I gave a lecture on literature last week in the library of Kibbutz Magen, right near the Gaza border.
The Eshkol Regional Council in the northwestern Negev, in which the kibbutz is situated, has been bombarded by rocket fire from Gaza for years, its workers getting killed, its kindergarten a near miss.
Still, despite the recent trauma of renewed hostilities from Hamas terrorists, they took time out to sit and listen to me talk about women writers of the Enlightenment, and the role of religious women in Jewish literary creativity.
I thought: Wow, these men and women sitting across from me are amazing.
Despite the difficulties in their lives, they bravely sit tight, their presence defending our southern border, without complaining or whining, without million- man demonstrations against the army and the government for not doing enough to ensure their tranquility.
As luck would have it, on the cab ride back home to Jerusalem, we entered the flashing lights and traffic jam of yet another haredi demonstration against the new law that insists that ultra-Orthodox do their part to secure the country in which they live, via either national or army service.
“I’m a religious man,” my driver told me bitterly. “I keep Shabbat, I don’t drive my cab on any holy day. I eat kosher. But this bunch, they make me hate religious people.”
That’s funny, I thought, because even though I’ve been an Orthodox Jew almost my entire life – out of choice, not any sort of coercion – it kind of makes me feel the same way.
That being so, I can just imagine what these images of black-hatted hordes demanding special privileges in the name of their religious beliefs must be doing to the non-religious, who will never know how contrary to the laws of the Torah such views are, and will never be tempted to explore the beauty and diversity of their heritage.
For despite haredi whining to retain their unfair draft exemptions, the Torah view of this is quite opposed to them.
As stated clearly in Deuteronomy 20:6- 8, the criteria for draft exemptions are as follows : “Who is the man that has planted a vineyard and has not begun to use its fruit? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would begin to use its fruit.
“And who is the man that is engaged to a woman and has not married her? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would marry her.
“Then the officers shall speak further to the people and say, ‘Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers’ hearts melt like his heart.’” Among the signs of the demonstrators, I saw one that said: “No to the Army of Shmad.”
Why Shmad, which means apostasy, one of the sins that one is expected to die rather than commit? As I saw on a website, some of the more extreme haredi leaders have used this term to urge students to leave the country rather than submit, whereas other, more moderate voices haven’t gone that far.
I thought about it. Why would some of the top educators in the haredi world fear a complete reversal of religious faith – apostasy! – in those students exposed to secular life? Is their education so poor, their faith so weak, that any exposure at all will see their beliefs wilt like hothouse flowers brought out into the fresh air? If so, why is that? After years of immersion in the Torah, the extreme piety of their upbringing and communities, surely injecting them into the secular world should elevate that world and bring religious values closer to the national institution of the army.
Surely, the modern Zionist kippot srugot that haredim look down upon have somehow managed to instill religious values and religious lifestyles in their children, who survive not only the mandatory three-year army service (my sons and grandson included) but also years of reserve duty lasting into their 50s. Why is it that the vast majority of these people emerge with their faith intact to live religious lives and raise religious families? What are the religious-Zionists doing right that the haredim are doing wrong? Might I suggest the haredi establishment look into this? This fear and insecurity that even a tiny glimpse into the outside world will immediately transform their heretofore pious scholars into apostates extends beyond the single issue of army service, to such fraught and burning subjects as computer and Internet use.
“You know, I live in a totally secular area in Gilo,” my driver went on. “And a few months ago, I decided to move and rent out my house. I put the ad in the Friday papers, and Saturday night, I got a phone call from someone who wanted to come over immediately to see it. I said ‘sure.’ Well, an hour later, my doorbell rings and I open it. There is this haredi couple standing on my doorstep. He’s got the black hat and coat, the peyot and beard; she’s wearing a wig. I was taken aback. While I invited them in I thought it only fair to warn them: ‘You know there is not a single religious family in this entire neighborhood.’ “You know what he answered? He said: ‘Baruch Hashem! I live in Betar Illit. I need a computer for my work.
Every morning when I leave for work with my computer, I get spat on, yelled at, pushed. They’ve threatened to throw my children out of school. I just want to get as far away from them as possible.’” My cabbie’s tenant is not alone. The spate of demonstrations against the draft has brought similar opposition from some unexpected sources.
Following the 50,000-person haredi demonstration in New York, haredi columnist Yori Yanover posted an article on the website of the right-leaning Jewish Press with the following title, “50,000 haredim march so only other Jews die in war.” In it, he quoted demonstrator Peggy Blier from Brooklyn, who said: “We’re all united against military service for religious men in Israel because it doesn’t allow for religious learning. The Israeli government is looking to destroy religious society and make the country into a secular melting pot.”
Yanover replied: “Every single point… is a blatant lie. Of course the law allows for religious learning, it merely suggests that at some point – way past the age non-haredim serve, and for half the time that normal Israelis give freely of their lives – ‘religious Jews in Israel’ should participate in caring for the security of their country, or, if that’s too much, serve the equivalent time in vital organizations inside their own communities for their own neighbors.”
Yanover was promptly fired by the paper for posting his article “without permission.”
Preceding the Jerusalem “Million Man March” against the drafting of yeshiva students (which garnered less than a third of that number), Rabbi Benny Lau called the demonstration a “tremendous hillul Hashem.”
I guess that just about sums up haredi behavior and their stance on this subject. They take arnona (municipal tax) discounts, subsidies, stipends, child allowances, free medical care and the protection of the armed services, but they are not willing to give back in kind.
And those who say their learning protects the People of Israel from its enemies, maybe it’s the opposite. It’s the people of Israel who protect their learning.