Parshat Bamidbar: Who counts and who doesn’t

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 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’s 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 “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?

Just two weeks ago, 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 he emerges from a federal 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 of 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 do 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 rule are the Levites who are required instead to perform backbreaking labor in the service and maintenance of the משכן (tabernacle).

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. 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”.

JJ Gross

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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