Avigail Knoll

Can the Haredim and IDF peacefully co-exist?

Let's be honest: The army has broken promises to ultra-Orthodox soldiers, and Yeshiva students aren't all Torah scholars
A secular man and an ultra-Orthodox man fight during a protest against the drafting of Haredi Jews to the military, outside the IDF army recruitment office in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
A secular man and an ultra-Orthodox man fight during a protest against the drafting of Haredi Jews to the military, outside the IDF army recruitment office in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Jewish world treats the question of whether the Haredim should serve in the IDF as an impossible-to-fix, black-and-white issue. In reality, it’s actually a very gray issue, but one that can be fixed as long as both sides are honest and choose to work together.

If one looks at the Torah’s sources on the matter, Shaul haMelech (King Saul) had an exemption from going to war for full-time Torah learners. His successor, Dovid haMelech (King David) abolished it. Even the abolished exemption required the learners to give shiurim (Torah classes) and chizuk (strength) to the soldiers on the front lines by learning at the military encampment.

Second, according to all Torah sources (even the Rambam, who is often quoted as the primary scholar who writes that anyone who learns can be counted among the tribe of Levi and be exempt from going to war), a war that was required in order to protect the lives of the Jewish people from a threat to their survival or wellbeing (a milchemet mitzvah) has no exemptions and everyone must go to war.

Beyond the scholarly discussion, there are two sides to this complex coin which everyone must see and strive to understand:

First, the IDF has lied to the Haredim. For example, in the army’s Hesder track (the religious, but non-Haredi, Jewish yeshiva students who serve in the IDF), Haredi programs were started with the promise from the IDF that there would never be female instructors teaching in their programs. Very shortly thereafter, female instructors were brought in by the IDF. The IDF recently promised the Hesder soldiers that there would not be any women singing at a key ceremony in order to secure their attendance. The Hesder soldiers agreed to attend in order to add importance and legitimacy to the ceremony, only to find after their arrival, the ceremony opened with women singing, resulting in a massive walkout by the Hesder soldiers, against orders. (According to Torah law, Jewish men are not permitted to hear a woman sing, especially live, unless it’s one’s wife, daughter or mother.)

If you were a Haredi parent and you read that story, which was in the news, and you saw that even the Hesder, which are an extremely dedicated group of soldiers, were lied to by the IDF and had their religious beliefs trampled, why would you consider sending your son to enlist? From your perspective, why would you trust the IDF and potentially throw your son into an army that would disrespect and potentially prohibit his ability to fully practice his Judaism?

This is especially true when you consider that many secular Jews also dodge serving in the army, so why are only the Haredim singled out? As a Haredi parent, you would have reason not to believe that the army specifically needs your Haredi son when secular youth also dodge army service with no ramifications and no legislation to force their enlistment.

Many of those who are against the exemptions for the Haredim (who believe all should serve in the IDF) publicly judge the Haredim as being selfish but fail to mention that the Haredim have agreed to and tried small test programs with the army in the past, only to be very quickly lied to, and forced to pull out.

Torah study equals army service?

On the other side of the debate, Haredi rabbis and leaders constantly preach the belief that Torah learning is the highest and most revered action that can be taken by a Jew. They publicly state that it is the lifeblood of Jews and the land of Israel, and that it is the real cause for the state of Israel’s successes (including those of the IDF). They make claims that someone learning Torah in yeshiva is serving his country to the same level as an IDF soldier on the front lines.

The Haredi world predominantly consists of tremendously dedicated Torah scholars who are learning and sacrificing a lot for that lifestyle and who should be praised and respected. At the same time, if one looks at the full reality, not all of the Haredim who are supposedly “learning Torah in yeshiva” (the condition for not serving in the army) are actually in yeshiva learning. Unfortunately, a sizable number of them are just coasting. They are barely showing up, standing outside for long smoke breaks, roaming around with friends, going on hikes and trips and other leisure activities, when they are supposed to be in yeshiva studying Torah. If Torah learning is as vital as Haredim profess, then the secular world has a sincere right to question why they are not all taking it seriously. How can there be a sizable number of people who don’t diligently study Torah if it is truly the lifeblood and protection of the Jewish people?

If a sizable number of IDF soldiers regarded their obligations with the same cavalier manner and didn’t show up for duty, took long smoke breaks, relaxed, went on hikes, etc., we simply would not have an army. A soldier who is not fully dedicated risks his life, his battalion, and his country.

If you were a secular Jewish parent with a son or daughter potentially risking their lives by serving in the IDF army, how could you possibly believe the claim that Torah learning is “just as vital” as serving? How could you swallow that as truth when a sizable number of yeshiva students don’t take their learning as seriously as your child’s commitment to potentially face death in defense of the Jewish state?

The first step toward a strong, sustainable solution to this issue can only be through building real trust, mutual understanding, and respect for each other. This responsibility rests equally on both sides. All parties must recognize and respect the importance, sacrifice and efforts of the other. That can only happen if both sides are completely honest with the other and own the reality of the situation – working together in unity to fix it.

If we treat both sides as having value, credibility and purpose, then the following becomes obvious and can be accepted by all:

Yes, the IDF needs more soldiers – from all parts of the Jewish people.

Yes, we need elite Torah learners to be exempt, the same way that the top scientists, doctors, etc. can be exempt because the country needs all of them.

Yes, we need those who aren’t seriously learning Torah in yeshiva to go do their part by serving in the IDF.

Yes, we need to provide Haredi soldiers with an IDF environment that allows them to be as religious as they are now, without fear.

Yes, we need to support Torah learning and the yeshivas.

Yes, we need to remove funds from those who are not learning Torah seriously and use it to support other programs.

No, we don’t need to fight among ourselves to achieve any of this.

These truths must all exist without deceptions, lies or any form of bait-and-switch.

There must be an ironclad system that prevents the non-Haredi world from proposing legislation to the courts to only remove the parts they don’t like and enforce whatever remains (which has happened in the past). At the same time, after an agreement is reached, Haredim can’t riot and burn dumpsters to try to force changes either.

Both parties must openly agree to never play legal or political games with each other again.

Mutual compromise, honesty, respect and a desire to reach consensus must rest on a foundation of wanting to peacefully co-exist and work together as one Jewish people. If these were all in place, with the right intentions, these and any other issues that arise could likely be solved quickly and peacefully in ways that the entire Jewish world would accept.

Neither side has the cache or the right to demand blind trust from the other, but both sides have a solemn responsibility to take actions that will merit the trust of the other and do their part to repair the damage done.

That’s the only way forward, and only with G-d’s help.

About the Author
Avigail Knoll is a Rebbetzin, writer and speaker who has inspired thousands with her thought-provoking words, moving stories, fresh perspective and Torah insights — all wrapped in a warm, relatable and simple-to-understand approach.
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