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To Serve or Not to Serve


My friend Yori Yanover was recently sacked as editor of the online Jewish Press. His crime was a biting condemnation of a demonstration of protestors in New York against a proposed law, now passed by the Knesset, requiring a significant number of Israeli Charedi men to serve in the Israeli army or do some form of social service even within their own communities.

Yori simply pointed out the lies that that the campaign perpetuates both in Israel and abroad: “That the bill aims to destroy Torah”, but the bill is not requiring every yeshivah student to serve; genuine scholars will be exempted. “That the army will destroy the religious life of Charedi recruits”; there are thousands of religious young men who have served and remained religious. “That those religious politicians and rabbis who support the draft are heretics.” None of this is true or makes. It should be held up to the ridicule it deserves.

What is their case? It is first and foremost that the God of Israel is the defender of the Jewish people, and that this should be enough to protect Israel from its enemies. In principle that may be true, but from the time immemorial the Israelites were commanded to defend themselves by taking up arms. So one is bound to wonder if it was OK for Abraham, Moses, King David, and indeed Judah Maccabee, why would it not be permitted for Jews living today. Anyway, doesn’t self-defense trump most of the laws of the Torah? Isn’t training to learn how to defend oneself against imminent and real threats self-defense too?

The sad fact is that one section of our people has come to expect the other to go to war and die to defend them. That cannot be an ethical position, even if you do believe that serving God is the highest good. Not only, but the bill is offering an alternative to military service; it is called community service. It has even included an agreement with Chabad to exempt a number of young men from community service in Israel to serve communities abroad.

It may be argued that in the past the Israel was defeated and destroyed because it had abandoned Torah and was corrupt and decadent. I agree that a high moral standard and Torah study is necessary for our survival. But in the past it was considered possible to combine study and fighting. Why not now that there are proportionally more yeshivah students per capita amongst the Jewish people than ever before? And many of them are only in yeshivah because of social pressure, rather than a passionate desire to study. Can it be that some yeshivahs are only insisting on keeping everyone full-time because if some of their students go into the army they will get reduced subsidies? Perish the thought.

You may be told that the Israeli army is the agent of a secular anti-religious state. There was indeed a time when the Israeli army was not very hospitable to religious Jews, but that is hardly the case nowadays with an effective army rabbinate and top generals wearing kipot. Perhaps many Charedi youths being exposed to the outside world (and not just in an airplane journey from Tel Avi to New York) might be so cataclysmically shocked as to impair their mental states for the rest of their lives. Chabad has always sent a large number of young men into the army and they have not lost it. Over the years a significant number of young Haredi men have served in the army, despite the disapproval of their rabbis, and there is no evidence that they have been adversely affected. There has actually been a system in place for many years in which young men could combine the army with yeshivah study.

Another argument is that this is really an evil plan to get young Haredi men to learn how to earn a living. Why is that such bad thing? Others argue that threatening punishment for those who evade the draft is discrimination. But it could only be if it were not applied equally to anyone who evaded the draft regardless of religious proclivities.

There may in fact be a lot wrong with the bill. But the Haredi camp refused to negotiate altogether. They refused earlier attempts at compromise, like the Tal Law. What is it that has so convinced their leadership that compromise is a sin? How does one explain the total refusal to even sit down and negotiate? Or the pathetic claim that this a Nazi-like genocide against poor defenseless young men? I expect rabid anti-Semites or lunatics to say such rubbish.

There are I think two reasons for this extreme refusal to compromise or negotiate. Neither is legitimate. One is the historical tension between the Haredi and the Secular. Once there were indeed grounds. I well recall the antagonisms of the 1950s, when obstacles were put in the way of religious communities and all secular political doors were slammed in their faces. But that is long gone on a governmental level.

The other is the increasing extremism and influence of anti-Zionist Messianic ideology. The mood amongst many ( not all) Haredi communities around the world has been getting increasingly extreme. Whereas the grandfather of the present Vishnitzer Rebbe was very supportive of Israel and actually sent groups of young men into the army. His son no longer did. The grandson, who spent time in exile with his extreme uncle in Monsey, has become blindly antagonistic. Even the Belzer, once pro-Israel, has now threatened to take his Chasidim to the USA (as if a hundred thousand Jews in welfare are going to be welcomed).

It has become a religious principle to become more extreme and a political game to say “no”. So naturally, the secular ask why they should support and indulge those who refuse to share the burdens of the state. That is how Israeli politics gets so polarized.

