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On Haredi Service, Half A Great Idea

On Haredi Service, Half A Great Idea

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

A yeshiva rebbe in Bnei Brak, the largest haredi city in Israel, has come up with a great plan for making army duty more equitable in the Jewish state.

Well, make that half a great plan and half a potential disaster.

Rabbi Simcha Avraham Halevi says that for the sake of fairness, with the government pushing to end army exemptions for haredi young men who are full-time yeshiva students, all secular young Israelis should be required to study Torah.

“The Jewish people survived its entire cruel history not through the might of arms, not through airplanes or tanks, not through the deterrent effect of the [Israel Defense Forces] and not through the power of the State of Israel, but through the merit of Torah study and the fulfillment of its commandments,” the rabbi told his followers, according to a report in The Jerusalem Post this past week.

“Therefore,” he continued, “we are obligated to bring about equality in the burden among our brothers of the Children of Israel, so that all secular youth bear the yoke of preserving and defending the inheritance of the Jewish people, and fulfill their national duty through Torah study and the fulfillment of the commandments.”

I get the rabbi’s message and agree with him — up to a point. His sense of fair play, and beyond — of appreciating the full range of what it means to protect the Jewish people in the Jewish land and assure the Jewish future, with an emphasis on the spiritual component — offers a powerful message that should be internalized by all.

Of course there already are programs within the IDF, like Nativ, which seek to give soldiers a deeper knowledge of Jewish history and heritage so they better understand what they are fighting for and why. With the help of Beit Morasha, a Jewish leadership center in Jerusalem, Nativ has reached more than 200,000 IDF officers and soldiers with its course on Jewish ethics and values. In addition, the IDF conversion program for non-Jewish soldiers, primarily Russian immigrants, offers basic Judaism courses and focuses on Jewish identity, resulting in hundreds of conversions in recent years.

Several years ago I interviewed students in the conversion program who talked enthusiastically about their studies and how much they had learned. One young woman noted with surprise that she now knew more about Judaism than many of her fellow soldiers, who are Jewish.

“Why don’t they teach this course to everyone in the army?” she wondered.

Why not, indeed. It was a sad, if innocent, statement about the embarrassingly low level of Judaic knowledge in Israeli society.

Where I part ways with Rabbi Halevi is in his disdain for those young men and women in the IDF who risk their lives to protect him and the 50,000 or so full-time yeshiva students in Israel, and his contempt for the government in trying to make the system of national service fair to all by including haredim in the IDF.

The rabbi called the effort a “malicious” attempt by government leaders “to stick their paws” into the yeshiva world.

“The stupidity of their hearts prevents them from seeing and understanding the ability of these students, who have many possibilities open to them to become wealthy and earn a better living due to their high intellect. They nevertheless kill themselves in the tents of Torah with self-sacrifice and many hours [of study] every day.”

The fact is that Bnei Brak, with its population of 150,000 is the poorest and most dense city in Israel, and the great majority of Israel’s full-time yeshiva students and their large families are supported primarily by the government. As non-Zionists living on the dole, too many are taking advantage of a government they scorn. And in terms of Jewish values and history, the precedent for combining Torah study and being a productive member of society goes back to ancient times.

The rabbis of the Talmud had professions and counseled their students to do the same. “The Ethics of the Fathers,” a compilation of pithy Talmudic statements, notes: “No flour, no Torah” — in other words, without a means of making a living there could be no religious life. And our sages taught: “Do not separate yourself from your community.”

Moreover, defending the nation and preserving life have always been given the highest value, even trumping Sabbath observance, a practical nod to the fact that Israel and its people cannot be defended by prayer alone.

Indeed, the notion that there is a time for action as well as a time for prayer comes directly from God. As the Children of Israel stood at the shores of the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit, Moses begins to pray for help and is rebuked: “The Lord said to Moses: Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forth” (Exodus 14: 15). Only when they advance into the waters does God save them by splitting the sea.

The most obvious modern-day example of combining Torah study and army service is the Hesder yeshiva program in Israel, where religious Zionist young men have established a reputation as committed soldiers and leading officers. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, a Hesder participant, said the program motivates participants “who concurrently feel morally and religiously bound to help defend their people and their country … and regard this dual commitment as both a privilege and a duty.”

Would that Rabbi Halevi and his students feel the same way, showing their love for Torah, the people of Israel and the land of Israel in equal measure. By embracing responsibility rather than avoiding it, the haredi community would be performing a great act of Kiddush HaShem, bringing blessings on God’s name.

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