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Shall your brothers go out to war?

07/11/2013 07:12:59 PM


Last Shabbat I argued as well as I could, for the continued exemption of yeshiva students from the army. Some people missed my opening paragraphs in which I said that I would be speaking this week for the other side, and that this is as much an exercise in mutual respect as anything else. In fact, some were offended by my taking such a one sided stance. I had some conversations with people who were very confused about what had happened to Rabbi Robinson! Some heard my remarks, and they were nonetheless offended that I could express the pro Charedi view at all. On the other hand however, many people expressed happiness that I had at least attempted to present a view that that we so rarely hear.

Since I know that we, almost all of us, will have much more sympathy with the view I am to express today, I almost hesitate to express it. I have this concern because this series of drashot (during the period of time of the three weeks) is about repairing the breaches in our midst, not exacerbating them. I think I can only present what I have to say if I do so with the disclaimer that it is to further the goal of Ahavat Yisrael. Therefore, I have to make it clear that our stake in all of this is what is best for Israel, and what is best for the Jewish people.

To clarify,  the Charedi world has many faults and failings. I happen to think our world, the Modern Orthodox world, has at least as many challenges as our Charedi counterpart.  As much as we love Israel and Zionism, we are obligated to love Torah and mitzvoth even more so.

Years ago, Rabbi Riskin and a leading rabbi from London got involved in a public falling out as a result of Rabbi Riskin wanting to open a yeshiva in London. The English Modern Orthodox rabbi objected to Rabbi Riskin’s plan, and stated that “we don’t need more fundamentalism here”.  While they were arguing about the yeshiva specifically, the crux of their debate was about a more fundamental issue: as Modern Orthodox Jews with who do we have more in common- secular Israelis or Charedim?

The London rabbi was suggesting that we have more in common with Chilonim. Chilonim and Modern Orthodox Jews share common values of modernity, culture, Zionism, and love of the State of Israel. Rabbi Riskin however argued that we have more in common with Charedim, as we share Torah values of shabbat, kashrut, mikvah, torah study, and 613 Mitzvot.

I agree with Rabbi Riskin. Since I believe we have more in common with Charedim, as religious Jews we need to approach this issue with love and for the greater good of the Jewish people. You will not hear from me (not this morning nor any other time) an argument for extending the draft that references charedim as parasites, or leeches (or in any kind of prejudicial way that they are referred too far too often).

I think the argument for extending the draft to include charedim is based in Torah sources that many in the Charedi community are willing to embrace.

So what are the acceptable arguments? They are to my mind unassailable. In this week’s parsha, the tribes of Reuvan and Gad come before Moshe with an astonishing request. They told him that they do not want to enter the land of Israel since they are doing so well on the other side of the Jordan. They remarked that they have plenty of cattle and fertile land, so they want to stay there.

Moshe was stunned by their request. He felt like this was an impending disaster, a complete betrayal. Moshe was concerned that this would turn into another episode of the spies and would result in another generation lost in the desert.

His very first reaction is almost disbelief:

Will your brothers go out to war and you will stay here?

These words require no explanation. Moshe is asking incredulously: your brothers should fight, and you shouldn’t have to? Why? Why shouldn’t you fight? Why should someone else go to war, some other mother lose a son in battle, and you don’t have to?

This interaction is the biggest, most unassailable reason for extending the draft to include Charedim.

The army draft in Israel is not a national service program like in some other countries. The State of Israel does not require army service in order to teach discipline and life skills to teenagers. Young adults are mandated to join the Israeli army solely because of pikuach nefesh. The IDF is what stands between us and another holocaust, G-d forbid. Look at the turmoil; in Syria, this week in Egypt. If the Israeli army took one hour off, there would be no more Israel: no kibbutzim, and no yeshivot either.

Nowhere in classical rabbinic literature do we find the view that Torah study exempts one from helping to defend the country one lives in. This is precisely what Moshe meant: should it all be our burden? Who gave you the right to take all of the protection, all of the advantages that the army will bring, but decide that it is not convenient for you to serve? Does it say anywhere in the Torah that fighting wars is only for the secular? It does not – nowhere in Tanach do we see that anyone ever decided they were too religious, too engrossed in Torah study to go and defend the Jewish people from physical harm.

A student of my acquaintance once asked Rav Aaron Lichtenstein (the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion) what the source of the obligation to serve in the army was. Rav Lichtenstien answered “noseh b’ol chavero” - that sharing your friends burden is a basic human duty.

The argument that Torah study helps protect the people is doubtless true, but there is also a Torah concept that “Ain somchim al hanes”,that we cannot rely on miracles. Once again, there is not a single example in Tanach of people who were told to sit and learn in order to protect the people, to the exclusion of an army.

The question of army however is really bound up with a more fundamental question. To what extent should Charedim participate in the wider society? In many senses there has never been a generation (or half a century), like this, where masses of Torah observant Jewry did not work, sent their wives out to be the sole providers, and relied on state and charity handouts in order to survive.

This is not how it was in the times of the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the rishonim or achronim, and it was not like that in Poland or Russia or Hungary. Not working is a new phenomenon that is not in our historical experience, and it is wholly unsustainable.

Hear the words of the Great Maimonides, Rambam, as he discusses the primacy of Torah study:

Halacha 10

Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God's] name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.

