“This is a final call of the Haredi leaders saying that they are leaving the embrace of the Jewish religion and way of life, and creating a new religion based on a value hierarchy which contradicts the fundamental beliefs of the Torah”
The issue of comparing yeshiva students to soldiers in Israel is highly contentious and complex matter that has significant implications for Judaism and the Israeli society.
The situation that revolves around the exemption of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish students studying in yeshivas from mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) dates back to the founding of the State of Israel, aimed at allowing religious students to pursue uninterrupted religious studies. It has been discussed repeatedly ad nauseum and regurgitated in every relevant forum.
On the one hand, proponents of the exemption argue that it preserves the religious character of the yeshivas and maintains the continuity of Jewish religious traditions. They believe that religious studies are vital for the preservation of Jewish identity and heritage, and military service could disrupt this sacred learning.
On the other hand, critics of the exemption raise concerns about issues of fairness, equality, and national security. Many argue that it creates an unequal burden on Israeli citizens, as secular and non-Haredi Jews are obligated to serve in the military, while a significant portion of the Haredi population is exempt. Some view this as an unfair arrangement, and it also raise concerns about potential social and economic disparities.
A recent law, placed for the third time on the Knesset table on the 25th of July, a copy of the 2018 P5189/20, is however a game changer. The law requests total parity in rights between the yeshiva student and the combat soldier. Upon discharge, the yeshiva students, whose contribution was equivalent with the Golani infantry and tank commander, will receive social and financial benefits and recognition to match those of the military veteran.
This, I claim, is not a financial or social change. This is a final call of the Haredi leaders saying that they are leaving the embrace of the Jewish religion and way of life, and creating a new religion based on a value hierarchy that contradicts the fundamental beliefs of the Torah, from its outset.
Ironically, what was placed on the Knesset table were two talmudic paragraphs, in order to support the claim that Torah learning is of utmost importance. The first, from Tractate Yoma, claims that “from the days of our ancestors, sitting in yeshiva has been a constant,” quotes “the old Chama Bar Chanina, and brings prooftexts from Genesis “Abraham was old and mature”; Numbers “Moses was asked to gather 70 old men”, and so forth. Can the Talmud in all its wisdom, not find sources pertaining to 18-23 year old youngsters sitting in yeshiva?
The second source is even more puzzling “Give me Yavne and its wise men” says Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai to Vespasian in the well known Midrash Aggada, quoted in tractate Gittin. Anyone with a slight Talmudic background knows that laws and rulings cannot be made based on the Aggadata!
No less concerning are the tractates not quoted. Tractate Kiddushin, which states so clearly “Learning Torah is important” is omitted, as the continuation of the sentence does not serve the purpose of the legislator “as it helps you live according to Torah values.”
Learning Torah, says the Talmud, is not a value of its own right but an important means to living a life according to Torah values. Since the earliest of covenants were made, the most important value of the Torah is the sanctity of life. Our earliest of commands combines this with another very important value – seeing the other. “Do not murder, as I created man in my image” (Genesis). The command not to murder is twinned with the command to see that every human being is created in God’s image, and not just the humans who look like you. (R Jonathan Sacks). Every one of our matriarchs had trouble getting pregnant, so that we, 5,000 years on, never take life for granted. (R’ Sacks)
For many years now, in order to self preserve, the Haredi community have turned Torah learning into an autonomous value, and not an ends to a means as the non-quoted Talmud states. However, over the years this has edged its way up their value-hierarchy. As we saw over the pandemic period, the ultra-Orthodox leadership preferred to defy life-saving instructions in order to maintain the Torah learning in schools and yeshivot, causing many superfluous deaths. By doing so, they made a very radical and reformative statement – the value of Torah learning supersedes the value of life.
If until now this has been whispered under the current, the Torah learning legislation brings it in out into the open for all of us to see. The combat soldier enlists knowing that he or she is putting their lives at risk for the country and, most likely somewhere along the path of their service, will be in life threatening situations. Every parent of these courageous soldiers fears the knock on the door and know that this is part of the contract. Yeshiva students do not risk their lives. The comparison of the two, suggested in this law, is that the value of life is not greater than the value of Torah learning. This is not the Jewish way, this is a newfound religious belief which is so fundamentally contradictory of everything the Torah sets out to achieve.
The Torah, the book of Why, sets forth a large set of life values, and individuals or subsects are often forced to choose which displaces the other. There are often tensions between equality and freedom, peace and honesty, justice and mercy and many others. Whereas reform Judaism may grade some differently form Orthodox Judaism, where religious may rank inversely from secular, never have any challenged the sanctity of life at the top of the pyramid. Until now. The question whether we can as a religion survive such a key defiance and remain one religion or not, will be answered over time.