The question of equal army service for all males – “sharing the bur- den” – is an issue of major concern now. Attempts to put this into effect, either through Supreme Court orders or Knesset legislation, are meeting with ultra-Orthodox resistance, both verbal and vio- lent in demonstrations. The haredi community is picturing this as an attack on its very existence, an attempt to prevent its members from dedicating themselves to Torah study.

However, it is pertinent to ask whether having men serve in the army for three years is really the end of Torah study. Can they not return to it if they so wish when their service is complete? Can they not find a way to continue at least some Torah study while in the army, as others have done? Also, since when is Torah study as an exclusive way of life for an entire community, leaving no time for anything else, demanded by Judaism? It was certainly not the way of life for Jews in Europe, nor is it their life now in the Diaspora, where haredi communities have managed to work and support themselves as well as study. This is something new to Israel, where the mistaken policies of every government from Ben-Gurion’s time on – especially the Begin government’s expansion of subsidies – have enabled and encouraged men to study and not work, as if this were a right they had coming to them.

Furthermore, it is worth asking another simple question: How can prominent rabbis ignore that the Torah itself makes it very clear in Deuteronomy 20:5-8 that all are equally required to serve in defense of the nation? There may be certain specific exemptions there, including for those who are afraid and would cause others to fear, but study of Torah is not a reason for declining to serve when lives are at stake. Rabbinic Judaism went even further, saying that when there is danger, all must serve, even a bride and groom (Sota 8:7). Torah scholars should be the first to know this and fulfill it.

Whenever I hear the claim that everyone must devote themselves exclusively to Torah study, I think of the well-known story of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai and his son. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 33b), they were being sought by the Romans and hid in a cave for 12 years, where they did nothing but study and pray all day. When the danger had passed, Elijah came and informed them that they could emerge, which they did. “Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, ‘They forsake eternal life and engage in worldly affairs!’ Whatever they looked upon immediately burned up. Thereupon a heavenly voice was heard crying out, ‘Have you emerged in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave!’” The legend continues that they stayed in the cave another 12 months as punishment. When they came out on the eve of Shabbat, they saw a man holding two bunches of flowers, and when they asked him what they were for, he replied that they were in honor of Shabbat – one for the commandment to “remember” and one for the commandment to “observe.” Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai said to his son, “See how precious are the commandments to Israel!” Then they were content.

The message of this Talmudic tale is clear. Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai and his son had come to enjoy the life of study so much that they denigrated anyone who spent time on things that were necessary to sustain life. God saw this and condemned it: It would destroy the world He had created. Later they finally understood that it was possible to live a normal life and still honor the commandments. Work and study are not mutually exclusive.

Serving in the army is necessary to sustain the existence of the state and the lives of its citizens. Combining work and study is the only way the world can continue. Without that, our society cannot be sustained. It is time the state recognized that and made it public policy.

When the prime minister is quoted as saying, “No one will sit in jail for studying Torah,” he is really saying, “No yeshiva student will be penalized for not serving in the army” – but others will. That is hardly equality. Whatever legislation is passed must not fall into the trap of making different laws for religious, ultra-religious and others. If it does, there will be no equality, and the current situation will continue until the court strikes it down or the public insists on a true sharing of the burden. 

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).



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