, as well as being overworked. Harav Chaim Epstein, zt”l, would say that, ideally, the salaries of rebbeim should be doubled and class sizes should be halved!

The fact that there is a tuition “crisis” is no reason to abandon this initiative. Figuring out how to make one area of the educational system better should not be contingent on figuring out what to do about other problems. Put simply, if it is right to raise salaries, we should work on doing so, even if it does not address the tuition crunch. Of course, we should try to do it in a way that does not exacerbate that problem, but we ought to make sure it gets done.

There is a different concern some have voiced about this campaign, but it is a concern I have to say I do not find at all compelling. Some people argue that salaries should not be determined (or at least raises should not be) through an effort that circumvents the free market. You cannot, they say, interfere with free-market economics.

Let us set aside the idea that the current system governing the “market” of rebbeim is a free market; such an argument is specious at best. Free markets may very well be the best system for modern countries to adopt, but to argue that we, as Jews, owe our unwavering loyalty to the idea of having some variation of the free market govern everything in our lives (as though Adam Smith was, l’havdil, a Rishon!) is absurd. Not only that; there are many instances where the Torah put into place a system that is decidedly not free market, and that is because there is a different end in mind, one which is not just The Wealth of Nations.

Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, explains many of the dinim found in Parashas Behar as having the purpose of manipulating the markets, and a kind of economic engineering. Eved Ivri, he explains (Vayikra 25:41), is so that the poor person who is driven to theft ends up in a situation wherein he and his family are “protected from misery and starvation.” There are halachos of how different parcels of land are allowed to be used only in keeping with their original use (25:34), despite there being a market demand for other uses, to “maintain an urban population that engages in agriculture” which leads to a “state [which] is protected not only from peasant dullness and narrow-mindedness, but also from the extremes of urban luxury and proletarianism.” And so on and so forth.

It is quite obvious that while we can acknowledge that markets are quite effective at promoting prosperity, their value is limited to what they can achieve, and not for their existence alone. We cannot expect to achieve the kind of economic and social engineering on the scale we would be able to if we were not in galus. However, in cases where we might be able to achieve something of value (in this case, helping the people to whom we entrust our most precious “commodities” earn a living that is somewhat closer to a living wage), there is absolutely no reason to say we should not do so because of some 614th commandment having to do with “free markets.”

It is also in our best interests to better compensate those who teach our children. I remember once raising this issue with a rebbi of mine, and telling him that some other parents felt that the market should not be meddled with and that it would cause tuitions to go up. He looked at me bemusedly and said, “Do these people realize that a rebbi who is struggling for parnassah is a less effective rebbi? Who doesn’t want the best rebbi teaching his children? The people who should be demanding this most are the parents!”

And we really should be.