This week’s cynical declaration by MK Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah) that haredim (ultra-Orthodox) should not serve in the IDF confused and angered me. It is indeed wrong for the army to force religious, male soldiers to attend ceremonies where women sing. This issue cannot be ignored. But Gafni’s call to avoid military service has no basis in Jewish law or tradition, or in basic human ethics.

His statements were cloaked in self-righteousness and pseudo-religiosity, but in fact they were nothing more than a continuation of extremist haredi policies and politics. The Torah itself could not be clearer about the issue of army service. Faced with a request by the tribes of Reuven and Gad to settle the eastern side of the Jordan River (thus avoiding the war that awaited the nation as it entered the western part of the Land of Israel), Moses responded with a sharp rebuke: “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here?”

Jewish tradition is replete with teachings regarding the responsibility we have toward one another. How can anyone study teachings such as “love your neighbor like yourself,” “do not stand idly by over the blood of your brother,” and “all Jews are responsible for one another” without internalizing that Judaism demands sharing the national burdens? And, even if it weren’t for all these teachings, common sense dictates that for a country and a nation to be successful, everyone must contribute.

My call for all citizens to serve their country applies to secular objectors as, well. But as a haredi rabbi, I choose to focus on those who I believe are ignoring Torah-based principles in seeking their exemptions in the name of Torah.

EVEN BEFORE the issue of women singing arose, many used religious grounds to call for an exemption for religious men and women, arguing that the army presents moral and spiritual obstacles to soldiers. I understand those challenges but the IDF has made a concerted effort in recent years to create the conditions that would allow haredi youth to serve.

The Nahal Haredi unit offers daily Torah classes and prayer services, and officers take care to ensure there are no women on the base. Another program, Shahar (Sherut Haredim), is offered to haredi men who have already studied in yeshiva for four or more years after the age of 18. This program offers 26 different vocational tracks including computer programming, electrical engineering, technical writing and even truck-driving. Again, the soldiers do not come into contact with women, are not placed under the command of female officers and they keep to the highest standard of kashrut. These soldiers are given leave on Friday, Shabbat and all holidays.

As I mentioned above, the issue of women singing cannot be ignored. Our tradition does include a prohibition against men listening to women singing. (The prohibition is against men listening, not against women singing.) I believe that the army brass has been handling this situation improperly and I wrote a firm letter to the IDF chief of staff demanding that they army be sensitive to the needs of religious soldiers and not force them to attend ceremonies where women sing. But even if there is a broader issue with the army not being sensitive enough to religious soldiers, the reaction cannot be “don’t enlist!”

That is the reaction of someone who does not really value the IDF or the ideal of national service. One who values army service seeks a solution to the problem, not an excuse not to serve.

Gafni’s declaration confused me because it implied that Degel Hatorah has changed its policy because of the singing issue. But the party has never instructed followers to serve. Worse, it angered me, because Gafni made it seem like the issue of women singing trumps all other halachic considerations and ignored all the sources quoted above regarding the importance of army service in our tradition. I plan to continue encouraging haredim to serve in the IDF while working together with the army leadership to make sure all their needs are met.

I must address one more point. Even if Degel Hatorah supporters continue to boycott the IDF, the teachings of Moses and other sources about joint responsibility do not fall to the wayside just because one is not serving in the army. A Jewish state should require those who receive IDF exemptions to perform national or civil service for an equal period of time.

Those who do so should be recognized as having served the state and should receive the benefits that come from such recognition.

At the same time, most of Israel agrees that a small, select group of scholars who are totally dedicated to Torah learning should study as their national service. David Ben- Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, saw the need for such a group in a Jewish state and his ideal remains consistent with the teachings quoted above, as long as this small group is chosen and monitored based on clear parameters and expectations.

The haredi world is changing. Moses’ rebuke rings in the ears of many haredim who are fed up with being called “parasites” by the rest of Israeli society for not doing their fair share. The Am Shalem movement which I proudly chair has become the voice of that silent majority. I look forward to the day when no Jew will be confronted with that rebuke of Moses and when we will all work in unison to share in the national burdens. After all, we are all in this together.

The writer is a member of Knesset, a rabbi, and chairman of the Am Shalem Movement, www.amshalem.org

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