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The Case for Army Exemptions - Why Yeshiva Students belong in Yeshiva

07/01/2013 11:24:53 PM


When I decided to speak about the looming schisms and building animosity amongst our people, I realized one thing. It is not intellectually honest to both advocate for tolerance, and give whole hearted expression to only one side of an argument. That’s how one creates macholket, not solves it. And so I set myself a challenge, and it is a challenge I set before all of us today. The central issue right now in Israel is the proposed draft for the yeshiva students.  I cannot imagine many of us are in favor of the arguments for preserving the wholesale exemptions and current status quo. But can we understand those positions? If we are to help solve the divide in our communities and our people, it seems axiomatic that we need to hear arguments we may disagree with – not to debate or ridicule them, but to understand them, so that we can be respectful and dialogue, so we can preserve our humanity and our peoplehood.

I am often accused of preaching to the choir. It is easy, surprisingly easy at Lincoln square synagogue, to give drashot against women being made to sit at the back of the bus and so on - but to give a drasha that I know nobody will agree with however, is a little trickier.  We do however, have a duty to understand the counterargument to our personal value systems. To make 100% clear, I will be giving next week’s sermon on the opposite side of the battle, why the yeshiva students should be conscripted to the army. Beyond the politics, the antipathies and aspersions, is a machloket, a surprisingly rich, substantive, important and compelling set of arguments and considerations. And so all I ask for is an open mind and a respectful hearing. If we cannot do that, we cannot expect people who disagree with us to hear our point of view either.

The first point I want to make is that to a certain extent, the Charedim, the Ultra Orthodox, are the Jews of contemporary Israel. That is to say that to be a Charedi is to be part of a minority that has to put up with a tremendous amount of prejudice and discrimination from others.

I’m going to give three examples from my own personal experiences to illustrate this point. I was once in a car with an Israeli broadcast journalist. We happened to be driving through a Charedi neighborhood in Jerusalem one Friday afternoon. The traffic was terrible and the local residents, in black hats and coats were out in crowds, bustling around. The man began  clutching at the steering wheel until his knuckles were white and was saying over and over again  “I hate these people, I detest them.” It’s hard to imagine that in his broadcasts the Charedi population gets a sympathetic hearing. In another example, I was once a bus where an Eged driver refused, simply refused to let a Charedi family board a bus even though there was plenty of room on board.

To me, most telling of all was a question and answer session I attended with late prime minister Rabin’s son, when I was the Rabbi at Cambridge University. I asked a question about the then high tensions between religious and secular. Mr. Rabin gave an answer and then he said – and I really am quoting verbatim from memory because I remember it so well 20 years later – “As for the Charedim, I have nothing against them. They just need to remember that it’s our country, not theirs”.

I am not going to get into now why that prejudice and tension exists – and of course it’s on both sides. Many would say the animosity is caused because Charedi Jews do not go to the army, and that they are parasites and leeches etc. If we are honest however, we will realize that the divisions between Jews, and antipathy for secular and religious, are much older than the state of Israel, and not dependent on any specific incident or concept.

It would be disingenuous to state that Kollel families within the Israeli Charedi population “have it easy”. The financial reality of these families is that oftentimes they live way below the poverty line for their religious ideals.

So why don’t the Charedim serve in the army?

There is a famous story, an episode from the very early days of the State of Israel.  There was a meeting in 1952 between David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, and the Chazon Ish, the famed, saintly, gadol hador, the leading Torah sage of the generation. The matter at hand was in fact not conscription for yeshiva students – that was already in place, (albeit for a few hundred students), but for the planned conscription of girls. The Charedi population was adamantly opposed for conscription for women and was desperate to dispose of this plan. Ben-Gurion travelled to Bnei Brak  to meet with the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish quoted a Talmudic passage – “… If two wagons are approaching a narrow bridge from opposite directions, and there isn’t room for the two of them, the empty wagon must give way to the full one. After hearing this Talmudic passage, Ben-Gurion deferred to the Chazon ish’s request.

In the book “In the Land of Israel, Amos Oz says as follows: "And Ben-Gurion, out of some strange emotional impulse that must have come from his very depths, took upon himself and us the verdict of the empty wagon." It is well known that there are more yeshiva students in Israel today than in any time and in place in history. The Yeshiva world set itself a task – to ensure that, as nearly happened during the holocaust – that the Torah would not be forgotten from the Jewish people. That is why yeshiva life exists –this path of material hardship, relative and sometimes absolute poverty, is not because of cowardice, but because there are hundreds of thousands of people who are prepared to say – my religion, Torah, is the most important thing in my life. Yeshiva students say that our job as students and preservers of Torah is the reason the Jewish people continue to exist. They believe that the more students learning in yeshivot, the more Torah will be learned, understood, transmitted and safe guarded. Perpetuating Torah life, learning and growth, is a collective shouldering of a burden that belongs to all of us. It involves sacrifice, more than we can imagine.

The fact of the matter is – to become a talmid chacham requires years of effort. And it requires the best years of your life. Long uninterrupted years of seclusion and study,that is done to the exclusion of many other enjoyable and fulfilling activities. Many Charedi leaders argue that the attempt to enlist charedim is a deliberate attempt to secularize them – to peel them away from religion and Torah study. The main objection to army service however, is the overwhelmingly secular environment. It is not hard to see that sending yeshiva students to the army would seriously harm the endeavor that the yeshiva world has undertaken. Very few individuals would want to go back to full time study after serving in the army. Additionally, not learning during their younger years would mean that their most productive “learning years” would be lost.  

There are clearly many reasons that serving in the IDF isn’t conducive to their lifestyle, but is it fair? Israel needs an army, and why should anyone be allowed not to serve? How can someone simply opt out of such an obligation?