The trump card is the dogma that the “Great Ones,” an oligarchy of outstanding rabbinic scholars (and no small number of rabbis who simply succeeded their fathers) have decided and they know best and we must just obey. In principle I do not disagree. But experts can also be wrong. And Judaism does believe in personal responsibility. I wonder if those who were alive in 1938 when “the Great Ones” almost to a man declared that it was safer to stay in Eastern Europe than leave, should have listened to them then!

And I cannot see how we can possibly negotiate with the Palestinians when we cannot even negotiate with ourselves!!

13 thoughts on “To Serve or Not to Serve

  1. Jeremy – excellent post. I think you were a bit too diplomatic (yes, too) in your assessment of the scenario. True, frum cappi di tutti Familiare everywhere in Chare-dom fear the loss of control, command, and influence that bochrim and avreichim alike getting jobs (instead of sitting in Yeshiva smoking and drinking coffee) would cause to accrue to them. True, these same types would also bemoan the loss of millions of NIS from people sitting and learning only who should.

    But I think you miss the point: it is all of that, and more. It is, as you have said, a sign of the lack of HaKores HaTov for all the good non-Charedi Judaism has done for it, and that it's Jews bleed and die for them. More proximate even than that, however, and in a pitably pessimistic assessment of the world at large, it is a scenario that links this one fiscally and morally, if not exactly psychologically, with a world wide trend, no less blatant in our own hemisphere: why work at all when I can sop off of my neighbor? And if you don't plug the fiscal nipple into my mouth from birth I will scream racial / religious / sex or gender based discrimination for why you won't pay for my birth control and abortions [they're trying to DESTROY Torah / They're trying to DESTROY women], beer, cocaine, or shtreimlach.

    There. I feel much better now. Carry on.

    Michael H

  2. What's even more odd is that they can't quantify the good of their perpetual study, yet still expect to be supported.
    They are not producing any truly meritorious scholars, which was the historical purpose of Talmudic academies; or what they're today calling a kollel. What good is learning to learn if they're not exemplifying or sharing what they have studied? Are they halakhic advisors? Posekim? Dayanim?

    Learning as a means of protection is a loosely defined faith within Judaism. And if one wishes to echo this sentiment, then it's typically held that their learning does more of the protection in the area where it is taking place (I cannot recall the source off hand). If this is the case, then their kollellim should all be relocated to the dangerous areas; when instead, they have relocated *away* from high risk locations. And they should explain why this position must be held by most Israelis.

    If the whole tradition of Issahar and Zebulun is a justification, then they should have to explain why; a) secular Israelis should believe this; and b) how their consensual partnership is tantamount to the current situation in Israel, which cannot be called a partnership by any standard. Even if maintaining this status was due to coalitions which included haredi parties, and they want to call that a partnership because it's a democratic country, their parties weren't even included in this coalition.

    If it's a problem about maintaining a "Torah lifestyle," then, as you mentioned, they should explain hesder or why many of the high ranking career military members are Orthodox (they should also explain how some of the bad behavior in their communities are part of a Torah lifestyle, but that's beside the point).

  3. The gdoilim should be able to hand down dogma, and we must kowtow. And you don't disagree with that in principle? Huh?

  4. Rabbi Jeremy,

    Excellent article; well argued, patient and measured. Everytime I try and write a piece on this issue, which is also reflective of the current future of our people I never know whether to laugh, cry or get angry. So I'll resist temptation to comment further.

    I will say, that I really pray that the Haredi get proper leadership – i.e. people who have the grace, intelligence and willingness to take on the mantel of 'real' leadership, which inevitably means making tough choices, knowing what to compromise on and knowing what to cherish, keeping your own fundamentalists in check and providing a positive, rather than the negative vision for the community. If, only…

  5. Anonymous:
    Not quite. Gedolim (genuine ones) are without doubt masters of halacha and traditional sources. They should be consulted. But they are not infallible popes.

