Parshat Bamidbar: Who counts and who definitely does not

Here in Israel we have just emerged from another election circus and coalition-building tottentanz that has yielded a bloated cabinet featuring mysteriously-named bogus ministries headed by unproven or decidedly incompetent people. At the same time, some of the most sagacious, experienced and gifted candidates were thrown under the bus by a Bibi whose numero uno concern is … himself.

A prime example of this is the fact that Jerusalem’s former mayor Nir Brkat who was promised a ministry and deserves one; a man who refuses a government paycheck and has a stellar record of military and managerial competence, is left out in the cold. And why? According to the haredi media it’s because Moshe Gafni of the haredi Degel Hatorah party has a vendetta against Barkat from when he was mayor, and insists Bibi keep him out of government – a textbook case of the tail wagging the dog.

The hydra-headed monster over which Bibi now squats continues to include – primo inter (gruesome) pares – the haredi parties without whom Bibi doesn’t budge.

As far as Bibi in concerned there can be no government without an internet-less, inarticulate, uneducated, non-IDF veteran serving as a minister — one who is a fanatic acolyte of the Gerer Rebbe. Only such a man (for it can never be a woman) may head a major ministry which is of particular interest to the Haredi community.

In the prior constellation this was the Health Ministry, as medicine is something from which haredim benefit most while contributing least. As well, it enabled Minister K’vod Harav Litzman to protect the tobacco industry, as smoking is very important for haredim. For one thing it is a widespread luxury they seem to be able to afford despite their endless claims of abject poverty. For another, it is a necessity for many haredim who do not otherwise do any real work. It is thus the only real ‘melakha’ (labor) which they perform during the week that is prohibited on Shabbat. Hence by ceasing to smoke on Friday evening for 25 hours they succeed in separating the sacred from the profane, and make at least this one distinction between the six days during which they do not labor and the seventh during which they do not labor.

In the new government, Minister Litzman will be heading the Housing Ministry. It goes without saying that the only thing Litzman has ever built, if even this, is his sukkah. But haredim salivate over a ministerial portfolio which can be hugely beneficial to them by financing new housing projects, new neighborhoods, and entire new towns of 100% male unemployment. In all of these most haredim can somehow miraculously afford to purchase homes in cash for themselves and their children. By contrast, tax-paying Israelis struggle to make their mortgage payments, while their children live in overpriced, rundown rental flats.

Now let me be perfectly clear. One can understand why Bibi is braided like a challah with the haredi parties. This is a marriage of mutual convenience. Bibi purchases a huge rubber stamp for any and all policies that do not affect haredim one way or another (chiefly foreign policy, defense, agriculture, industry and trade) while haredim exact several tons of flesh in the form of billions in cold coin and social benefits, plus a free pass for haredi young men to avoid any military or national service.

One could almost forgive Bibi for this craven and cynical act of political coitus if he would, at the very least, come clean and call it what it is. If he were to say “look my fellow citizens, honest tax payers, IDF veterans and contributing members of society, I know the haredim contribute virtually zero value to our society. I know most of them are able-bodied fathers of large families who perform no productive labor. I know none of them serve in the IDF and that they do not believe in the very idea of a Jewish state, let alone participate in its celebrations or even show respect for its fallen heroes. However, the nature of our political system makes it impossible to form a majority government without them, so we have to bite the bullet and pay the etnan zonah necessary to purchase their complicity in the Knesset.”

Now if Bibi were to say this, we could respect his marginal integrity.

But,no, Bibi does not say this. He cynically bamboozles us with mantras in which he doesn’t believe for even a nanosecond, about how haredim are integral to our society, and how full time Torah study is a necessity for the Jewish State, and how haredim are natural partners in a right wing government.

Adding insult to insult, he would have us believe that the number of haredim joining the IDF is on the increase – an outright fabrication, a true ‘Grim’ Fairy Tale.

This is what is so offensive. Pragmatism is almost excusable; lying outright is not. And, besides, haredi parties would just as soon sell their rubber stamp to a leftwing party if that party were the higher bidder.

Which brings us to this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar. This parsha should be read by anyone interested in what the Torah thinks of unemployed men who do not serve in the army of the Jewish nation. And for the record, the very idea of a society comprised of men who are full-time students of Torah is a total, post Shoah invention. It never existed before. Not anywhere.

For the past 70 years, there has been an ever-intensifying momentum toward extreme ‘frumkeit’ (piety) in the Orthodox community.

An empirical case can be made for this feverish drive. After all, the haredi community has an enormously high birthrate, while secular/liberal Jewish society (outside Israel) is not even reproducing in sufficient numbers to replace itself; and this assuming that the few offspring it does yield have much intention of remaining Jewish in any meaningful sort of way.

Following the devastating demographic losses of the Shoah, one cannot overstate the importance of making Jewish babies, especially Jewish children who are likely to remain Jewish and, in turn, reproduce as well. Hence, credit where credit is due.

At the same time, and with few exceptions, this ‘frumification’ of Orthodox society has pretty much emphasized the laws between man and G-d, (בין אדם למקום), with a pointed de-emphasis on the laws that pertain to interpersonal relations (בין אדם לחבירו) financial and business ethics, obligations to society as a whole, and honest dealings with governmental agencies.

