Analysis: The chasm exposed

Analysis The chasm expo

barak cabinet 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
barak cabinet 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The repercussions of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's decision to remove the Har Bracha Yeshiva from the hesder yeshiva framework are spreading fast and wide. Caught between two stark options - the tough IDF leadership emblemized by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's uncompromising interpretation of Halacha - the choice was an immediate no-brainer for some young religious men. Dozens of reserve soldiers and officers, graduates of hesder yeshivot, signed a petition against Barak on Tuesday. "Many of us fought in the Second Lebanon War and in Cast Lead with a willingness to carry out any order and even to give our lives for the protection of the State of Israel," it declared. "Our yeshiva heads taught us this selfless devotion to the State of Israel," it went on. "In yeshiva we were inculcated with the spirit of fighting, devotion and giving our best. If the decision to remove Har Bracha from the hesder framework is implemented, it would be interpreted by us as the IDF's rejection of us and our service and it would force us to leave the ranks of the IDF." Even before Barak had formally decided to cut Har Bracha out of the hesder framework on Monday, the confrontations between the rabbi and the veteran military commander had boosted the popularity of Melamed's Torah institute, located adjacent to Nablus. The number of high school seniors contemplating their post-high school options who are interested in coming to Har Bracha for a "test Shabbat," has tripled compared to last year, according to Arutz 7. Part of the explanation lies in the simple matter of age. Teenagers are naturally drawn to a rabbi who makes sharp distinctions between what is right and what is wrong, who cuts through all the ambiguities that characterize most moral dilemmas and paints the reality in black and white. But there is also the conviction that Melamed represents Judaism's real message without compromises, cosmetics or catering to secular sensibilities. Religious young men on the brink of mandatory military service are deeply tied to the religious justifications for serving their country. Starting in elementary school, rabbis and teachers teach that army service is a profoundly religious duty. The 7,500 soldier-scholars who are enrolled in the five-year hesder program, and the tens of thousands of hesder graduates who continue to serve in the reserves, have internalized this message. Serving in the IDF means that you are protecting the lives of millions of Jews. As Halacha teaches, each Jew is responsible for the spiritual and physical welfare of his or her fellow Jew. That means one Jew cannot stand by idly while another Jew is in danger. And since hesder rabbis and their students see the protection of the Jewish state as integral not only to the protection of the Jews of Israel but to the Jews of the world, there are very few acts of faith that carry more weight than army service. What's more, the IDF is the tool for maintaining a Jewish presence in the holy land of Israel. Now that the Jews have been and are being gathered from the four corners of the word to return to their promised land and build a state, it is the IDF, more than any other institution, that safeguards Jewish settlement, not only in Judea and Samaria but in Tel Aviv, the Galilee and the Negev. Finally, as Rabbi Avinoam Horowitz, head of the Kiryat Arba Yeshiva High School puts it, the creation of the State of Israel allows the Jewish people to realize their spiritual goal "to bring a message to the world of blessing, tikkun and redemption." In the IDF, moreover, there is agreement between religious Zionists and the secular army leadership on 99% of the goals. Arresting suspected terrorists or terrorists-to-be, uncovering arms caches, patrolling, gathering intelligence information - these and other military activities are important enough to justify the risk to one's life because they are a religious duty. But there is one issue that the two sides cannot resolve: the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria. Most of the time, this issue does not come up. The IDF spends the vast majority of its time protecting Israeli citizens. But even when the IDF is charged by the government with the task of helping to evacuate Jewish settlements, it does not necessarily have to lead to a confrontation that threatens to rip apart the long-standing cooperation between highly motivated religious soldiers and a secular leadership that is also highly motivated to ensure military discipline is maintained. IDF officers and commanders generally have the wisdom to defuse potential confrontations by avoiding the use of soldiers who have a deep religious and ideological aversion to dismantling Jewish settlements. In parallel, hesder rabbis and religious soldiers generally have the foresight to quietly consult with commanders and officers and to explain the situation. They normally do not resort to demonstrative measures such as waving signs expressing a blunt unwillingness to follow military orders. Rather, they choose to discuss the issue discretely and reach a compromise that does not undermine IDF discipline and at the same time respects individual soldiers' convictions. Halacha might, in principle, supersede an IDF order, yet it is not necessary to ever come to a situation in which the two values directly clash. Now, however, the confrontation between Barak and Melamed has fleshed out, arguably as never before, the critical point of dissent between the IDF and certain streams of religious Zionism represented by Melamed. As defense minister and a veteran IDF commander, Barak had to show zero toleration for insubordination. No one knows better than Barak the dangers of a breakdown in military discipline. Distinctions cannot be made between orders. Whether it is an order to charge an enemy or to dismantle a settlement, a soldier must obey. Melamed could not back down either. He was standing up for Halacha. As he wrote in a statement that appeared on the Arutz 7 Internet site, "It is the obligation of a rabbi to speak his mind on Torah matters freely. In that way he represents the sacred tradition of his people." Melamed has dedicated his entire life to learning and teaching Torah. He must be true to his intellectual conscience and express what he believes to be God's will in the world. If it means losing Defense Ministry funds and forcing his students to abandon the hesder track, so be it. But among the profound questions raised by this bitter dispute, which has forced hundreds of hesder students to reexamine their loyalties, is this one: Now that the chasm that separates various segments of Israeli society has been thrown into such sharp relief, how will a soldier who completely identifies with Barak continue to serve in the same platoon with a soldier who sees Melamed as his hero?