  6. Rabbi Jeremy,

    "they are not infallible popes". Yes, I agree that having a deep respect for Gedolim is good, they are also not infallible & is a good comeback in debate, which I use unashamedly. Although, discussing this theology with Catholics online (I have no bones about discussing my belief as the days of the inquisition and ghettos have thankfully gone), even Catholics note that their pope can be subject to challenge & censure if they deviate too much from the Catholic belief system & some have said to me it is actually a duty of their religion to do so as 'ordinary' Catholics (pope Francis, so I am told, is upsetting his own ultra orthodox analogue). Apparently Catholics need to have agreement via councils etc to really change (vatican ii etc). It is probably too much to suggest, but wouldn't it be wonderful if by some miracle we could get learned Rabbis, such as our host, from across the theological spectrum, Israel & Diaspora to sit down and try and iron out the various issues? OK, this is a flight of fantasy. We are not going to be able to recreate or create a new Sanhedrin…

    1. Actually I'd hate to have a Sanhedrin because I cannot think of five rabbis let alone more than Seventy that I would want to make decisions for me!!!!

      Jeremy Rosen

  7. Dear Jeremy

    I hope I haven't insulted anyone. i do tend to get roused by this issue, living here in Israel!

    To Serve or not to Serve………A reply.

    Of course no journalist should be sacked for writing a condemnation of a protest however biting, but perhaps a rabbi might sacked for misinterpreting the Torah!

    "So one is bound to wonder if it was OK for Abraham, Moses, King David, and indeed Judah Maccabee, why would it not be permitted for Jews living today"

    Was it ok for Abraham? Hasn't my learned friend forgotten the Gemorah in Nedarim (32a) which discusses the war of Avrohom Avinu with the four kings. The Gemorah asks why it was that Avrohom Avinu was punished with his descendants having to become exiled and enslaved. The Gemorah answers because he drafted Talmidei Chachomim. Most Meforshim understand that Avrohom Avinu’s war did fall under the rubric of Milchemes Mitzvah a war involving a Mitzvah, and not a Michemes reshus – a voluntary war. Rav Kook understands it this way himself (See Iggeres HaRaya p. 90). Why then was Avrohom Avinu punished?

    This is how the Radbaz Volume II #752 understands the halacha as well as a careful reading of the Maharsha in Sotah.

    Even Pharoah did not enslave the tribe of Levi. Neither did Moses nor Joshua include them in any war.

    In the war against Midian, Joshua enlisted "elef lamateh, elef lamateh" a thousand per tribe, a thousand per tribe.
    (Numbers 31:4)

    The needless repetition teaches us that for every thousand soldiers, Joshua (followed by King David) had a thousand men at the back praying and studying Torah.

    The position of King David is also outlined in the Talmud, the gemorra Makkot 10a, states, “R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: What is the meaning of the King David's words, ‘Our feet stood within your gates, O Jerusalem’ (Psalms 122:2)? What helped us to maintain our firm foothold in war? The gates of Jerusalem- the place where students engaged in the study of Torah!”

    The Gemorah in Sotah 10a also discusses King Assa, who was punished for the same reason. He trotted out Talmidei Chachomim. That case as well is understood by most Meforshim as a Milchemes Mitzvah. Why then was Assah punished?
    The Gemorah in Sanhedrin 49a seems to indicate that this is the halacha too. Amsha is not considered a Mored b’Malchus when he purposefully did not draft the Talmidei Chachomim. In that case, the situation was certainly a Milchemes Mitzvah too.
    So, no Rav Yerucham, most biblical leaders did not conscript yeshiva students and those who did were severely punished.

    The Chashmonayim on the other hand were clearly the Oskai Torasecha as seen in the Al HaNissim, and they fought. The Gemorah in Eiruvin 5b indicates that when it is a full-blown Milchemes Mitzvah like the capture of Israel during the time of Yehoshua even the zkeinim participated. The thesis that there are varying levels of Milchemes Mitzvah is clearly emerging as the most likely way to understand all of these sources. This is also the approach of Rav Yitzchok Herzog in essay he wrote that was reprinted in the Sefer HaZikaron dedicated to him on pages 244-248.

    (to be continued in next post)

  8. (continued from previous post)

    Now let’s get a bit more contemporary.

    It was 1917, thirteen years after the arrival of Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook zt”l on the shores of Eretz Yisroel. The first World War had broken out and Rav Kook, the patriarch of the religious Zionist movement pleaded with the Chief Rabbi of England to try and rescind the decree of the drafting of Yeshiva students. The letter was written to Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz (of the famous Hertz Chumash) and is found in Iggeres HaRaya Vol. III p. 88 (#810). Rav Kook zatzal pleaded with Rabbi Dr. Hertz to use his good offices to try to spare the Yeshiva students. The plea was nearly identical with the pleas of the Chareidi spokespeople today.
    Are we to say that Rav Kook did not consider fighting the Nazis and saving Jewish lives as a milchemet mitzvah?

