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The Rewrite

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.

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11 comments on “The Rewrite”

  1. Lorri

    Which torah are these yeshiva students studying? Have they skipped the chapters on Dovid Hamelech, Yehoshua Ben Nun, and others who received nevuah (Have these yeshiva students received nevuah and not shared it with the rest of us?) demonstrating their high spiritual and perfected lifesyles, who led Bnei Yisroel to war to conquer, maintain and defend our Jewish homeland?? I would expect these diligent Torah scholars to take mussar haskel from the text that is so important for them to be involved with day and night and take the theory into a practice to conduct their lives as the Torah and the role models of our Torah require them to emulate.

  2. Rabbi Fleishig

    It’s pretty obvious that what the haredi rabbis are defending so vigorously, with their demagogic talk of ייהרג ואל יעבור, is their very comfortable royal lifestyle, and if they have to invent a new Torah to justify it, no problem. They will always have plenty of naive followers who are convinced that the rabbis will get them into Heaven if only they blindly obey every command that issues forth from the rabbi’s divinely inspired mouth, what they call “das toireh.” The true believers forget that the rabbis in Europe forbade their faithful followers to escape to the US or to Israel, and when they fell into the hands of the murderous Nazis, the rabbis made their escape and left the faithful to die, often including their own wives and children. So much for “das toireh.”

    • M Hyman

      This is true in many but not all cases. Certainly, in the case of the Belzer Rebbi, not only was he rescued–by of all people, Zionist sympathizers–he was brought afterwards (how ironic) to Ha Aretz for safe haven, the very place which he convinced many of his followers to not go.

      On the other hand, there is the case of Rabbi Weissmandl, who willingly went into the hell of Nazi occupied Europe for the purpose of rescuing Jews by means of ransom–and for the short time he had before his arrest by the Nazis, he was reasonably successful in his efforts.

      Now perhaps it is an inconvenient truth which bothers the more progressive (or reconstructionist) among us, but in the case of endangered Jews, the fact remains that bribery has always proven substantially more fruitful than political action committees–and this also includes events occuring within the post modern era.

      In addition, no one should believe for a moment that the Haredi community of today feels any less threatened than their ancestors did two centuries ago, persons who chose to support oppresive Czarist policies rather than Napoleonic carrières aux talents. Why? The reasons are similar–specifically, the Haredi of years ago knew that intermarriage and assimilation would be more destructive to the survival of the Jewish people than a Cossack’s sword could ever be. In the Haredi mindset of today, the issue of Yeshiva Bochurim spending time in a secular institution–namely, the IDF–is for them the same scenario (Naomi Ragen touched on this as a sub plot in her novel, Sotah).

      • Rabbi Fleishig

        Of course, the haredi rabbis feel threatened. If their bochrim figure out a way to make a living and find their own wives without being dependent on their rabbis, how will their rabbis be able to keep up their indolent lifestyle? They might even have to get jobs. But not to worry, things will never come to that. There will always be enough people who can’t make the most trivial decision on their own without running to the rebbe so that the rabbis will always have an endless supply of cash and respect, of which they typically deserve neither.

        • M Hyman

          Your comments concerning Haredi rabbis and the lifestyle which they promote indicates that your knowledge of the subject is at best severely restricted. Moreover, to suggest that all Haredim (followers as well as leaders) are obscurantist because they do not follow what you consider an enlightened world view, simply does not make it so.

          Are some rabbis unethical? Yes. But one can find corrupt leaders within all religious denominations–from the strictest ultra-Orthodox sect to the most liberal Reconstructionist or Humanistic Judaism group. Are some congregants over zealous in their beliefs concerning the spiritual abilities of their leaders. Certainly. But here, too, one finds it across the span of Jewish denominations as well as throughout the plethora of non Jewish worship groups (amongst the more progressive, the term ‘psychological insight’ might be used in place of the word ‘spirituality’–but the potential for manipulation is just as great if not more so). In addition, poor behavior as described above is not limited just to religionists. One regularly finds corruption, manipulation, and unethical behavior in all areas of human endeavor–it has embedded itself within the political arena (on both sides of the aisle), throughout the education system–public and private–from kindergarden to graduate school, in the entertainment business, and in the fine arts also. There is not an area of society untouched by it. So why direct your vitriol towards the Haredi only? Ah, but you’re not. Your attack is clearly directed toward all persons of faith; the Haredi in this case are a mere convenience.

          When all is said and done, you have not offered any solution to the problem at hand other than to state the vacuous premise that the Haredi world is comprised entirely of manipulators and useful idiots. Having demonized the lot of them, you then try to make the case–with the hope that your readers will buy into it since you have just classified all ultra-Orthodox as “the other”–that persons such as these, along with their supporters, are untermenschen, deserving “neither cash nor respect.” Like Rousseau, you seem to want to “force men to be free,” even if they do not consider the goodness and happiness which you are imposing on them in the same positive way.

          • Rabbi Fleishig

            I don’t want to force men to be free, but I do reserve the right to think less of people who push their God-given freedom away with both hands. Freedom is a burden to some because with freedom comes responsibility, and there is nothing more frightening than to be held responsible for one’s own actions. But if I can say “The rebbe told me to do it,” it doesn’t matter if I steal money or spit on a woman on the street or don’t pay my fair share of taxes or evade the draft, it’s not my fault.

