Studying Torah can be a national service

Civility among us will revive. Brotherhood will engulf us. Mutual respect and appreciation will flourish.

Ben-Gurion meets with UNSCOP members at J'lem YMCA 311 (photo credit: Israel National Archives)
Ben-Gurion meets with UNSCOP members at J'lem YMCA 311
(photo credit: Israel National Archives)
There is a powerful and heart-wrenching story that was related by the great and holy rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim. In the 1800s the Church had ordered the inhabitants of a certain Eastern European town to display a cross in front of their homes. Anyone that disobeyed would be put to death.
Upon hearing of the decree, the town’s pharmacist, a wealthy assimilated Jewish man, swore, “There won’t be a cross in front of my house! I may not be religious, but I’ll always be a Jew.”
Several days later he was arrested and executed. No matter how times the Chofetz Chaim recounted this story he was always overcome by the man’s act of Kiddush Hashem, realizing that no matter how non-religious someone may be the spark of holiness in every Jewish soul can never be extinguished.
And such has been the case since the return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.
Surrounded by enemies seeking their destruction the nonreligious Jew has been steadfastly declaring to the world, “I may not be religious, but I will always be a Jew.”
By the same token the religious Jew has demonstrated his/her devotion, being burned at the stake for countless generations. It is this proud heritage that every Jewish family carries. How else can we still be surviving as Jews if not for the great sacrifices our ancestors endured. But now we stand brother against brother with sword in hand, ready to plunge into a civil war.
Our ancestors weep seeing their descendants hate, malign, accuse, and turn away from each other. The “Tal Law” controversy is tearing whatever little connection we have as brothers. We, the haredim, say that the mission of the Jewish People is Limud Torah, that is how we protect the Jewish Nation. We, the non-haredim and the secular, say that we must physically defend, that is how we protect the Jewish Nation.
Which one of us is right? Is it the soul of the Jewish People? Or is it the body of the Jewish People? To paraphrase Chazal, “The body without the soul is lifeless and the soul without the body is helpless.”
Can one separate the Jewish soul from the Jewish body, and vice versa? Of course not. The issue before us is not whether the IDF needs more soldiers to fight on the frontlines. The IDF has done fine since its inception.
Neither is the issue whether the IDF will make accommodations for a religious unit. One only needs to look at Hesder. Even in the pre-state days the Palmah had a religious unit.
The issue before us is that both sides feel disrespected.
The secular feel used and abused. Once a teen graduates he/she must place their lives on hold for three years, endure extreme physical hardship, place their lives in danger; and still never receive any appreciation from their religious counterpart.
Furthermore they feel that their tax dollars help support an educational system that never regards the value of the secular Jew.
The haredi Jew feels that Torah and his Torah learning, the characteristic that makes us a distinct and unique nation (hence the name, People of the Book) is belittled, misunderstood and defiled.
And both sides become suspect of each other’s intentions, love of fellow Jew, and love of G-d. Can a Jew forget his G-d and identity? Never! As the above story demonstrates.
Were all the six million religious? Before their murder many were not. But we remember them as 6 million holy ones. Why? Because they were murdered as Jews. Instantly the nonreligious murdered became Holy Ones, who we say Kaddish and learn Torah on behalf of.
So again, what is the difference if a Jew places himself in danger or is massacred as a Jew? None. Thus all the Jews of land of Israel are holy ones surrounded by hostile nations calling for their total destruction. Do we need a nuclear holocaust to realize this point? Are we so filled with hate and anger that we cannot see the obvious? Though the Torah is not the central motif in the secular world, ask any secular Jew and you will see that he/she understands that is the Torah and our unrelenting 3,500- year national dedication to it, through Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Spanish and Nazi persecutions, that is our national heritage.
Ask any Jewish soldier if he wants his fellow religious Jew to pray for him, and he will say, “Yes!” That some of us are less religious than others, or not religious at all, is a fact. Some will even say that Zionism cannot sustain Judaism. That Jewishness has nothing to do with Judaism.
Then let me quote from the initial speaker who opened the first Zionist Congress in 1897: “Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the land of Jews.”
Thus said Dr. Theodor Herzl in his opening remarks. Even Ben-Gurion was not ashamed to wear a kippa and tallit, and officiate as a sandek at a brit milah (see photo). We forget that Ben-Gurion initiated the national Torah contest in the 1950s. And that it was he that instituted that every soldier be given a Tanach upon graduation.
He even partook in a weekly Torah study group with renowned rabbis of his day.
If the haredi community wish not to serve in the IDF, claiming Bitul Torah, the rest of Israeli society serve in the IDF, claiming Ahavas Yisrael.
The haredi say their learning protects the Jewish nation, while those who serve claim their service protects the Jewish nation. How do we solve this dilemma? Again I ask, is it the Jewish soul or body? Since our inception as a people we have prided ourselves on being a spiritual people, proclaiming to humanity G-d’s existence, wisdom, morals, ethics and laws as they relate to the world. Hence to be Jewish is to be spiritual within a physical realm. Then lets us learn from how Hashem instructed our greatest national leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, concerning the Jewish army.
During our travels in the wilderness the army was set up in two main camps, the Levite camp and the Israelite camp. The Levites defended the nation with their learning and service. The Israelite camp defended the nation with the physical army. And no one minded. Because each knew that for the Jewish nation to be exist as an unique and successful nation the Jewish body and soul must be combined.
And so I propose a practical Jewish solution to the Tal Law controversy. Lets us combine the body and the soul of the Jewish People. Let the haredim create an IDF Yeshiva. They will wear IDF uniforms, train only an hour day, and spend the rest of the day protecting the nation with learning and prayer on behalf of their fellow soldiers (brothers).
Their national service will be Limud HaTorah, but in an IDF framework. Society will feel happy seeing that the haredim have joined the group, since it makes no difference to the secular mind if a haredi sits at a desk filing papers or learning. What matters is that the haredi has joined the group. The haredi will not mind since it makes no difference where he is learning as along as he is learning.
And what will be the outcome of such a compromise? A new day within the Jewish People. It will commence the joining of the Jewish Soul and Body. No longer will brother despise brother. We will begin to see ourselves again as the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said of himself, “I am Jew, first. And a Israeli, second.”
Civility among us will revive. Brotherhood will engulf us. Mutual respect and appreciation will flourish.
Both religious and non-religious Jew will stand together as a people and tell all, “I will always be Jew.” Will this not be an incredible and great Kiddush Hashem and one of the most effective kiruv tools ever employed? And so, as it was in the time of our greatest national leader, Moshe, let it be again.

The writer, a rabbi, is the cofounder and head of Shomrei Ha’am, a new youth movement building bridges between the religious and non-religious based on Torah and Palmah leadership methods.