As one who has lived and learned among the Ultra-Orthodox, I have a great respect and affinity for the community. I also feel as a religious Jew that I stand in solidarity with that community in our absolute commitment to the Torah. With every love, however, comes concerns and I am not alone in being deeply worried about Ultra-Orthodox spiritual-intemperance, isolation, and poverty.
The pinnacle achievement for a male Ultra-Orthodox Jew is to learn Torah full-time in Kollel. In Israel, the growth in the number of these institutions has made this possible, but it has also created a host of growing problems: overburdened wives and mothers, a culture of poverty (over 55% live below the poverty line), disappointment with unfulfilled promises, a lack of integration into and widening divide with Israeli society, and growing resentment from the rest of the country. The growing divide between the extreme religious and frustrated secular camps is perpetuating a very unhealthy national culture.
The Ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the Israeli army, out of a belief that the military is a secular (i.e. not Torah-true) entity and that dedicated, full-time Torah study, rather than military power, is what ultimately protects the Jewish people; they have been exempted since the early days of the state. When Israel was founded, its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, helped secure the support of Ultra-Orthodox eastern European rabbis by exempting about 400 Ultra-Orthodox students from military service, under the Torato Omanuto arrangement, so they could study the Torah and Talmud on a full-time basis. Israel’s leadership at the time, which was composed of almost only secular people, saw the number before them and anticipated that in the future only a small number of Israelis would be engaged in full-time religious studies.
Today, however, the Ultra-Orthodox are the largest growing group in Israel, comprising 10 percent of the population, and a crisis is looming. Now 60,000 male students are exempt from military service, and estimates for the annual cost of supporting Haredim and their large families stand at 3 billion Euros (Israel pays stipends to yeshivas for each student and families for each child). Considering that nearly 25 percent of first graders are Ultra-Orthodox, this economic burden will greatly increase unless something is done. Even the International Monetary Fund has noted that the cost of subsidizing the Ultra-Orthodox will put a significant drag on Israeli economic growth.
Critics have noted that even during the days of the shtetl, most Jews worked, and only the most scholarly spent their lives in Torah study. Today, most of the Ultra-Orthodox in other countries work, and yet about 60 percent of Ultra-Orthodox men study Torah and do not work (although recent data show that the percentage of married Ultra-Orthodox men who now work has risen from 31 percent to 38 percent in 2012).
Israelis in general resent the Ultra-Orthodox exemption because they and their children must do military service (risking their lives), pay taxes to support the Ultra-Orthodox, and look askance as many Ultra-Orthodox try to impose their extreme social conservatism on all of Israel, attacking the Women of the Wall, trying to segregate buses by sex and harass Orthodox girls on their way to school, all while continuing to oppose the modern secular state of Israel.
This situation is starting to change. On February 21, 2012, the High Court ruled that the Tal Law was unconstitutional. Israel’s Supreme Court agreed this year, issuing a ruling overturning the military exemption of the Ultra-Orthodox and ordering the state to reform the policy by August.
Jews in America have also become more aggressive in opposing the Ultra-Orthodox. Reform and Conservative Jews in particular have denounced some of the more aggressive efforts of the Ultra-Orthodox community to segregate society by sex and their seeming hostility to the state of Israel. In June, Barbra Streisand came to Israel to accept an honorary Ph.D. from Hebrew University. While in Israel, she sharply rebuked the Ultra-Orthodox for their treatment of women, including a reference to the American racial civil rights movement: “It’s distressing to read about women in Israel being forced to sit in the back of the bus, or when we hear about `Women of the Wall’ having metal chairs thrown at them when they attempt to peacefully and legally pray.” It is difficult to imagine most American Jews supporting the Ultra-Orthodox continuing their exemption from military service and receiving government funding.
