The crisis that will arise very soon because the Tal Law, which has been
declared unconstitutional, is about to expire represents a critical moment for
the State of Israel. Even more worrying is the fact that it is only the tip of
Everyone is aware of the existential threat Iran’s nuclear
program represents, but we would be foolish to ignore the internal threat to our
future represented by the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community’s lack of
integration into Israeli life and society. Finding the way to allow them to
observe Judaism in the way they have chosen and yet to become integral members
of Israel society is the great challenge that we face.
A nation can and
must tolerate differences within its population in ways of life and belief, but
there are limits and red lines. Ben-Gurion may have thought that exempting a few
hundred yeshiva students from army service was no big deal, and Begin may have
been able to swallow expanding that to several thousand, but when the numbers
reach tens of thousands and will soon become a majority of those eligible, a
crisis has been created.
It is a crisis that threatens the security of
the nation and the health of the army and it is a moral crisis that undermines
the principle of morality and of equality upon which any decent society is built
and could lead an internal revolt that will tear Israel apart. There are only
two solutions to such a crisis: the elimination of separate rules for the haredi
population or creating a voluntary army in which no one is obligated to serve.
The feasibility of the latter under current conditions hardly seems
But it is not only army service that is problematic. An equal
threat is posed by the very basic concept of an entire society in which work is
frowned upon and in which children are deprived of an education that would
prepare them for the ability to make a living. This concept is completely new to
Jewish life and was introduced into Israel as an innovation that completely
contradicts the beliefs and laws of the Torah and the way of life in Jewish
communities until the Shoah.
Yes, some students – brilliant students –
were always encouraged to devote themselves to Torah study and would be
subsidized by others – but these were the exception, not the rule. The community
as a whole was expected to work and support itself and to find time for Torah
study within that framework. That is exactly what haredim do in New York,
London, Brussels and anywhere else that they live and that is what they did in
prewar Vilna and Minsk.
Indeed the life of the haredi community in Israel
is built upon two false premises that have been sold both to that community and
to the general Israeli public as truths. One is that truly observant Jews are
forbidden to abandon their yeshiva studies in order to serve in the army and
protect the country. The other is that Torah study is the supreme obligation and
the normative way of life for all men and therefore normal work is forbidden.
Woman can work and support the men, and the State – the State which is not
recognized as legitimate – paradox of paradoxes! – has an obligation to support
them as well.
Such a concept is only possible in Israel where the State
has agreed to play its part in supporting non-working men. The truth is
that the Torah itself obligates people to serve in the army, giving only limited
exemptions to special cases (see Deuteronomy 20:1-9). Rabbinic law even went so
far as to limit those exemptions to wars of choice and to teach that in wars of
defense everyone must serve – “even the groom from the huppah and the bride from
her room” (Sotah 8:7). They also taught that the proper combination for
life was “Torah with Derech Eretz” (normal work).
Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu in his famous remark said that if only we left the haredim and the
Arabs out of the poverty equation we would be on top of the world. The trouble
is that we cannot leave them out. The growth of the haredi community indicates
that they may indeed become a majority of the population. Can any society
tolerate a situation in which that sizable a sector does not work and must – in
one way or another – be supported by the rest of the population? Netanyahu has
shown that he can stand up to Iran. Can he now stand up to the haredim
and to their representatives in the Knesset and in his coalition? That will be
the true test of his leadership.
What are the steps that must be taken to
bring about the change that is needed?
1. The general haredi exemption from the
army must be eliminated and haredim must be obligated as all others are
obligated. There may be an exemption or deferment granted to a very small and
limited number of exceptional scholars and units similar to the Hesder Yeshivot
may be created to enable a combination of study and service.
must be an end to the special subsidies given to yeshiva students and to Kollel
students. Yeshivas must be treated no differently than other educational
3. Haredi education must include the core curriculum
studies that will enable their students to work and earn a decent living. No
school should receive government recognition or funding if it does not live up
to those standards.
4. All housing and child benefits given to the haredi
population must be on the same level and standard as those given to the general
If these steps are taken, we can hope that sanity will return
to Israeli haredi life and the threat to our society will be
The writer is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly,
author and lecturer whose most recent book is The Torah Revolution: Fourteen
Truths that Changed The World (Jewish Lights).