            And it is not a defense of one’s actions to say that other people are doing the same thing. If someone is a crook, then it doesn’t matter how many other crooks there are in the world, even if that person is a rabbi. And if a rabbi is accused of sexually molesting a child or dealing in human organs or defrauding banks of millions, then it hardly a sanctification of G-d’s name or the honor of the Jewish people when true believers beat up the witnesses and throw their children out of school. I don’t think there’s much of a difference between the sinners and those who cover up for them. So do I have respect for haredi rabbis? On the whole , no. Do I deny them and their followers the right to believe what they want. No, and may they be forever happy in their willful ignorance.

  3. Charles Short

    I’m not qualified as Jewish but I think the haredim believe in Moshe as a prophet, while you believe in Thomas Jefferson. In today’s world Thomas Jefferson certainly appears superior to Moshe; but if you insist that the haredim follow the Jeffersonian philosophy too why should’nt they label you a goy?

  4. M Hyman

    True! “The demand of haredim to continue their exemption is based on their own formula.” Nonetheless, it is still Torah by definition–albeit, of the politically incorrect variety; but it is clear that the reasons being promoted publically are far from the real ones.

    Shkedy’s comment that “[t]he Nazis taught us on the queue to the gas chambers that we are all one nation…” is perhaps a valid argument when it concerns interaction between various sects within the Haredi community itself; nonetheless, a
    review of modern Haredi thought–and this includes, in particular, the opinion held by Rav Avigdor Miller, OBM–would suggest otherwise. Specifically, Rav Miller and others would argue that Ben Gurion with the help of American Reform Rabbi (and politically progressive Roosevelt supporter) Stephen Wise allowed European Jewry to perish in order to create a world moral atmosphere more inclined to the creation of a Zionist State.

    As a member years ago of Rav Miller’s Brooklyn, NY, shul, I clearly remember that from time to time, Rav Miller’s Torah discussion would center about the destruction of Hungarian Jewry and how Stephen Wise promoted a vacuous argument which suggested that any plan to privately ransom European Jews would accelerate the extermination process.

    Wise’s approach followed the party line promoted by the Roosevelt administration–in particular, that the salvation of European Jews would be quickened by a speedy Allied victory; therefore, all efforts–including those of all American
    Jews–should be directed towards this goal rather than by campaigns to raise money for the ransom of Hungarian Jewry. Five-Hundred and Fifty Thousand dead Hungarian Jews later, it appears that Wise’s pro Roosevelt approach did not work very well.

    In addition to the Shoah issue, sociologists (in particular, Dr. Samuel Heilman) show that many Haredi parents and teachers strictly follow the approach of telling their children that men without beards, tzitzits, and kippot–or women
    immodestly dressed–are simply Goyim; for how else can these parents and teachers explain to four and five year olds that it is possible for a Jew to lead a non Torah centered life? Add to this the argument–as promoted most zealously by the Satmar–that a Jewish State cannot exist unless established by Mashiach (may he come speedily in our day) and it becomes more than clear that Haredi opposition to military service is Torah based (moreso by rabbinic reasoning
    than by a specific mitzvah; nonetheless, it is still Torah–though it is a ruling which is narrowly focused and extremely
    politically incorrect; still, it retains as much validity as any other rabbinical opinion–for example, the laws of Tzniut
    which deal with the lengths of woman’s skirts and sleeves, head coverings and wigs, the use of jewelry, makeup, and so
    on [and which vary from community to community yet all of it is considered Torah and therefore valid]).

    All in all, does anyone real expect Haredi to broadcast that many of them believe that the founders of the Jewish State were participants in the mass murder of European Jewry, or that they actively promote the idea to their children that secular Jews are Goys, or that many of them hold the view that the Zionist State is itself a violation of Torah? In my opinion, it’s not going to happen. Haredi have too much to lose by actively admitting what they really think–therefore, we are being left with the bubkis.

    In closing, it should be noted that Seidman documents in The Warsaw Ghetto Diaries that “Yeshiva Bochurim” put down their books in order to take up arms against the Germans. Here were these young Haredi guys with peot, kippot, tzitzits, and keputahs (persons who were Torah saints–clearly more frum than anyone living today in Bnai Brak or Me’er Sharim) throwing molotov cocktails at SS divisions. Frankly, were there any valid Torah rationale for prohibiting it at the time, Rabbi Shapira (the head Rabbi of the Ghetto) would have done so.

  5. Andre

    Thanks for publishing this information, these stories do not get printed in the press of the world. My prayer is that those who have started serving in the Army will tell others that they cannot undertand what all the fuss is about.

  6. Robert Rivin

    It is not for me to comment, except that our grandson is just starting in the army and he (and his family) are Orthodox, though not haredi. He gives me vibrations of myself and WW2. Every haredi kid should be like Dani.

  7. rabbi richard polirer

    What a wonderful and inspiring column. We ARE all one nation, and invoking Lincoln’s paraphrase of the New Testament’s Mark was a literary gem. The story of Shkedy? That was the noblest part of it all. Thank you, Naomi, for the Rewrite, and for resetting and centering this discussion. Sane heads MUST prevail, and the bochrim MUST defend the State of Israel, which is the first flowering of OUR –not just THEIR — redemption. A masterful essay.

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