For their part, some within the American Ultra-Orthodox movement have also become involved. On June 9, thousands of Haredim gathered in Brooklyn, New York, to protest the proposed Knesset law that would draft Haredim into the Israel Defense Forces. The Satmar speakers continually urged the crowd not to show anti-Zionist signs during the rally and tried to focus solely on this bill (one printed sign spotted at the rally stated: “Orthodox Jews Will PROUDLY GO TO JAIL Rather Than Join The Zionist Army”). Yaakov Shapiro, who spoke for the Satmar community, equated the draft law with the destruction of yeshivas and the Jewish people: “Nothing else maintains the continuity of the Jewish people…. Without the yeshivas we are extinct as a people, and that’s what they are trying to do.” On the other hand, The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents the Centrist Orthodox Jews, denounced the protest as being anti-Israel.
The Ultra-Orthodox in Israel maintain that they are the spiritual foundation of the country, and should be valued for that. They have also used their political clout to align with fragile coalitions in exchange for preserving their military exemption. The current government came to power without Ultra-Orthodox party support, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not known for dramatic political gestures, so it is unclear what will happen.
The Knesset has until August 1 to come up with a replacement conscription law. One recommendation has been to lower the total number of exemptions to 1,500 by 2016, along with at least severe financial penalties for those who evade service. While Prime Minister Netanyahu has disbanded the committee that made this recommendation, his fragile government may fall if it does not follow through, as Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party have both stated strong opposition to exempting the Ultra-Orthodox from military service, and the government might not survive if Netanyahu does not act.
Some wonder if the Ultra-Orthodox can serve, since most have only had a religious education, and have no computer or other modern skills, which makes them ill-suited for military or even alternate civilian service. Fortunately, there are some outlets that may offer a solution.
For example, earlier this week, I (along with a great JFNA delegation) had the chance to visit a terrific JDC organization in Ashdod, Israel, called Mafteach (“key”) which helps to bring Haredi Jews in Israel into the army and get them trained to have the skills to be productive in the workplace. This is a much-needed program that should be expanded.
If a Jew doesn’t want to serve in the army then they can live in the diaspora but they cannot take state benefits yet opt out of state obligations. Further, if one has to put their children’s lives at risk to protect the country, and another family is not willing, one might come to think that the Ultra-Orthodox actually believe that their lives are worth more G-d forbid. In the Messianic era, the rabbis teach that Israel will have complete sovereignty and security, but until then, we must support the state in whatever ways we can (advocacy, financially, militarily, spiritually). We cannot merely rely upon wishes and prayers to protect our nation. Torah has a crucial role to play in spiritually and morally building the country (like it hasn’t had in 2,000 years) and that Torah inspire courageous action and leadership. That power of Torah cannot be monopolized by one community; rather it must be made accessible within all of Israel to ensure national and universal transformation.
Requiring the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army is not only good for the country economically and socially, it’s not only good for the Ultra-Orthodox helping them get workplace skills helping to life them from poverty, but it’s also good for Torah. The Torah was meant to be lived putting Jewish values into practice. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, the former rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kibbutz Hadati, writes:
In the IDF one learns to live by the Torah in all situations, even in difficult circumstances, and on Shabbat one cannot simply call one’s posek… In the quota of those exempt from service in the army, if implemented, I would only include those whose religious commitment is weak and who may end up abandoning Torah observance during their service-as they are the ones who will not be asking the questions in Hilkhot Eiruvin. In such a scenario, the quota of exemption would become a sign of shame, and the service in the IDF a symbol of pride for the Torah world (even that which is not Zionist). This is what is correct from a Torah and halachic perspective.
The Ultra-Orthodox community is rapidly growing and their poverty rate is growing too, and in the near future may comprise a quarter of all Israelis. Fortunately, Israel is nowhere near to the type of religious conflict that exists elsewhere in the Middle East, but a deep, enduring conflict is a strong possibility. If not in the army itself, there may be other ways to serve the nation to ensure the country benefits and the Ultra-Orthodox youth can gain the workplace skills to improve their financial situation and become productive members of society. With national unity and solidarity, the Torah can illuminate the world with its fullest potential and grandeur.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”