Grasping at straws to defend haredi isolationism

The notion that 60,000 young men need to focus exclusively on Torah study without receiving a general education, going to work or serving in the army, in order to maintain the Torah’s protection of Israel is ludicrous.

Sea of Haredim 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sea of Haredim 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Numerous articles defending haredi (ultra- Orthodox) culture, including Jonathan Rosenblum’s “Sinai and Jewish unity” (May 24), confuse criticism of haredi ideology with criticism of haredim as individual people.
The same applies to critical emails I receive on a regular basis from haredim. Therefore, I want to begin by setting the record straight on behalf of myself and the millions of Israelis who recognize the need for changes in the ultra-Orthodox world.
There is a lot of good in the haredi world. Aside from the plethora of well-known volunteer and educational organizations that Rosenblum and others have listed, most haredi men and women do wonderful things for others on a daily basis.
However, I am not sure what this clarification has to do with the broader issue of haredi young men not joining the workforce and not serving in the IDF. Is the fact that they are nice people and many have started important organizations really supposed to explain the unfairness of an entire population ideologically opposed to army service, and calm the anger throughout the country over that opposition? Is this not the epitome of grasping at straws?
The second stage of defending the mass exemptions from army service is the mantra repeated over and over regarding the protection that Torah study provides the Jewish people and the country, as well as the contribution this study makes toward national prosperity. Studying Torah, the argument goes, is actually the national service for ultra-Orthodox young men. This explanation almost always continues with the clarification that those who do not share the haredi belief in the power of Torah learning simply cannot relate to the degree of national service the haredim provide through their Torah study, and therefore the conversation should end there – no one has the right even to think of tampering with this aspect of the haredi lifestyle.
I MUST share a critical reality with everyone who promotes and accepts this defense. The religious Zionist world shares the “haredi belief” in the power of Torah learning. The yeshiva world in the Diaspora does as well. But the religious Zionist and Diaspora yeshiva worlds understand what the Israeli haredi world refuses to acknowledge – that one can believe in the primacy of Torah scholarship and produce the greatest Torah scholars while also spending time on other important pursuits.
The notion that 60,000 young men need to focus exclusively on Torah study without receiving a general education, going to work or serving in the army, in order to maintain the Torah’s protection of Israel is ludicrous. Is the Torah study of thousands of young men in the hesder yeshiva world, which combines Torah and army service, not providing that protection?
Is the Torah study of haredi IDF soldiers in Nahal Haredi and the Shahar program, where they have actual Torah classes on their bases, not providing that protection? Is the Torah study of students in Machon Lev, where they also attend university, not providing this protection? Is the Torah study of tens of thousands in the early morning before going to work, on the train on the way to work, or in the late night hours after work, not providing this protection? Imagine if the haredi world in Israel opened itself to army service – perhaps even haredi hesder yeshivot – and also accepted the Diaspora yeshiva model, filling the country with yeshivot like Ner Israel, which I attended and where young men are steeped in Torah learning but also attend university.
Tens of thousands of young Torah scholars would serve in the IDF and perhaps even rise to the level of officers, while continuing to study and pray with regularity as part of their army program. Law and accounting firms in Tel Aviv, hi-tech companies near Ra’anana, and government offices in Jerusalem would be filled with graduates from these yeshivot.
We would still have the “protection of Torah” from thousands upon thousands studying in these yeshivot; the Torah world would actually have a tangible impact on the rest of the country, and the religious-secular strife would likely disappear.
I IMAGINE two arguments in response to what I just suggested. One: The level of Torah scholarship will simply not be as high as it could be if all yeshiva students were exclusively studying Torah. Two: We cannot produce Torah giants in such a system. We need to have scholars with Torah as their only focus in order to produce the Torah leaders of the next generation.
I will address the second argument first. I agree. And not only do I agree, but the rest of the country agrees. Shelly Yacimovich, head of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition, has announced her willingness for 4,000 elite Torah scholars to do nothing other than study Torah – 4,000! Imagine the greatness in Torah and the quality of Torah leadership for the next generation that we can achieve if we select 4,000 elite young scholars, pay them well, and allow them to do nothing other than study Torah. The current system is not producing 4,000 new leaders on the level that such a small, elite group with no worries or distractions could reach. So that argument holds no weight.
As for the first argument that we cannot afford the decrease in level of Torah scholarship for the other 56,000, the assumption behind the argument is simply incorrect. Let me first say that the number of Torah scholars that Ner Israel has produced despite the students attending secular university is astounding, and the best and brightest of Ner Israel can hold their own with the Torah scholars of the Israeli haredi world. The same applies to institutions such as Landers and Yeshiva University, which provide college classes on their own campuses.
Second, providing the 56,000 non-elite students with pursuits other than Torah study will actually strengthen their Torah study, thereby providing Israel with even greater protection. It is time for the haredi world to admit and confront the reality that most boys are not capable of studying day and night with no other pursuits, and that expecting the average boy to do so is insanity. Providing them with two to three hours of general studies and some recreation will enable them to learn better during their Torah study hours. Freeing them to do IDF, national or community service will lead to more dedication and focus in their Torah study. The increased quality in their learning will no doubt provide even greater prosperity for the country than their unfocused and unenthused current study.
Without a doubt, earning a dignified livelihood will provide young married men with the peace of mind to join tens of thousands throughout the country and the world in focusing intently on their Torah study during their non-working hours. The quality of this study will increase, and the merit of spending every free moment on Torah will serve the country well on a spiritual level.
THE ISSUE of whether haredim sincerely care about the rest of the country has risen to the fore again with the haredi leadership’s refusal to sit on the Keshev committee, which is charged with figuring out a solution to the problem of haredi service. How can haredim claim to care about the country but refuse to help the rest of the country’s leadership figure out an acceptable compromise? Again, individual haredim may be wonderful people, and many may have established the most beautiful charitable organizations. But the community’s political leadership cares only about itself and maintaining its own power base, and it demonstrates this clearly by refusing to work with the committee.
Haredi journalists should stop lecturing everyone outside the haredi world about Torah from Sinai, the value of Torah, and the infallible and perfect Torah world with which no one should tamper.
Instead, they should rally the haredi street to reject its isolationist, extremist and self-serving political leadership, which long ago ceased to represent authentic Torah values. Worldly, educated and more open haredim should muster the courage to help free their community from the unfair imprisonment which has been imposed on it, instead of grasping at straws to defend haredi isolationism.
The writer is an educator, author and community activist in Beit Shemesh. He has rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a master’s in education from Johns Hopkins University. He is also the director of the English Speakers Division of the Am Shalem movement.