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Everyone must serve

Defense Minister Gallant has boldly raised the question of ultra-Orthodox IDF service in light of October 7. It behooves us all to keep the conversation going
Haredi men who decided to join the IDF following the October 7 onslaught by Hamas arrive at recruiting offices in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv, October 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Haredi men who decided to join the IDF following the October 7 onslaught by Hamas arrive at recruiting offices in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv, October 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

I admire Yoav Gallant, Israel’s current defense minister and former IDF general.

Last March, during the heat of the conflict over changes to Israel’s judiciary system, Gallant called for a halt to the process, going against his own coalition. He said, “The security of the State of Israel is my life’s mission. Clothed in the IDF’s uniform, I have risked my life dozens of times for the State of Israel, and at this time, for the sake of our country, I am willing to take any risk and pay any price.”

The next day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired him.

Then things got interesting. Mass protests erupted across Israel supporting Gallant. In the following days, the prime minister announced that the formal decision to fire the defense minister was being delayed “in light of the ongoing security situation.” Two weeks later, Gallant was formally reinstated, and he was a voice of reason and stability in the hyper-politicized environment of the Israeli government over the months leading up to October 7.

Since October 7, Gallant has been part of Israel’s war cabinet together with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, a member of the opposition who joined to create a more unified front to lead the country through the war effort. They are joined by two observers, Ron Dermer, from the ruling Likud party, and Gadi Eizenkot, from Gantz’s National Union party (Eizenkot, who lost a son and a nephew in Gaza, has also had a very high profile for speaking his mind during the conflict).

This week, Gallant did it again.

On Wednesday, the defense minister called for an end to military draft exemptions for members of the ultra-Orthodox community and said he would only back legislation settling the matter if it is endorsed by centrist ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot. “Any draft law agreed to by all parties of the emergency coalition will be acceptable to me,” he said. “But without the agreement of all parts of the coalition, the defense system under my leadership will not present the law.”

As The Times of Israel reported: “His position, along with growing pressure on the government to reach a resolution on the long-deferred political hot potato, could set up a do-or-die clash with Haredi parties key to the survival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition…Gallant’s insistence on a law supported by…Gantz and Eisenkot…is likely to put to bed any chance of the coalition being able to pass a Haredi-friendly bill without reaching across the aisle to those opposed to large-scale exemptions.”

This is a big deal! Many Israeli commentators are calling Gallant’s position “heroic.” Of course, those who disagree with him use other, far less flattering terms to describe his stance,

The issue of Haredim serving in the IDF has a long history. Since 1948, there have been religious voices encouraging military service and those opposing it at all costs. While the religious Zionist community in Israel enthusiastically serves and sees the IDF in positive religious terms, the Haredim do not share this worldview.

The Haredi “exemption” began with the famous “arrangement” between David Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish. That initially affected a few thousand students, but the community grew and grew. In the past year, 66,000 young men from the ultra-Orthodox community received a deferral.

While IDF service for Haredim has been a recurring theme in Israeli life and politics, October 7 changed the equation. The war has increased the need for more soldiers, and it increased the attention on those who do not carry their fair share of the burden. “Therefore,” Yoav Gallant explained, “we are required to make agreements and decisions, which we haven’t made in 75 years.”

Some Haredim themselves realize this. In the days following October 7, thousands of Haredim volunteered for service, and several hundred have been inducted into the IDF. This may be a new trend and reflect a major shift in the worldviews of some in Haredi community who are expanding their roles in the Israeli workforce and broader society — even while remaining fully ensconced in the Haredi community.

Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein recently noted that the broader Haredi community must address this issue now. This was brought home to him when discussing the appropriate response to the question, “How are you?” If you answer too positively, you seem insensitive. If you are too negatively, you can sound demoralizing. (See my thoughts on this issue here.) His interlocutor suggested replying “Kemo kulanu — Like all of us.” Adlerstein wrote, “That brilliantly sums up the pain, the concern, the uncertainty, and the resolve of the country. It works. For almost everyone but us Haredim.”

We believe in the role of “spiritual weapons” like mitzvot, prayer and Torah study, and it is gratifying when people strive to respond to the war in Israel with greater religious fervor. There is wide agreement that exceptional Torah scholars can be exempted from active military duty, and it is possible that the IDF won’t need or want every yeshiva bachur. There may be other pathways towards fulfilling one’s duty such as volunteering in national service organizations. Nevertheless, everyone must do their part and share the burden. That’s the Jewish way.

We read this week about the mahatzit ha-shekel, the need for everyone to contribute a half-shekel towards the Mishkan project. This requirement says a lot about the role of the individual and the individual’s role in the community. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that the half-shekel contribution is a reminder that the individual — as talented as they might be — does not really “count” without contributing to the whole. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein notes a communal lesson of the half-shekel. It is inappropriate for a person to enjoy the benefits of a communal project without participating in the burden required to attain it.

The half-shekel conveys an important truth that extends far beyond the Mishkan. If we benefit from the Jewish community — and want to be part of the community, then we should feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to the needs of the community.

I imagine the issue of Haredim serving in the IDF will remain an issue for the foreseeable future. At the same time, if we genuinely believe that “Yahad nenatzei’ah — We will only be victorious together,” then we need to address the issue directly. Yoav Gallant made a bold statement. The Haredim enlisting today are taking important first steps. Those like Rabbi Adlerstein who acknowledge that the issue must be addressed now will help move the conversation along. All of us should be raising this issue when we encounter fellow Jews from the Haredi community.

In my line of work, I encounter Haredim collecting tzedakah (charity) for needy individuals or institutions in Israel. I have begun asking each of them about Haredi service in the IDF. I don’t always get a satisfactory answer (and that petitioner may not get the response they hoped for). I don’t think any of us can change a community or solve an issue that has persisted for over 75 years. I do feel we have an obligation — especially since October 7 — to encourage everyone do their fair share to defend and protect Israel and reinforce the message of the half-shekel that all who benefit have an obligation to share in the burden.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in Long Island and serves as President of the New York Board of Rabbis. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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