Carrots and Sticks

I always look forward to reading the Features section of the paper. I enjoy reading the different columns and the diverse points of view.

Rabbi Yehoshua Berman’s column (Feb. 22, p. 10) about using the carrot or the stick left me wondering about the motivation, feelings and maturity of the average kollel man. From Rabbi Berman’s picture, I would assume we are from different generations. He seems more my children’s age than mine. Perhaps that is why we seem to disagree about this.

I remember, as a young woman, when my friend complained to me one day that family members would ask her husband to take care of errands during the day since he was in kollel and “didn’t have a real job” and didn’t have to keep strict hours. She felt learning was her husband’s job and he had to be there when the kollel was in session.

Perhaps I misunderstood Rabbi Berman, but it sounded like he was saying that kollel men should be given extra for showing up on time.

When my children were little, I would give them “carrots” for doing something they should be doing anyway, e.g., a sticker for every time they picked up their toys or stayed in their beds all night. When the children got older, they learned “the stick” — i.e., dawdling in the morning might mean missing the school bus, or not studying might mean failing a test.

Now that my children are older and most are working, there is a different type of carrot and stick: If you work extra hard, you can get the “carrot” of a raise or a bonus, but show up late and you get the “stick” of not getting paid for the time you aren’t there.

So, to bring it all together, are our kollel young men adults who take their learning seriously and therefore worthy of the struggles of those supporting them? Or are they children who feel “se kumpt mir” and, in today’s parlance, want a trophy for just showing up?

Silky Pitterman, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Rabbi Berman responds:

Dear Mrs. Pitterman,

First of all, thank you for taking an interest in my article! Your question is certainly a valid one, although it seems to indicate to me that you may not be all that familiar with the kollel system and the very stark realities that kollel avreichim and their families face, day in and day out. No doubt, our generational distance may have a lot to do with divergent points of view. It may also be, though, that my vantage point — as one who has been running kollelim for close to a decade and, therefore, understands well the bleak situation of so many avreichim — may also be a not insignificant part of what drives the way I view this matter.

In response to your query, I would like to use the very example you invoked: namely, that of your working children. You write that in their professional lives “there is a different type of carrot and stick.” The “carrot” you identify as being raises and bonuses that they may achieve by dint of putting in extra hard work — going the extra mile, in modern parlance — and the “stick” as docked pay for time missed.

But what about the regular remuneration that they receive in exchange for the regular, standard, expected work that they put in? You failed to address how that ought to be viewed, categorized and understood. Certainly, we cannot just write off their regular pay — which is, of course, the mainstay of their livelihood and what brings them to their jobs! — as being insignificant and irrelevant to this discussion, can we?

Instead of employing the terms “carrot” and “stick,” why don’t we just call a spade a spade? They’re just euphemisms for reward and punishment, aren’t they?

Now, you state that when your children were young, you would give them “carrots” — read: reward — “for doing something they should be doing anyway, e.g., a sticker for every time they picked up their toys or stayed in their beds all night.” You further emphasize that when your children became older, they learned of the reality of the “stick” — read: punishment (or negative consequences) — as in missing the bus if they dawdle in the morning. Your implication is quite clear that reward should only be necessary for young children. Once a child gets older — and certainly by the time one reaches adulthood — he or she ought not to need the motivation of reward. Instead, people should be doing things simply because that is what they are supposed to do. Or, in other words, because that is simply their job! And at that stage of life — since one ought already to be possessed of sufficient maturity to recognize that we have to do what we have to do simply because that’s what we have to do — the only external motivator necessary is of the corrective type: namely, punishment to smack us back into line when our laziness (or other failings) get the better of us. Reward should be unnecessary as a positive motivator, your statements imply, because one’s recognition of intrinsic responsibilities should serve that purpose.

In short, your way of looking at it assigns reward as a motivator only for small children that do not have the maturity to understand responsibilities and obligations, whereas older children and certainly adults ought to have that maturity as their motivator, thus making reward irrelevant.

It is this worldview — I believe — that caused you to overlook your grown, working children’s regular salaries that they receive for their regular work. But more about that in a moment.

Is your basic premise — that reward as a motivator is really only suitable for young children — true? I think not. Reward and punishment is a reality of our existence, whether we consciously recognize it or not. When a 15-year-old does “what he is anyway supposed to do” — like being on time in the morning — is it true that he is not receiving a reward? I don’t think so. When we engage in positive behavior patterns, we enjoy positive results and a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment! The Chovos Halevavos points out that this inherent reality of ours — namely, positive thought patterns, modes of speech, actions, and behaviors result in positive consequences — did not necessarily have to be so. Theoretically, Hashem could have created a world in which we are expected to do good things, and the result would be negative consequences. Or, putting it bluntly: punishment. One who truly loves Hashem, emphasizes the Chovos Halevavos, will exclaim to Him: “Hashem, I will always serve You no matter what! Even were You to cast me into the fires of Gehinnom for doing Your Will, I would still fulfill Your Will with all my heart and soul!”

