The Tal Law: The tip of the iceberg

Everyone is aware of the Iranian threat, but we should not ignore the internal haredi threat.

Haredi combat soldiers 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi combat soldiers 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The crisis that will arise very soon because the Tal Law, which has been declared unconstitutional, is about to expire represents a critical moment for the State of Israel. Even more worrying is the fact that it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Everyone is aware of the existential threat Iran’s nuclear program represents, but we would be foolish to ignore the internal threat to our future represented by the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community’s lack of integration into Israeli life and society. Finding the way to allow them to observe Judaism in the way they have chosen and yet to become integral members of Israel society is the great challenge that we face.
A nation can and must tolerate differences within its population in ways of life and belief, but there are limits and red lines. Ben-Gurion may have thought that exempting a few hundred yeshiva students from army service was no big deal, and Begin may have been able to swallow expanding that to several thousand, but when the numbers reach tens of thousands and will soon become a majority of those eligible, a crisis has been created.
It is a crisis that threatens the security of the nation and the health of the army and it is a moral crisis that undermines the principle of morality and of equality upon which any decent society is built and could lead an internal revolt that will tear Israel apart. There are only two solutions to such a crisis: the elimination of separate rules for the haredi population or creating a voluntary army in which no one is obligated to serve. The feasibility of the latter under current conditions hardly seems possible.
But it is not only army service that is problematic. An equal threat is posed by the very basic concept of an entire society in which work is frowned upon and in which children are deprived of an education that would prepare them for the ability to make a living. This concept is completely new to Jewish life and was introduced into Israel as an innovation that completely contradicts the beliefs and laws of the Torah and the way of life in Jewish communities until the Shoah.
Yes, some students – brilliant students – were always encouraged to devote themselves to Torah study and would be subsidized by others – but these were the exception, not the rule. The community as a whole was expected to work and support itself and to find time for Torah study within that framework. That is exactly what haredim do in New York, London, Brussels and anywhere else that they live and that is what they did in prewar Vilna and Minsk.
Indeed the life of the haredi community in Israel is built upon two false premises that have been sold both to that community and to the general Israeli public as truths. One is that truly observant Jews are forbidden to abandon their yeshiva studies in order to serve in the army and protect the country. The other is that Torah study is the supreme obligation and the normative way of life for all men and therefore normal work is forbidden. Woman can work and support the men, and the State – the State which is not recognized as legitimate – paradox of paradoxes! – has an obligation to support them as well.
Such a concept is only possible in Israel where the State has agreed to play its part in supporting non-working men. The truth is that the Torah itself obligates people to serve in the army, giving only limited exemptions to special cases (see Deuteronomy 20:1-9). Rabbinic law even went so far as to limit those exemptions to wars of choice and to teach that in wars of defense everyone must serve – “even the groom from the huppah and the bride from her room” (Sotah 8:7). They also taught that the proper combination for life was “Torah with Derech Eretz” (normal work).
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his famous remark said that if only we left the haredim and the Arabs out of the poverty equation we would be on top of the world. The trouble is that we cannot leave them out. The growth of the haredi community indicates that they may indeed become a majority of the population. Can any society tolerate a situation in which that sizable a sector does not work and must – in one way or another – be supported by the rest of the population? Netanyahu has shown that he can stand up to Iran. Can he now stand up to the haredim and to their representatives in the Knesset and in his coalition? That will be the true test of his leadership.
What are the steps that must be taken to bring about the change that is needed?
1. The general haredi exemption from the army must be eliminated and haredim must be obligated as all others are obligated. There may be an exemption or deferment granted to a very small and limited number of exceptional scholars and units similar to the Hesder Yeshivot may be created to enable a combination of study and service.
2. There must be an end to the special subsidies given to yeshiva students and to Kollel students. Yeshivas must be treated no differently than other educational institutions.
3. Haredi education must include the core curriculum studies that will enable their students to work and earn a decent living. No school should receive government recognition or funding if it does not live up to those standards.
4. All housing and child benefits given to the haredi population must be on the same level and standard as those given to the general population.
If these steps are taken, we can hope that sanity will return to Israeli haredi life and the threat to our society will be eliminated.
The writer is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly, author and lecturer whose most recent book is The Torah Revolution: Fourteen Truths that Changed The World (Jewish Lights).