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Haredi MK finds himself debating Maimonides in TV interview

A Channel 12 host asks Moshe Gafni to answer criticism by supposed political rival of Haredi men eschewing work, only to reveal the source as medieval Torah scholar Rambam

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Political commentator Amit Segal, left, raises a copy of Maimonides' 'Hilchot Talmud Torah' during an interview with United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni, right, as his co-host Ben Caspit smiles, on Channel 12's 'Meet the Press' on September 17, 2022. (Screen capture)
Political commentator Amit Segal, left, raises a copy of Maimonides' 'Hilchot Talmud Torah' during an interview with United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni, right, as his co-host Ben Caspit smiles, on Channel 12's 'Meet the Press' on September 17, 2022. (Screen capture)

The head of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, Moshe Gafni, found himself debating an unlikely opponent on Saturday night television: famed medieval rabbi Moses ben Maimon, more commonly known as “Maimonides” or by the Hebrew acronym “Rambam.”

The ultra-Orthodox Knesset member was being interviewed on Channel 12’s “Meet the Press,” when he was asked to contend with a remark that was initially falsely attributed by his interviewer to a political rival.

Gafni was invited onto the program to discuss the ongoing controversy over Haredi schools teaching — or not teaching, as the case may be — the state’s core curriculum, notably subjects like English, mathematics, and science. Last week, in order to mend a rift between the two factions of UTJ, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu agreed, in principle, that if he returns to power he will fund Haredi schools regardless of whether they teach the core curriculum. That would be a marked change of policy from the current model in which schools receive funding commensurate to the amount of the curriculum they teach.

This deal has led to fierce criticism from most of the rest of the political spectrum, who maintain that Haredi Israelis will not be able to join the workforce without a basic education and will thus be a drag on the Israeli economy. The Haredi political parties, in turn, have stressed the supremacy of religious study.

During the discussion, Channel 12 host Amit Segal asked Gafni to comment on remarks allegedly made by National Unity party candidate Matan Kahana, who until recently served as head of the Religious Services Ministry (where he led a number of reforms that drew the ire of Haredi lawmakers and rabbis).

“Did you see what Matan Kahana said this week? He said a person who doesn’t learn a trade, turns the Torah into an instrument of profit (literally a ‘spade to dig with’),” said Segal, using somewhat anachronistic Hebrew phrasing. “What do you think of that?”

Gafni responded with sarcasm, saying “I really must listen to Matan Kahana, a light among the nations,” before writing him off completely: “Matan Kahana doesn’t interest me.”

Segal pressed further, again falsely quoting Kahana as saying that anyone who does not learn a vocation “insults the Torah and defames God.”

When Gafni once again wrote the comment off, Segal pulled out a copy of Maimonides’ tract on the laws of Torah study, known in Hebrew as “Hilchot Talmud Torah.”

Maimonides (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
Maimonides (Wikimedia Commons)

“But Matan Kahana didn’t say that. Rambam said it, in Hilchot Talmud Torah, chapter three. And I quote: Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God’s] name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world,” Segal quoted.

Somewhat flustered, Gafni responded that elsewhere Maimonides wrote that people who set themselves apart and focus their lives entirely on worshiping God do not need to work and will receive their sustenance like priests.

Before the debate on medieval Jewish texts could continue — for instance, whether it should be assumed that all Haredi children meet Maimonides’ criteria for being absolved by work by dint of being born to a Haredi family — Gafni steered the conversation back to modern-day politics, to disparities in the salaries between Haredi and non-Haredi kindergarten teachers, to why he would sit in a government with far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir but not Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and other less exegetical matters.

Hebrew speakers can watch the segment below.

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