Indeed, it almost appears as if there is an inverse relationship between the two. The more intense and minutiae-obsessive one is with Torah study, prayer, kashrut, Shabbat and, of course, gender separation and modesty, the less meticulous one has to be when it comes to fiscal propriety, material envy, grudging, gossip, and legal (let alone) moral obligations to the greater society.

Haredi leaders have carefully cherry-picked the issues they wish to emphasize, while pointedly ignoring (or even perverting) others that are certainly no less important, and perhaps vastly more important.

One has to wonder what this schizoid value system is all about.

Indeed, it appears that fiscal shenanigans are not merely ignored by the haredi rabbinical leaders, but tacitly if not actively encouraged. Every day one reads of a new scandal in America or Israel regarding institutionalized haredi embezzlement, whereby government funding is obtained through questionable means, systemic deception, and outright fraud. These stories cut across all hassidic and yeshivish lines. It appears the only thing one can do wrong is to get caught

One hears all sorts of justifications and rationalizations for this misconduct; ranging from “the money is being used for a higher purpose” to “the shvartzes also do it.” As if Al Sharpton would be our role model.

As for the financial hi-jinx of frum real estate people, nursing home operators and other businessmen, well just look at how much good they do with their tzedakah money. How they support all these “mosdos” of chinuch (education) with their questionable lucre.

Yet, what sort of chinuch is their money buying when the pupils are taught to idolize sleazy tycoons?

A few years ago in New York, a man who had made a fortune laundering mafia strip club money through a hassidic yeshiva was honored with burial next to the sect’s sainted founder. Now there’s chinuch for you. And if one thinks this is an isolated case, forget about it. In the frum world even jail time is no stain on one’s reputation, provided the perp (or chief rabbi) emerges from the penitentiary as rich as he was when he first checked into the hoosegow.

One can take the questionable position that all of this malfeasance originates with the hoi polloi. That, at worst, the rabbinic leadership is quiescent rather than complicit in all these shady dealings.

But there is one issue in which the criminal activity is 100% top down — where there is a defiant rejection of the Torah itself on the part of the haredi leadership — proving conclusively that its decisions are self-serving and designed to consolidate and conserve their absolute power over their minions.

This issue is the absolute refusal to participate in the defense of the State of Israel, which means the defense of the Jewish People. On no single issue is the haredi leadership so united than in the systemic, institutionalized draft-dodging of its young men.

No single issue so symbolizes the readiness of the haredi world to simply sponge off the greater society. Because men who do not serve may not (officially) work. And men who do not work must take money from a government they do not support. And this government must take the money it uses to support the men who neither work nor serve, from the men and women who do both.

Can there be a more prima facie example of organized theft and embezzlement than this?

Now let us look at his week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, which is almost obsessively focused on the issue of military participation. Indeed, in its census, the Torah refuses to even count any man over the age of 20 who does not, or has not served in the military. The word צבא (army) or its variant לצבאותם – with regard to the criteria for validating the inclusion of a male in the national census – appears 34 times in Bamidbar.

In fact, the only exception to the requirement to serve in the military are the Levites who are required instead to perform backbreaking labor in the service and maintenance of the משכן (tabernacle).   And yet, because the they do not serve in the military they  are not counted in the census.

In other words, while nearly all Israelite males are responsible for defense, the Levites are tasked with grueling, lifelong national service. And this is their hereditary role, one that effectively removes them from the economic grid.

So here we have the Torah telling us, in no uncertain terms, that every single one of the haredi men who are ostensibly sitting and learning (including the throngs who are wandering the streets at all hours of the day smoking cigarettes and chatting on their cellphones) would under no circumstances be counted in the Israelite census. Hence, for all intents and purposes, they simply would not even exist among the 600,000 Children of Israel who came out of Egypt, and by extension do not count today, even though they do exist to feed off the ones who do.

Their self-serving argument that they are the Levites of our times is spurious. No one has the right to remove money from another person’s wallet by claiming he is engaged in Torah study. Maimonides was very clear when he wrote that it is forbidden to earn one’s keep through Torah study and that “those who do eventually embezzle the public”.

No one can self-designate himself as a Levite in order to justify such larceny.

So what is all the piety and fanaticism worth when one violates such a core tenet of the Torah as the requirement to serve in the army? What is the value of all those extra stringencies when one absolutely, positively, incontrovertibly does not even count in the census of the Jewish People? Because learning Torah full time is not a Torah value. It appears nowhere in the entire Torah, and flies in the face of everything the sages of the Talmud mandate. This is a total, post-Holocaust invention. In Israel it is not that haredim avoid the army in order to learn Torah, but rather they learn Torah (if they do at all) in order to avoid the army.

That haredim, under the thrall of power hungry rabbis, perpetrate this fraud may be understandable. That Bibi endorses this fraud and grand larceny is not.

Yes, haredim are reproducing in record numbers. Let us hope and pray that their progeny will one day wake up and assume a rightful, honorable and honest place in Israeli society. As for their counterparts overseas, one dreads thinking what will happen when even the politicians who benefit from their bloc votes decide that “enough is enough”.


About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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