It is important to note that there are other exempted categories of people, and that a relatively high number of 18 year olds get exemptions for one reason or another. Rambam, the great rationalist Torah sage, provides a textual support for this lifestyle. Interestingly, this is the same Rambam who we will meet next Shabbat, who argues that it is a Chillul Hashem to learn Torah and live on other people’s money. Here however, Rambam writes:


ג. ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו

מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני יי לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את יי והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים

ופרק מעל צוארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר בקשו בני האדם הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים

ויהיה י"י חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה"ז דבר המספיק לו כמו

שזכה לכהנים ללוים הרי דוד ע"ה אומר י"י מנת חלקי וכוסי אתה תומיך גורלי:


Halacha 13:

“Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the World 27 whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies.28God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites.29 And thus David declared [Psalms 16:5]: "God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot."

In Biblical times, as we read in our parsha this past week in Pinchas, the Levite did not inherit land in Israel – they had a spiritual calling to be teachers of Torah, so they were supported by the community. Rambam says that anyone, (not just a Levi), who wishes to devote himself to Torah, all other obligations are removed from him. This is permitted because to be a Jew doesn’t just mean living in the “here and now”– it means ensuring the spiritual eternal welfare of our people. The same Netziv that I quoted last week, who in the most beautiful and strident terms, called for peace and respect amongst different factions. That great Rosh Yeshiva of Volzhin says as follows:


… ועל כל אלה יסד הקב”ה עז התורה ומלחמתה בעיון ובעמל, כדי שבזכות זה נהיה

נצולים מצוררין ואויבים The Almighty gave us the power of deep Torah study, so that in its merit we would be saved from our enemies.”

A tenant of Jewish belief is that Torah study protects us, that the merit of people (who not casually) but day and night sit and study the Torah, provides protection not just for themselves, but for the entirety of the Jewish people. This is an important point of view, deeply rooted in our traditions. Torah study provides protection not just for the student or scholar and not just for their personal family, but rather for the entire nation.

Whether you find my arguments convincing or not from a Torah point of view, there are two more compelling reasons why I fear that the current plan to enforce conscription will be a disaster. I said before that the Charedim are the Jews of Israel. The Jewish people are an “Am Kishey Oref- A stiff necked nation”. We are stubborn. This quality is a good thing, because it has kept us alive through thousands of years of persecution and forced conversion. This quality has made us resistant to those who have tried to destroy us. It is part of our survival instinct and is part of human nature, and it is certainly Jewish nature. Sadly, here in New York, and here at LSS, we are cut off from much of the greater Orthodox world. But while we see the Israeli Charedi world as a monolithic world of black, the factis the Charedi world has been changing, reforming and adapting itself. It is in fact not true that the Chareidi world never evolves. For example, it used to be that secular education was taboo. In some circles going to work as opposed to studying Torah was taboo. This is all slowly changing. Nachal Charedi is an army unit that makes it possible for Charedi soldiers to serve in the army. This unit is growing in conscription and acceptance.

There is a significant problem however, with all of these reforms being imposed by the “outside”. Since reforms are being legally imposed by the government, progress and reform has come to a standstill. The threat of criminal and financial penalties, ugly rhetoric (by people who are sworn opponents of Charedim) creates an extremely threatening and hostile environment for change to happen in. It is within this context that moderate voices are silenced, and strident, extreme, and rejectionist voices prevail. Lines are drawn, positions embattled .There are many ways to facilitate an increase in the number of Charedim who go to the army.  The way the government is doing it – community against community, is the worst possible way and is the least effective way to accomplish this goal.

I have one final thought to add to my remarks, which may be discomforting to some of us. Despite what we might think, we need the Ultra Orthodox. We need the Charedi world to go on existing, very much as it does now. Because, despite our commitment to Orthodoxy and Torah study, we the Modern Orthodox community, (to a certain extent in Israel and overwhelmingly in the diaspora) have not shown ourselves capable of preserving, nurturing and transmitting the Torah to the next generation. We truly depend upon the Chareidi world to preserve the great yeshivot, one of the most significant infrastructures in our Jewish world. It is only within yeshivot that one will find tens of thousands of students committed to passing on Torah in its entirety, in its majesty. All of the different factions of the Jewish people bring different unique contributions to the klal. Chareidim may not be able to live without the contributions the rest of the nation gives them, but the rest of the Jewish people cannot live without their significant and unique contribution of Torah either. This truth is what Ben-Gurion realized when he accepted the definition of the Yeshiva world as a “full wagon”.

Friends, above all, none of us wishes to see harm come to our beloved State of Israel. When I think of the accomplishments of the State of Israel – true miracles the 6 day war, Entebbe and so many more, I think about the danger of believing that all of our military, economic and social success is solely the product of our hard work. The Torah warns us against saying kochi viotzem yadi…my power and the strength of my hand”. It is important for us to internalize that our success in the Jewish state is Divinely given.   I wonder what merits we have as a Jewish people, besides for the great sacrifices our precious soldiers earn by fighting and risking their lives for their fellow Jews.

The State of Israel is the largest, most generous supporter of mass Torah study that has ever existed in history. Israel is a country that devotes significant resources to Torah study, and thanks to army exemptions, tens of thousands study Torah day and night. Is it really not possible that this helps protect our beloved Israel? When I look at the small State of Israel, surrounded by wolves ready to devour her, I could never conceive of doing anything that might weaken the Israeli army. Downsizing the IDF would concern all of us, that it would endanger the safety and security of Israel.  I fear if we do the same thing to the yeshivas, if we downsize them and trivialize their importance, who knows how much damage that would do to us as well?

Wed, June 3 2020 11 Sivan 5780