By Larry Gordon
Each of the parties involved feels that its own is the just and right point of view on the matter. The two sides are so entrenched that it may not even be warranted to argue the salient points of each position. Instead, the two sides characterize one another in the most unbecoming terms while the external non-Jewish critics shake their heads in disbelief when it comes to how Jews cannot get along.
I believe that most of us who are casual observers or bystanders to what is going on today are hurt and disgusted by the debate about whether or not chareidim in Eretz Yisrael should shift their thinking and agree to have their young people perform some type of national service. And this essay is not even about the benefits or deficiencies that might be incurred by those changes. It is about the nature and format of the disagreement and the fashion in which it is being conducted.
It is as if before we even get down to the nitty-gritty and substance of the dispute, we have already lost because of the nature of the clash. And that means that while the leaders debate the issue, we on the sidelines are just incurring and are considered collateral damage.
Some chareidi leaders insist that the other side is bent on damaging the world of Torah and its way of life. While it is fairly clear that this is nowhere near the prime motivation for these proposed changes, there is nevertheless an element of validity to the charge. That is, there are some within the ranks of those proposing and legislating these changes who feel some animosity and even hostility toward the chareidi community for a combination of real and imagined reasons. But this is not the prime force or motivation behind these moves.
The state of Israel does not want to destroy, undermine, or hurt Torah or those who are committed to study its texts in any way. It is a hyperbolic indulgence to claim otherwise and more than anything else the accusations are to a great extent politically charged.
Granted that our gedolei Torah directing the chareidi community both here and in Israel are doing the right thing. They have committed their lives to safeguarding the sacredness of Torah and the types of lives that are lived by those of us who follow its good and sweet ways. But then there is the political dimension of all this that has to be considered.
In discussing the issue with a rabbi last week, I suggested that had the chareidi parties in Israel been part of the current governing coalition instead of part of the Knesset opposition, none of what is taking place now would be happening. Yes, it is true that had they been part of the coalition, the law on national service for yeshiva students may not have been changed in the first place. But the fact is that they are in the political opposition and more or less powerless for the first time in the history of the state of Israel.
They were also offered an opportunity to be part of the government that was formed last year but took a hardball position, which forced Prime Minister Netanyahu to patch together his coalition with Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid instead of Arye Deri and Shas. Talk about gambling and losing.
So while the chareidi public is being led to believe that they are protesting an unprecedented assault on Torah, the reality is that they are instead being used as tools to shake the current ruling coalition and hopefully bring the government down, which would result in new elections. While that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, it is nevertheless the function of the opposition to not give up on those attempts to effectuate change.
As you know, when the chareidi parties are in the government, they control assorted ministries and portfolios that in turn manage hundreds of millions of dollars that are distributed to educational institutions in the form of subsidies and social-welfare payments. When outside the coalition, as they are today, they unfortunately have no such ability, and that is where the intellectual dishonesty at play comes into the picture.
At the same time, there is no discussion of what the average man or woman who is part of the chareidi community wants to do. It seems that they are essentially being used by a movement that takes things in directions that best serves their overall perceived communal interests. And on a political level, that means agitating the public and communicating to them the extent to which they are being bandied about by the ruling apparatchiks.
There is no question that the Torah sages involved in this debate are not involved at this level. As it was explained to me by a rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, their agenda is exclusively honoring and safeguarding the Torah and all that it represents. Beyond that there is the matter that remaining in the study hall and committed to full-time study protects the participants and that growing community more than anyone else. If you are in yeshiva, are a fairly good or diligent student, not out there working or serving in any capacity, the chances of experiencing any kind of hashkafic conflict are significantly minimized.
And that’s the concern, that yeshiva boys and men, young and not so young, will somehow become intoxicated by the allures of the outside world. That is not just a legitimate concern but perhaps the crux of the problem. That is, sending the boys out to study or work, volunteer in healthcare facilities, or serve the intelligence service or military in some capacity also brings them in contact with a world that they have been sheltered from all their lives. While those numbers may be very limited, from the perspective of the yeshiva each individual is precious and they refuse to play that kind of numbers game.
At the same time, there is the all-important economics that need to be considered. It is patently not true that the motivation here is to do harm to people who want to live Torah lifestyles. It is Torah and the adherence to Torah that defines the Jewish state—the entire country and its entire people. That’s why the new law calls for as many as 2,000 students each year being exempt from any type of national service so that they can continue their full-time learning. That there are many who do not observe as we do only means that we still have a lot of work to do. The chareidi community over the next few years will be an even more dominant factor in Israeli society and that is one of the overlooked reasons as to why exacting these changes are vital at this juncture.
Today there are over 20,000 chareidim in the workforce in Israel, with many thousands more anxious to be trained and educated so that they can support their families with dignity. Men and women do not take pride or pleasure in the need to get in line for free chicken or meat so they can feed their families for yom tov. It’s great for the people who come to America to collect money so that these families can have chicken on Shabbos and shoes for their small children, but there is a different, better, and healthier way to get it done.
Rest assured that there will always be poor people regardless of changes or societal innovations, and there will be a steady and consistent need for funds for chicken, meat, and shoes. But let those who are able-bodied and anxious to support their own families do so without being ostracized or criticized and accused of stepping out while what they are really doing is stepping up.
The argument about whether non-chareidi young people are less important or valuable than chareidim is just an incendiary and unproductive way to characterize this dispute. Every Jewish life is precious, as all life is, and when one Jew bleeds we all bleed. So it’s irresponsible to communicate the essence of this divide in that context.
So what we have here are differing positions on the nature of Torah study and its contribution to the defense of the nation in these trying times and in the months and years ahead. Who is right, or how right or almost right they might be, cannot be settled here or now. What can be settled is the way in which the differing opinions are offered up and represented. We need respect on all sides no matter how emotional people are about their positions. If we can get to that place and discuss the issues and the proposed changes without the hysteria and threats, we will have come a long way and made important progress. Each side has merits and a rich history that supports its position. What is needed now is the desire to understand one another in the effort to keep Israel strong and an enduring national success. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.