Haredi soldier 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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