Home / Community / Torah PortionRSS Feed
D'var Torah: You’re in the (Israeli) army now
August 1st, 2012
Jerusalem — Spending extended time in Israel and getting “behind the headlines” has been an important aspect of the time Rabbi Jacob Herber of Congregation Beth Israel and I have spent studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where we are senior rabbinic fellows.
Our studies of Torah, Talmud, and philosophy are punctuated by day trips. Last January, we visited Beth Shemesh and learned about the tensions there between the Haredim (the people some refer to as “ultra-Orthodox”) and the Modern Orthodox.
We discovered that though the dispute was ostensibly about Modern Orthodox girls not dressing modestly enough, it was more directly about the division of land, buildings, and civic resources.
During the week of July 8, I visited army bases and the Knesset, to learn about a signal issue: the drafting of haredi men into the army. The issue arose at the founding of the state in 1948 when, in his attempt to build an initial Knesset coalition, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion allowed haredi young men, who at the time totaled several hundred, to be exempt from service in the army.
What may have seemed an insignificant concession then has grown into a social problem of great dimensions. Nearly 800,000 Haredim live in Israel, and their numbers increase by six percent every year.
Many Israelis see the Haredim as “parazitim” — parasites. In this view, the Haredim study instead of work, adding nothing to the tax base, and draw an inordinate amount of social resources for their large families, all while most of them profess lack of support for the Jewish state’s existence.
Haredim explain that they don’t serve in the army because their hours of Talmud study serve to protect the state of Israel more than if they were in uniform.
Moreover, they contend, the Israel Defense Force will not, or cannot, accommodate their religious needs — witness, for example, a recent flare up over whether religious soldiers needed to stay in the room when a woman was singing, a clear religious problem for Orthodox men.
Yet there is more to their opposition than meets the eye. In his book “The Miracle Of the Gathering of Israel,” Harav Yoel Ben Nun writes:
“The haredi public on mass does not enlist in the IDF — and not really because the ‘Torah is their living’ … but because the IDF gets its orders only from the Israeli government, and the ‘covenant with God’ … is not part of their considerations. This is what I’ve been told by people who really understand haredi thinking. That is why a haredi politician can’t act as a minister in the government … the haredi public has for the last few generations gotten used not to do anything, big or small, without getting the decision of the ‘Gedolim’ (their rabbinic authorites).”
In fact, Ben Nun maintains, the objection to serving in the army is less about not impinging on the religious lives of haredi young men, and more about the internal politics of the haredi world, the maintaining the monopoly of power the Gedolim enjoy.
Knesset member Rabbi Chaim Absalem of the Shas Party is a remarkable Sephardic rabbi who has become popular among secular Israelis, and the bête noire of the haredi community. He expanded on this theme when I met with him recently in his Knesset office.
He explained that the opposition to service has no basis in Jewish life or law, and that the army could provide some much-needed job training for those whose education excluded science, math, and English.
“Nowhere is the Torah opposed to Parnassa [working to earn a living],” he said. “Nowhere does it say one should not serve one’s country.”
He explained that the haredi opposition was not merely about fear of young men being exposed to the corrupting modern world, or the withdrawal of the life-saving effects of Torah study, or the loss of the Gedolim’s power, but about something more fundamental.
“Enrolling in the IDF would mean following the orders of the political leadership and, thereby, to acknowledge the reality and authority of the State of Israel,” he said.
Even after 64 years, many Haredim still feel ambivalent about supporting the enterprise, believe the state’s creation was an act of hubris so egregious that it might even delay the Messiah’s arrival indefinitely.
Amsalem has also been outspoken on the lack of secular studies in the yeshivah world, separate seating on buses for men and women, and persecution of minorities in Israel.
His views represent what is called “Sephardic moderation,” the less stringent approach to life and law, to which Jews of Sephardic extraction are heir, in contrast to their Ashkenazic brethren.
Amsalem’s recent statements on haredim and the army have led the leader of Israeli Sephardic Jewry, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (who gave Amsalem “smicha” or rabbinic ordination) to attack Amsalem in a public statement.
Amsalem also advocates on behalf of the conversion of any non-Jew from the former Soviet Union who serves in the IDF. To that end he wrote his groundbreaking “Zera Yisrael,” which presents solutions within Jewish law to permit thousands of Russian immigrants to convert to Judaism.
In Amselem’s words, “By the very fact that these non-Jews are willing to risk their lives to protect the Jewish people, they prove their desire to be a part of the Jewish people … thanks to these soldiers, tens of thousands of students can sit and learn Torah. That is enough to accept these non-Jewish soldiers as converts, and we are obligated to bring them closer and accept them with open arms.”
The growing influence of rabbis like Amsalem is a hopeful sign. His vision for Judaism should inspire us all.
“I want to see a party with a proud constituency of people who earn a living and bring others closer to a Torah with ‘all its paths pleasant and harmonious,’” he said to us, “not an angry, threatening Torah, eternally irascible.”
Rabbi David Cohen is spiritual leader of Congregation Sinai.