I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about their widowed brides
But something touched me deep inside
The days the soldiers died.
(with apologies to “American Pie,” by Don McClean)
The Talmud teaches us that the land of Israel is “niknet be-yissurin” — acquired only through suffering. We accept this suffering from The Holy One with love. As Rabbi Yisroel Gustman zt”l (to my knowledge the greatest Lithuanian scholar to survive the Shoah and re-establish himself in Israel) famously said, it is a great gift to us from God that our sons die because they choose to fight our enemies and defend the land and people of Israel, rather than be slaughtered like cattle in foreign lands. If more of our kids are dying, if our community is suffering more, it is because of the Torah education we gave them.
Among those who fell in combat last week, one of the bloodiest of the war, were Yakir Hexter Hy”d and David Schwartz Hy”d. They were good friends and had been chavrutot (study partners) at Yeshivat Har Etzion. I studied at the same institution some 30 years ago. My son studied there prior to his induction into the IDF Tank Corps and will God willing, belatedly return there as soon as the IDF decides that he can leave the battlefield. Our families are further connected by a vast network of intersecting friendships and family relations.
This is what our weeks look like. Some worse than others, but all unbearable. It is not just about individual tragedies or the feeling of mourning and loss that pervades the religious Zionist community. Since Simchat Torah, everyone in the community has lived in constant anxiety and fear about who will be next. Many have not slept a full night since that day, worrying incessantly about their husbands, sons, sons-in-law, grandsons, as well. They worry about their daughters becoming widows whose small children will never know their fathers. Even if our kids return home alive, even if they do not suffer physical wounds, none of them will ever be the same. All of them will face a long road to psychological recovery and many will suffer post-trauma symptoms for the rest of their lives.
But I think I speak for many in my community in stating that, as result of all of this, I have become increasingly alienated from the Haredi community, regarding whom I was raised to believe were little different from the people in my own community. In principle, we share the same fundamental principles of faith and commitment to Torah and mitzvot. Yet, collectively and individually, the members of the Haredi world have (largely) decided to exempt themselves from the suffering that allows all of us to live in this land. For the most part, they let others shoulder the burden. There are other mitzvot which are also critical to our surviving and flourishing in this land; they are of great value, but none of those mitzvot demands anything near the same sacrifice, the same suffering, or the same mesirut nefesh (giving of self) from the individuals who fulfill them and their families.
The sons of the Haredi community sit in yeshiva and maintain that the mitzvah of protecting Klal Yisrael (the people of Israel) is “efshar la’asot al yedei achareim” –– it can be done by others. But those boys are able commit themselves to Torah study only because my son and the others in my community have answered the call. They left the beit midrash (study hall) to defend our people and our land. So many other young men just want this war to be over so that they can return to the beit midrash. They continue to learn (parsha with Rashi, Mishnah, even some Gemara) in their precious free time. I have no doubt that this learning is of greater merit than all the Torah being learned by those not fighting. If we taught our sons to avoid the army and never leave yeshiva, many would seize the opportunity. But the IDF would collapse. Perhaps more importantly, one cannot claim “it can be done by others” when it comes to human suffering. To those who think otherwise, Rabbi Gustman zt”l recalled the call of Moshe to the tribes who had settled the east bank of the Jordan: “How can it be that while your brothers go to war, you would remain here!” (For these and other statements made by Rav Gustman about IDF service see here).
Even though they may be presented sincerely, and are perhaps entirely sound in theory, it is exceedingly difficult for me to respect the halakhic and theological arguments put forward by members of the Haredi community in defense of their position. The fact that these arguments relieve their adherents of extraordinary sacrifice and suffering makes them ineludibly self-serving.
I appreciate the fact that elements of the Haredi community have displayed unprecedented support and appreciation of the sacrifices and suffering that others are undergoing on behalf of all Klal Yisrael. It has been reported that soldiers in uniform no longer need to fear being cursed or spit upon (or worse) in Haredi neighborhoods, and families with children in the IDF are no longer ostracized. As has been well documented, such events were common in many such neighborhoods until very recently. All of this represents a huge shift on the part of the people (though, unfortunately, not the top rabbinic leadership) of the Haredi world. I hope it will lead to a more permanent change in perspective and attitudes towards the state and the IDF. But ultimately, the almost complete lack of direct participation in the war effort remains very difficult to accept.
I understand that deep change on the individual and the communal level is exceedingly hard. It is scary and it comes with real risks. I do not know what I can reasonably ask from individual Haredim or the community at large in the immediate term. Just internalizing the feelings and deeply held beliefs of so many fellow Torah Jews and leading rabbis on this matter cannot be easy. But, at the very least, there needs to be an acknowledgment that the Haredi community’s principled refusal to send their sons to the IDF in any statistically significant numbers cannot be justified. Something has to change.
PS: My friend and colleague, Dr. Tehilla Elitzur, the wife, mother and mother-in-law soldiers serving in combat, recently published the following heart-felt open letter to Haredi mothers about this same topic. It has thus far been signed by nearly 800 other mothers. An English translation can be found here.