Making Torah study an object of contempt

Shoddy arguments to defend Haredi draft exemptions risk undermining support for Torah study.

Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
However much I disagree, I can understand why the Haredim oppose moves to end their draft exemptions. What I can’t understand is why, in their effort to retain these exemptions, they have chosen a line of argument that risks undermining what would seem a priceless asset even from their own perspective: a nearly wall-to-wall consensus among Jewish Israelis that Torah study has intrinsic value to the Jewish state, and therefore, the state should support it.
To understand just how broad this consensus is, consider one simple fact: Virtually every proposal submitted to the Keshev Committee, which is considering alternatives to the Haredi draft exemption, stipulates that a sizable number of the best Torah students should continue to be exempt. And many also advocate having the state fully fund these students.
The details differ: Committee chairman MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima), for instance, proposes exempting 1,000 students; Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich and Labor MK Isaac Herzog both advocate 4,000; former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office Eyal Gabai suggests 20 percent of each yeshiva’s student body. But all agree on the principle: Torah study is a value the Jewish state must support, so the best and the brightest should get draft exemptions and scholarships.
This principle is also reflected in the thousands of Torah study institutions that receive state funding:  regular yeshivas (both Haredi and non-Haredi), pre-army yeshivas, yeshiva high schools and more.
Yet the argument Haredi spokesmen are now pushing seems tailor-made to undermine this consensus.
Last month, for instance, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger told Army Radio that there’s a direct correlation between the number of Torah students and the IDF’s performance in wartime: “The more Jews that learn Torah, the stronger our military will be,” he proclaimed. And while I’d initially hoped Metzger’s statement was an aberration, that hope was dashed when it was subsequently echoed by The Jerusalem Post’s Haredi columnist, Jonathan Rosenblum – someone I deeply respect, and who would certainly not have used an argument he himself admitted most readers won’t believe had it not been widespread enough in Haredi circles to make him feel compelled to try to justify it.
As an Orthodox Jew, I’m likely more open to that kind of argument than secular Israelis. Yet my gut reaction was, “if so, they’re clearly not doing their job; let’s draft them all immediately.” After all, Israel won stunning victories in 1948, 1967 and 1973, defeating vastly more powerful armies each time. Yet back then, the number of full-time Torah students was minuscule compared to what it was in 2006, when Israel was ignominiously fought to a standstill by Hezbollah’s vastly less powerful army. If that’s the kind of “victory” tens of thousands of full-time Torah students produce, who needs them?
Or consider the thriving yeshiva world of pre-World War II Europe. That’s the world Haredim hold up as a model, and they originally sought the draft exemption for the sake of trying to rebuild it. Yet the magnificent Torah study in those yeshivas did nothing to keep the Nazis from slaughtering six million Jews.
Obviously, Torah students aren’t responsible for either the Holocaust or the Second Lebanon War. But unless Haredi spokesmen are brazen enough to claim credit for Jewish victories while disclaiming all responsibility for defeats, that’s where their logic inevitably leads.
Nonetheless, were they merely making what I consider a silly argument, I would say that’s their privilege. What upsets me is that in pushing this argument, they’re sidelining the real reasons why Torah study is vital. And should they ever manage to persuade secular Israelis that this is indeed the main justification for Torah study, that wall-to-wall consensus I mentioned earlier might crumble.
The principal argument for the importance of Torah study is that while it may have a questionable track record of saving Jewish lives, it has an unsurpassed track record of preserving the Jewish people. Dozens, if not hundreds, of the nations that peopled the ancient world no longer exist: Sumerians, Phoenicians, Philistines, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Romans, and many more. Each in turn fell to invaders, and in defeat, lost their distinctive identities.
Of them all, the Jews alone managed to preserve their unique identity despite the destruction of their kingdom and 2,000 years of exile. And for that, as even most secular Jews acknowledge, we have the Torah to thank: Its study and practice is what preserved the Jews as a nation for two millennia.
But there’s a secondary argument that also resonates with many Israelis: The Torah is the core of our cultural heritage. Just as being an educated citizen of Britain requires some acquaintance with Shakespeare, or being an educated citizen of America requires familiarity with the Constitution, being an educated citizen of a Jewish state requires some knowledge of Judaism’s foundational documents: Torah, Mishnah, Gemara, etc. And in recent years, growing recognition of that fact has sparked a resurgence of interest in Jewish studies among secular Jews.
Yet no cultural heritage can be preserved solely by laymen; experts familiar with all its intricacies are also needed. And in a Jewish state, as most Israelis recognize, that means serious Torah scholars.
One would hope Israelis are too sensible to forget the real arguments for Torah study just because Haredi leaders and spokesmen spout nonsensical ones. Nevertheless, I’m appalled that Haredim would risk of making Torah study an object of contempt to their fellow Jews by advancing such shoddy arguments in its defense.
But I’m also dismayed for another reason: I sincerely believe Haredim have much to contribute to Israeli society, starting with their passionate commitment to education, Jewish identity and helping others. And they can’t contribute anything if they can’t communicate with the rest of us.
If the claim that Torah study wins wars is the best argument Haredi scholars can produce after years of full-time Torah immersion, Haredi scholarship badly needs a leavening of real-world experience. It might even improve their Torah study. But it would certainly improve their ability to talk to their fellow Israelis.
And since we all have to live together, that would benefit Haredim and non-Haredim alike.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.