David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

Let’s put the Haredi claim to the test

There are few subjects that have aroused the ire and resentment of the majority of Israelis as the long-standing exemption of the Haredi population from military conscription. Furthermore, since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, with more than 650 IDF soldiers killed and another 4,000 wounded, with the reserves forced to return for multiple rounds of active duty, and with the Defense Minister announcing recently that there is an urgent need for another 10,000 recruits, the anger and resentment have only increased in volume and intensity. Even after Israel’s Supreme Court landmark decision requiring the government to enlist Haredim, the latter, in overwhelming numbers, say they will not comply with this decision, and some say they are willing to go to jail, or even die, rather than be drafted into the IDF.

Given Israel’s desperate need for soldiers at this time and given the vehement opposition of the Haredi leadership to the military draft it may be worth examining their arguments to see if they have legitimacy and can withstand critique.

There are three basic arguments adduced by Haredi rabbis on this issue and I will address each one separately. The first is that the IDF is viewed as a melting pot of assimilation into secular Israeli society. Since maintaining the Haredi way of life is, quite obviously, an indispensable part of Haredi upbringing and education it would seem entirely unfair to put young Haredi men in such a compromising situation. The army of the Jewish state should not be the catalyst for the renunciation of the faith of some segments of the Jewish population living therein.

This argument is entirely valid to the extent that the army does not take the religious needs and sensitivities of Haredi conscripts into account. However, since 1999 there has been a special unit called “Netzah Yehuda” (otherwise known as “Nahal Haredi”) which was established by a group of Haredi rabbis along with the Ministry of Defense and the IDF to provide military tracks characterized by meaningful service in the IDF within the context of a Haredi religious framework. While it is true that these tracks were designed primarily for young Haredi men who have not found their place in full-time yeshiva programs, there is no reason to assume that such frameworks cannot be created for Haredi yeshiva students as well, similar to the Hesder program for young religious-Zionist men. Indeed, there are already some such units and the leaders of the IDF have made it clear that they do not intend to draft Haredi men until appropriate frameworks are set up enabling them to serve without compromising their way of life. Thus, to the extent that the army lives up to its word, this is no longer a valid argument for the continued Haredi exemption.

The second argument is that, according to the Haredi worldview, the most important religious task of young Jewish men is the study of Torah within a yeshiva framework, such that torato umanuto—his Torah becomes his full-time occupation to the exclusion of all else, including military service. Unfortunately, there are two flaws with this argument:

  1. Even full-time yeshiva students enjoy what is referred to as bein hazemanim—a period of vacation from yeshiva which typically includes the 22 days between Yom Kippur and the end of Sukkot, most of the month of Nissan, and the 21 days between Tisha B’Av and the first of Elul. In other words, there are more than two months every year during which “full-time” yeshiva students do not actually attend yeshiva. And since the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh (saving lives) requires the violation of all mitzvot, including all those of Shabbat, the holidays, prayer, and more (the exceptions to this rule are idolatry, murder and illicit sexual relations) to save the life of even one Jew, let alone the entire Jewish community when it is faced with an undeniable threat to its existence, Haredi yeshiva students should at least be required to serve in the military, or do some other kind of national service, during bein hazemanim.
  2. If, in fact, it is the religious duty of all young men to devote all their time to Torah study in yeshiva, then Haredi men should be required to serve in the army as soon as their yeshiva tenure is over. Now, while the precise age at which this occur should be discussed, there is no justification for the more than 50% of Haredi men who, after their stint at yeshiva, join the general workforce without ever having served in the army at all. Now, although I’m sure the IDF would prefer drafting Haredi young men, like everyone else, at age 18, I imagine that it would welcome Haredi conscripts even in their late 20’s or early 30’s and find useful things for them to do. Thus, even if the need for a cadre of young men engaged in full-time Torah study for a period of time is granted, that does not preclude the obligation to serve in the IDF at a later stage.

The third and final Haredi argument, however, would seem to be the most difficult to critique. Haredim claim that the Torah study of their yeshiva students helps protect the Jewish people as much, if not more, than the soldiers who serve in the IDF. Furthermore, when, in December, the Major General of the Reserves asked Rabbi Dov Landau—one of the premier rabbinic leaders of the Haredi community—to include Haredi men in the IDF war effort he responded by saying: “They (those who study Torah in yeshivas) are the protectors. You are the protected, not the protector!” In other words, in this prominent Haredi rabbi’s view, it is the Haredi yeshiva students alone who are contributing to the safety and security of everyone else.

The problem with trying to address this argument is that it is faith-based which seems to render it immune to criticism. After all, most of us have certain beliefs that guide us in our lives and that we hold dear, but since one person’s beliefs are different from another’s, and since many of these beliefs cannot be proven or disproven through rational argumentation, the conversation must necessarily end before it begins. In our case, although it may be true that the majority of Israelis do not subscribe to the belief that Haredi yeshiva students protect us as much, if not more, than the IDF, there would appear to be no way to argue rationally with those who believe otherwise. Nevertheless, despite the limitations of rational arguments in favor or against this Haredi claim, there may be a way to prove or disprove it empirically through a simple and straightforward test, similar to the one described in Parashat Korach that we read this week.

The Parasha tells of a widespread rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. One group of rebels, comprised of 250 Levites and tribal chieftains, rebelled against Aaron for assuming the role as the High Priest. After all, they asserted, “all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst” (Numbers 16:5). Thus, by what right does Aaron claim the high priesthood for himself?

Since this too was a faith-based claim—who is holy and who is not—there was no rational way of proving the truth of the one position over the other. Instead, Moses devised a test. The next day, all 250 Levites and chieftains, along with Aaron, are to take fire pans with coals, lay incense on top and then bring them to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Those whose incense will be accepted by God are the ones who can legitimately lay claim to the high priesthood. The 250 men decided to take the proposed test and they proceeded to offer their incense in the hope that theirs would be accepted. The result was that “a fire went forth from the Lord” (Numbers 16:35) and consumed them, rather than the incense, and, with that, the challenge to Aaron and the high priesthood was put to rest.

Returning to our current situation, since the beginning of the war hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been forced to evacuate their homes. While the majority of evacuees from the south have returned to their homes in recent months, much of the north has become a full-fledged war zone. Over 1,000 homes and buildings have been destroyed by Hezbollah missiles and drones, more than 60,000 people have become refugees in their own country, and Kiryat Shmona, Metulah and most of the kibbutzim near the Lebanese border have become ghost-towns. To make matters worse, no matter how much the IDF has retaliated against Hezbollah, the missiles and drones keep coming, with no end in sight. Thus it seems pretty clear that the army has not found the formula to protect the population of the north against this onslaught.

I would, therefore, like to propose the following test: Since, according to the Haredi leadership, the Haredi yeshiva students are protecting Israel as much, if not significantly more, than the IDF, let them set up yeshivas all over the north, especially in the war-torn city of Kiryat Shmona, and perhaps through their devotion to Torah study they will succeed in protecting the population of the north in a way that the IDF has not. Perhaps many of the displaced people might finally be able to return to their homes and rebuild their lives, and the north can become a safe place once again.

Now although the Haredim do not claim that Torah study guarantees protection, they should at least be willing to try, both in order to save Jewish lives as well as to prove, once and for all, the merit of their case for the exemption of their yeshiva students from military service. Let them take this test and finally put the whole debate to rest.

If, as I suspect, they will refuse to do so, then that is a strong indication that they do not take their faith claims seriously. And if they do not take their own faith claims seriously, then why should we?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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