It is not true that as a child grows older he or she no longer needs the “carrot.” Rather, as children mature, they come to appreciate a much more meaningful “carrot.” They come to possess the sophistication that enables them to recognize the inherent positive consequences of their good behaviors. Imagine, for a moment, that we lived in a world in which waking up on time — and doing everything in an efficient, timely and orderly manner — would result in missing the bus! Would that make it that being timely, organized and efficient is a negative behavior? Absolutely not! Our values and morals are what they are irrespective of the consequences that they may or may not bring about. That is precisely what the Chovos Halevavos is bringing to our attention. Of course, we don’t live in such a world, because the Ribbono shel Olam is a just, loving, giving Creator. So He created and maintains His world in such a way that positive behaviors do, in fact, result in positive consequences. Rewarding consequences. But had it not been like that — had it been that waking up on time and doing everything in a timely, efficient and organized manner would cause one to miss the bus — it would be awfully, awfully difficult to feel motivated to behave correctly, wouldn’t it? Without the rewarding, positive consequences that positive behaviors bring about, it is very doubtful that more than a mere handful of humans would do what “they are anyway supposed to do.”

So basic to our human condition is the need for an ongoing system of reward and punishment that it comprises an entire section of the 13 Principles of our Emunah! As the famous — and oft misunderstood — Ramban at the end of Parashas Bo underscores: Reward and punishment is a constant throughout our individual and collective life. And one who is not aware of the fact that the Ribbono shel Olam is constantly and forever responding to our behaviors with either reward or punishment — in everything that happens to us throughout our lives, down to the most minor minutiae — is simply incapable of functioning as a Torah Jew.

Were your children — or anyone else, for that matter — not to receive a salary for their regular “nine to five” work, it is highly improbable that they would show up for the job. Ever. This, despite the fact that an individual’s making his/her contribution to society is an inherent value. It is a gross misrepresentation to imply that the only “carrot” offered to them in their professional life is that of potential bonuses and/or raises for extra hard work. Their regular salary is quite a “carrot”! It is a major reward for the positive behavior of putting in their regular average day’s work! And there is nothing shameful about that.

I agree with your friend 100 percent that “learning was her husband’s job and he had to be there when kollel was in session.” No different than the dentist for whom dentistry is his job and he has to be in the office to receive and treat his patients, or the computer technician who has to be there to fix people’s computers. And the comparison — if it is to be fair and reflect a mature awareness of reality — should not stop at showing up to one’s place of occupation and carrying out one’s assigned tasks. Dentistry offices and computer repair labs — and just about every profession in the world — would be for the most part desolate if the remuneration offered for putting in an honest day’s work were nary a fraction of what one needs to survive and support a family. Forget showing up late. The overwhelming majority — I strongly believe — would not show up at all if what they’d be getting paid is peanuts!

So, is it reflective of endemic immaturity if kollel avreichim are afforded a similar standard of consideration and understanding?

Perhaps it is my fault that I did not spell it out k’Rachel bitcha haketanah. Perhaps. So, I will rectify that wrong now. The average monthly — monthly, not weekly — stipend for kollel avreichim in Eretz Yisrael is about $500. Give or take. And that is including — by and large — the amount that is provided so generously by the government. That’s it. $500. Sure, some kollelim pay a bit more. There are indeed some “lucky” avreichim who learn in a kollel that pays $600 or maybe even $700 a month, and there are even a handful — but it is truly only a handful — who have the tremendous good fortune of being accepted to a kollel that pays $1,000 a month (= roughly 3,700 NIS). Now, putting that into perspective: As of January 2017, minimum wage in Israel stands at about 5,000 NIS per month. The highest paying kollelim, then, do not even come close to paying avreichim minimum wage.

So, yes, given such an incredibly unfair, debilitating climate, I — as a Rosh Kollel — cannot help but constantly struggle with the question of whether or not the widely employed shemiras sedarim system — in which avreichim have their already measly pay docked for latenesses and/or absences — is appropriate or not. And I do not at all feel that this struggle reflects a lack of maturity on the part of my avreichim — or any other avreichim, for that matter.

In fact, if there is any question that should have been asked — one that, upon reflection, presents as a truly mystifying conundrum — it is this: How is it that the batei medrash are packed? There is practically no occupation in the world that would survive were the pay to be so far beneath minimum wage! It is not latenesses and occasional absences that would be expected under such conditions, but total and absolute desolation! Yet, the hundreds of batei medrash throughout Eretz Yisrael that serve as the citadels of Torah for thousands and thousands of avreichim resound with a kol Torah that seems to be only getting forever stronger. How that can be — despite the fact that all these thousands of highly intelligent and talented men, who could surely do quite well for themselves were they to enter the working world, are paid mere peanuts for their most crucial contribution to Klal Yisrael and the entire world — is indeed a mystifying phenomenon.