Our Sages declared: "Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world." Also, they commanded and declared: "Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with." Also, they commanded and declared: "Love work and despise Rabbinic positions." All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.

Halacha 11:

It is a tremendous advantage for a person to derive his livelihood from his own efforts. This attribute was possessed by the pious of the early generations. In this manner, one will merit all [types of] honor and benefit in this world and in the world to come, as [Psalms 128:2] states: "If you eat the toil of your hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you." "You will be happy" - in this world.” It will be good for you" - in the world to come, which is entirely good.

It has to be remembered that we are not talking about preserving an ancient way of life. We are talking about a new way of life, and one that doesn’t work, for many people and is economically unsustainable.

Last week I quoted the Rambam, the same Maimonides who speaks about the fact that one may indeed remove oneself the yoke of earning a living, to study Torah instead. Here, he writes:

“And not just the Tribe of Levi but any human being who wishes to remove the yoke of worldly occupation…”

Some reference this Rambam as the reason why the Charedi community should be allowed en masse to study Torah full time. However, this Rambam does not advocate for an entire community of people to choose this path. The Rambam is talking about someone who chooses this path as an individual spiritual quest.

My biggest and most loving critique of the Charedi system is that it is fine for those who choose a life of spiritual dedication and material sacrifice, but if one is born within this community one is not given a choice. If you are a Charedi teenager in mainstream Charedi educational institutions in Israel, nobody will teach you how to earn a living, or how to learn basic skills to be employable and support a family such as math and computing.

I recently had a conversation with an Israeli rosh kollel who came collecting money. He has a son who is studying in a Yeshiva in England that caters to Israeli boys who cannot sit and learn solidly all day long. There are no secular studies there, nor is it a Yeshiva for boys who have ceased to be religious. This yeshiva was created because in Israel a slightly less intensive learning program is unthinkable. The Israeli Yeshiva system has too few options and as a result such a yeshiva had to be founded outside the country.

Someone in the shul recently told me about a relative of theirs who lives in a Charedi town in Israel. The family has a son who was not cut out to sit and learn Torah for decades. In this entire town however, there was not a single school with academic subjects or vocational subjects. There was not a single Rabbi in this town of rebbeim brave enough to open up a school that would teach subjects such as computers, woodwork plumbing or anything that would teach young adults to earn a living.  By the age of 15, this boy was labeled a failure, expelled from every yeshiva in town, and was on the streets. Now this young adult is sadly but inevitably completely irreligious.

One of the strongest arguments that many Charedi leaders make for keeping their community out of the IDF, is that the army is a secularizing environment. They state that even of the Hesder yeshivot (the Religious Zionist program that combine army and yeshiva) as many as 20% of their graduates become secular in the army. The figure is probably vastly exaggerated, but it is important to note that the lack of options in the Charedi world. There are significant consequences to locking students into full time Torah studies regardless of whether they have the aptitude for it or not. Lack of options and extreme ideology has caused very many to give up observance entirely. Additionally, nowhere in the Torah does it say that one may sit and learn to the exclusion of working. This is what the Rambam referred to as a misinterpretation of the Torah. The Torah did not intend for Torah to be kept only by those who lock themselves away in a Bet Midrash.

 What is the point of contention in Israel today? Right now there are 8000, 18 year old yeshiva students exempted from the army every year. The current plan is to delay conscription for all of them until age 21. Of those, 1800 of the top students will be permanently excused from army service, and the rest of the students can serve in any one of many units that will accommodate their religious needs and will also train them for a career. Upon completion of army service, they can either begin a career or return to Torah study for the rest of their lives if they so wish.

This is not an evil plan. The Charedi world (as so many of their own people will admit only privately) needs this, needs it desperately. As I said last week however, extremists have taken over the public debate. The path for the elite scholar, the exceptional scholarly individual, has been made into the only acceptable path for all Charedim.

Friends, the sad truth is that there is a huge amount of resentment in Israel, directed at the Torah community. This situation has the potential to be as the Rambam warns, a Chilul Hashem. The common perception is that much of the Charedi world has the advantages of living in Israel – protection by the army, welfare, without the obligations.  Many people who pay taxes and serve in the army do not see why they should carry an unfair burden, while other members of Israeli society do not have to shoulder any burden at all.

On the theme of ‘burdens’ I would like to make one more point in the spirit of the Three weeks that we are in. I would like to make a point that I hope will make us somewhat uncomfortable. Let us remember what Moshe Rabenu said to the tribes of Ruvan and Gad:

Will your brothers go to war, and you will stay here?

 We, here in the comfort of New York city, have to remember that that rebuke, applies to us far more than it does to the Charedim of Israel. For we choose to live our lives here in the comfort of America. We have made our choice... I do believe we have a right to comment and express an opinion. However, none of us really has the right to point the finger at people who do not risk their lives in the Israeli army, when we ourselves do not either.

All the residents of Israel regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof, perform a task, and shoulder a burden on behalf of all of us. All Jews in Israel keep Israel strong and maintain a strong presence there so that we can go there whenever we choose. They all make a contribution to Israel far greater than we do. In these Three weeks of mourning and healing, our prayers, hopes and aspirations should be for the Almighty to keep all the residents of our beloved Israel safe and secure.



Wed, June 3 2020 11 Sivan 5780