Evading Service or Serving God?
Much of the Zealously Orthodox, non-Zionist, Yeshiva world in Israel would appear to be populated by those who may study the words of the Torah but who invest time and effort avoiding its commandments. How could I make such an outrageous statement? Allow me to make my case.
The Torah seems quite clear that in the event of war (i.e. when there is a need for conscription) only a very few were to be relieved of military duty. The Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 20) states that but four categories of people were to be exempted in a time of war. These included the person who has built a home and not yet dedicated it; one who has planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit, one who has betrothed a woman but not yet married her, and one who is afraid and fainthearted.
As many times as I read this passage I cannot find the words “And one who has turned the study of holy books into a profession.”
When the State of Israel was established, David Ben Gurion, who sought to bring the Orthodox political parties aboard, allowed a few hundred Yeshiva students to be exempted from military service. This was not such an odd position as many countries offered military deferment to the best and brightest in a variety of fields, both academic and artistic. In addition, the Yeshiva world had been decimated by the Shoah. Ben Gurion, mistakenly, believed that there was no future for this approach to Judaism. It was but a few years later that, we have now discovered, he realized his mistake.
But those few hundred deferments/exemptions have increased not to a thousand, or even to ten thousand, but close to an astonishing seventy thousand.
The Torah asks of those who seems poised to allow others to carry the military burden while they would remain behind: "Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?"
The traditional sources are clear that one may not remain on the public dole in order to learn Torah (exceptions were made for the exceptional scholar). A parent was obligated to teach the child a profession. The Rashbatz (commentary to Ethic of the Fathers) held that “pursuing one''s profession is actually to be considered a Mitzvah from the Torah.”
So, it would seem that the failure of the Yeshiva world to allow basic elementary subjects to be taught in schools may be not only a free-pass to a life of poverty but a violation of one of the 613 Mitzvot. So too the mass exemptions from the IDF would seem to violate the words of the Torah.
The rabbis of old never wanted to see the Yeshiva world filled, as it is today, with free loaders and draft evaders. The Midrash (VaYikra Rabba) teaches: “A thousand people enter the study of Bible, and a hundred finish. A hundred enter the study of Mishnah, and from these ten finish. Ten enter the study of Talmud, one of them finishes.”
This Midrash teaches that all who are able to study Torah at the highest of levels must be given an opportunity. But only those who are serious and exceptional should be permitted to move on. Yet, here in Israel these words of Hazal are ignored in the Zealously Orthodox world.
Last week Israel’s High Court decided that the practice of dividing up military service such that the Haredi population was free from putting their lives on the line in defense of the country (while being paid to study even if they were not necessarily good at their studies), while others were obligated to serve, was illegal. The judges declared the “Tal Law” to be unconstitutional. The law was originally intended to encourage greater participation in both military and civil service, as well as open a door to participation in Israel’s workforce. It failed and it was discriminatory. It is now a thing of the past.
Think this is good news? Don''t pop the cork just yet.
Our Prime Minister reacted with the following: “In the coming months we will formulate a new law which will lead to a more just share of the burden of military service by all sectors of Israeli society.” Allow me to translate: “We will set up a committee to see how we can word a new law that will keep the Orthodox parties happy, the Yeshiva students out of uniform, and remain in force for several more years until struck down again by the Supreme Court.
Before the chorus of haters attack me in the Talkbacks – let me make clear that I favor legislation that would make obligatory military, national, or civil service for all citizens who are able. This includes Arab citizens who could serve within their own villages if this were to be one’s chosen direction. It also means equal length of time for men and women unless the army decides otherwise on a case by case basis.
The Tal law is now dead and almost buried. We have a chance to bring skills, both social and technical, to those that have long been sheltered by a world that sucks at the teat of Israeli tax payers. Those in the Haredi world need not be destined to a life of poverty. They need not hide behind black suits in order to violate the Torah.
Nobody would envision police entering into the Yeshivot and arresting the evaders. But woe to us if the government pays their way.
This will be a test of Israel’s democracy. Will the Knesset find a way to allow the burden of military service, work, and taxes to be shared fairly?