    (to be continued in next post)

  9. (continued from previous post)

    The National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939 was enacted immediately by the Parliament of the United Kingdom on the day the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, at the start of the Second World War. It superseded the Military Training Act 1939 passed in May that year, and enforced full conscription on all males between 18 and 41 resident in the UK. It was continued in a modified form in peacetime by the National Service Act 1948.

    By 1942, all male British subjects between 18 and 51 years old, as well as all females 20 to 30 years old resident in Britain, were liable to be called. Only a few categories were exempted:
    British subjects from outside Britain and the Isle of Man who had lived in the country for less than two years
    Northern Ireland
    Persons employed by the government of any country of the British Empire except the United Kingdom
    Clergy and theological students of any denomination
    Those who were blind or had mental disorders
    Married women
    Women who had one or more children 14 years old or younger living with them. This included their own children, legitimate or illegitimate, stepchildren, and adopted children, as long as the child was adopted before 18 December 1941.
    Pregnant women were theoretically liable to be called up but in practice were not called up.

    Throughout the history of the world, I think that you will find that all governments exempted clergy and theological students from military service. This was understood and respected by all Israeli governments since Ben Gurion.

    Does Yair Ben Tommy Lapid really need 2,000 unwilling yeshiva students to make up the numbers in Zahal? I think not. But let's check out the facts.

    Somebody living in Manhattan, is surely aware that the population of the USA is about 315,000,000. As of 31 December 2013, 1,369,532 people were on active duty in the armed forces.
    As of 31 December 2010, U.S. armed forces were stationed in 150 of the world's 192 countries.

    Israel had a Population of 7,900,000 with a military of
    Active personnel 176,500 and
    Reserve personnel 445,000.

    According to this we need 176,500 yeshiva students!

    The Israeli army are serving in one country which despite everything has a peace treaty with two of its neighbours. The others are engaged in bloody civil wars. But we have a much higher percent of military that the USA, aka the worlds police force!

    But we need another 2,000 pale yeshiva boys to make up the ever growing numbers of "jobnikim" sitting around trying to find something to occupy their time!

    Isn't it time Israel had a professional army instead of 445,000 middle aged men and women who play at dads army for a month every year which upsets the economy Mr Lapid, Finance Minister (who didn't graduate high school or serve in the army in any significant way!)

    G-d forbid that there should be another war but if there is, it won't be fought by sending foot soldiers into Gaza and Lebanon to be slaughtered. Well, hopefully not! Surely, it will be fought by advanced technology, missiles, etc etc. I'm no expert.

    Who do you think is manning MDA, Zaka, the army rabbinate, the chevra kadishas, nachal and those who supply kosher food to Zahal if not yeshiva graduates?

    The numbers in Nachal ( the Chareidi unit) were slowly growing naturally and had reached 1,500. But Lapid's vicious attack has put a stop to that. Even Yoni Chetboun from the bayit hayehudi in an unparalleled display of ahavat yisrael could vote for it!

    I suppose the release of so many Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands has made room in the jails for the yeshiva students.

    But, not since the Roman occupation has a government made the study of Torah illegal. Someone should tell Bibi that he will go down in history but not for the reasons he thinks.

    Wasn't it John Milton who wrote: " they serve who only stand and wait."

    Well, Rabbi Wise says: " they serve who sit in yeshivas and study Torah."

    Meir Wise

  10. Meir,

    1. You can find all kinds of attitudes in the Gemara and of course polemics relative to specific circumstances like the disagreement with Rebbi Akivah over how to deal with Bar Cochba. You might as well bring the Gemara that says that "Talmidei Chachim do not need protection " and wonder why in Mir we down to the shelters during the Six Day War. Or why Ger etc asked their kollel families in the south to evacuate away from rockets.

    Besides ein meyshivin al ha Drush. I no more take the drush on Avraham and Talmidei Chachamim literally than I do that king David never sinned.

    2. How can you compre a situation where Rav Kook was dealing with barely hundreds with nowadays where there are hundreds of thousands amongst whom many are simply batlanim.

    3. The Charedi world was indeed offered service in Zakah etc as an alternative and rejected any compromise.

    Warmest regards,

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