Drafting yeshiva boys into the army is good for Israel and good for the Jewish nation.
The current unrest over the demand that haredim take their rightful share of the burden of defending the country is probably equal to the atomic threat from Iran when it comes to the future of our country. As an Orthodox Jew to whom the Torah is precious and the study of Torah is sacrosanct, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand the extreme position taken by some haredim in defending what they present as their God-given right to sit out army or national service of any kind. Try as I might to understand their point of view, I cannot begin to imagine where this stand is coming from religiously.
When I turn to the Torah itself, it seems to me that God has made His views on draft exemptions clear: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let them go back home” (Deuteronomy 20:5). There is of course, one more category: “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his” (Deuteronomy 20:8).
The demand of haredim to continue their exemption is based on their own formula. If they tried presenting their case to Moses, it might sound something like this:
“Let this land be given to thy servants as a possession, as it’s a perfect place to build yeshivot.”
“Shall your brethren come into the war and ye repose here?”
And the tribe replied: “The draft isn’t convenient for our way of life. If we send our boys to the army, who will fill the yeshivot we have built? Who will there be to study with the thousands of Talmud teachers the kollels turn out every year? We have no other profession. We are sacrificing our lives daily in the tent of Torah! How can He expect us to go to war when the only thing saving the people from their enemies is the Heavenly merit we earn for them by our Torah study and prayers? So, in addition, we expect the soldiers and their families to support us in their free time. We suggest a tax on the entire country, except for us; let’s say 10 percent of everybody’s income? Just to make sure we and our families are well taken care of.”
And Moses was surprised and shocked and dismayed. “Learn from what I told your brethren Gad and Reuben, and from what they replied to me.”
The tribe was a little embarrassed. While they learned Talmud all day, they were a little unversed in the Bible itself. So they said to Moses: “Please remind us.”
And Moses repeated the words he had said to Gad and Reuben when they asked to stay apart from the people on the other side of the Jordan: “You have risen in the place of your fathers, the breeding ground of wicked men.”
“But they repented and earned my blessing by their answer,” Moses explained.
“What was it they said?” the tribe asked Moses hopefully.
They said: “We will push forward before the children of Israel until we shall have brought them to their place… We shall not return unto our homes until the children of Israel will have inherited each one his inheritance.”
And the tribe thought about this. Finally turning to Moses, they said: “If that’s what the Torah says, we demand a rewrite.”
Rabbi Marc Angel, the distinguished rabbi emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, founder and director of the Institute of Jewish Ideas and Ideals, former president of the Rabbinical Council of America and a member of the editorial board of the journal Tradition, told me the following story last week.
“During the 1948 war, when the Old City was under siege by the Arab Legion, yeshiva students came to the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, and asked him to sign a document exempting them from the draft. Rabbi Uziel began to weep. ‘If I was your age, I myself would get a gun and help to protect the people of Israel.’ He refused to sign.”
As Rabbi Benny Lau told his congregation this past Shabbat, those who treat the Israeli army like the czar’s army in which the draft means shmad (apostasy) are terribly wrong. Everyone has to share in the defense burden.
No one expects haredim to change their way of life overnight. As MK Ami Ayalon, who was put in charge of drafting the new law based on the Plesner Committee’s recommendations, put it: “The gradual implementation of changes is the key to fulfilling the new law. It will take a while for government authorities and the yeshivot to absorb the new rulings and for the army to absorb the yeshiva draftees.”
I heard some very hopeful words about the eventual outcome of such a process at the Jerusalem Post Conference in April, where Elyezer Shkedy, former commander-in-chief of the Israel Air Force and now CEO of El Al, related the following story.
As commander, Shkedy met with the rabbi of the air force. “What is your job?” Shkedy asked. “Kashrut and prayers,” the rabbi answered. The commander responded, “I don’t need that. I’ll be in charge of kashrut and prayers.”
“So what do you want from me?”
“I want you to bring me 50 haredi boys to enlist in the air force.”
“It will never happen,” said the rabbi. “I can’t do it.”
“You can,” Shkedy replied.
A few weeks later, the rabbi said: “I found 50. What will you do with them?” “I met with them personally and welcomed them,” Shkedy said at the conference.
“They worked out fine. So I said bring me another 50, the best of the best, from the top yeshivot in Israel. The rabbi said: ‘I really can’t.’ People in the IDF said: ‘Over our dead bodies.’ But [IDF Chief of Staff] Gabi Ashkenazi gave me the go-ahead.
A few weeks later we found 50 of the top yeshiva students. They didn’t know English. They didn’t know math. We put them into the computer unit, the elite unit. People said: ‘No way, they’ll never succeed.’ They all succeeded. They know how to study 16 hours a day. Now they are working with the best of the best in Israel.
“Drafting yeshiva boys into the army is good for Israel and good for the Jewish nation. The Nazis taught us on the queue to the gas chambers that we are all one nation… We are inventing Israel every day. It’s an ongoing process.”
I agree with Shkedy. With good will on all sides, this transformation can and must take place. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We have one country, and everyone must share the privileges and burdens equally. It’s not just a secular, Zionist mandate. It’s the will of the Torah of Israel as well.
This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 13 July 2012.