Without work, what will we do?: Part II


There’s an old joke in Israel and it goes something like this: “In Israel, a third of the people go to the army, a third pay taxes, and another third go to work. The only problem is that it’s the same third.”

This joke is often told by members of Israel’s secular Jewish population about the ultra orthodox Haredi community. Most Haredim do not serve in the IDF, and many Haredi men further choose not to enter the workforce, but rather study full time in religious seminaries called yeshivas. There, they learn bible, talmud, and jewish philosophy, receiving stipends from the government. This phenomenon has been a source of tremendous tension within Israeli society. It has lead to heated debate, protests, and occasionally violence. The Haredi are accused by secular Israelis of not contributing to society, and of leaching resources from the public (the Haredim maintain they are valuably contributing to society by offering a spiritual bedrock to the country).

In my previous post in this series, I discussed the possibility that with less work to do in the automated economy, we will soon have to find more things to occupy our time. A large population of bored people would not be good for society. In that post, I talked about a return to “tactile” experiences (forsaking the virtual for the physicality of augmented reality). But ultimately, a few new hobbies won’t be enough to satiate the human desire long-term, goal-oriented activities. I want to discuss the possibility that the above problem facing Israeli society today could actually be model for the future; perhaps it could be one of many solutions to the automation dilemma.

Assume momentarily that in year 20xx, a universal basic income has been set in place by the government of Examplelandia. All people have the basic material resources to live a decent life. But the overall lack of purpose and things to do is causing palpable distress. In this situation, something like a yeshiva system could be a saving grace. Of course, unless they choose to, the Examplelandians would not be studying religious texts in these “yeshivas”. Rather, they could study the history and philosophy of their own, or the world’s cultures. Unlike a college system, they are not there to obtain a degree. They are not getting graded.  They are learning for the sake of learning — and they are not doing it full time. There surely will be other exciting things to do. Though idealistic in a sense, the current Yeshiva system is a real-life example of this kind of program (and while I know am glossing over its many problems, I still think the Israeli system provides a good general model for what a future society might look like).  In order to encourage productive behavior, the Examplelandian government could make UBI payments contingent on enrollment in a “Yeshiva.”

An ancient Jewish dictum states that learned people increase peace in the world. A system of learning for “the masses” could increase worldwide peace, as well as help those seeking deeper meaning find it. In its literal translation, the word yeshiva means “sitting,” and that is what this system could be; a seat to anchor humanity, so that it does not drift into purposelessness in a brave new world. 

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