By Larry Gordon
The Torah is the blueprint of creation, the plans, so to speak, that G‑d reviewed before creating this universe that we live in and explore. Torah is in us and part of who we are. But, interestingly, it can also allow people to zoom out, if you will, and perceive Torah as distant and removed from themselves.
Rav Simcha HaKohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of Rehovot and Rav of the Churva Shul in the Old City of Jerusalem, was in New York last week, and we had the opportunity to meet and discuss some of the issues that are on his mind and the minds of many who care deeply about Eretz Yisrael and the future of the Jewish people.
Our conversation turned immediately in the direction of the new legislation in Israel that will call for yeshiva students to serve the country in some national capacity. Rav Kook says that he does not feel comfortable with the way the government is dealing with the current situation.
“Yeshivas are our life,” Rav Kook says. “If yeshivas stop functioning, Israel could not exist,” he says, and then adds, “Klal Yisrael exists because of Torah.” The rav expounds further that there are simply not enough yeshivas in the world, and that on a global level there is much less learning of Torah than there used to be. He explains that outside of Israel and the U.S. there are very few yeshivas that are bastions of communities the way yeshivas existed and dominated cities throughout Europe before World War II. He adds that aside from Gateshead in England, Europe has been emptied of consistent Torah study in yeshivas.
On the current matter, Rav Kook, age 82, says, “Every prime minister since the founding of the state has attempted to bring or incorporate yeshiva students into the IDF.” The rav explains that all the prime ministers that he has known have studied the issue and have always come to the conclusion that the yeshivas are holy and that they need to be left untouched.
He says that prior to his arrival in New York he wrote a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu. He suggested in the letter that if the prime minister wanted to make major changes in the country’s universities, he would certainly convene a conference of all university presidents; if the PM wanted to make changes in movie theaters around Israel he would organize a conclave of theater managers to help him institute changes. He asked Mr. Netanyahu in his letter, “How can you attempt to preside over such dramatic changes in the relationship between Torah, yeshivas, and the country without consulting or meeting with the roshei yeshivos?” Rav Kook is awaiting a response.
The last few days brought with them to America several personalities who are vocal about this attempt to shift some of the fundamentals of Torah life today in Israel. In addition to Rav Kook, who returned to Israel prior to last Shabbos, we also had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Jerusalem’s Yeshiva Toras Moshe expound on the subject at length.
“This is not an attack on Torah per se,” he said over Shabbos at Congregation Shaaray Tefila. He explained that, in his estimation, what is taking place is an assault on a culture in Israel and an effort to systematically break apart the Torah community. “In twenty years the chareidi, Torah-oriented community in Israel will be 35% of the population,” the rabbi explained, and the objective of the non-observant Jews in Israel today is to hold that growth and development of the ultra-Orthodox community in check.
On Saturday night, in a forum on the subject that was held in a home in Far Rockaway, a panel was assembled that included two rabbis and two journalists. The forum was sponsored by Mishpacha Magazine and its publisher, Rabbi Eli Paley, who presented a cogent and logical case for not tampering with the yeshiva system in Israel.
Rabbi Paley, a native Israeli and a yeshiva graduate who did a stint in the IDF as well, said that if it can be said that the vibrant Torah community in Israel failed, in a way, it is in their inability to effectively communicate the vital connection between Torah study and the security of the State of Israel. Instead, the critics of Torah and the noninvolved and non-observant Israelis see Torah being used as a crutch by tens of thousands to avoid sharing the burden, stay out of the IDF and away from national service, and to absent themselves from involvement in the workforce. While that criticism may be true in some cases, it is not the attitude or approach of the overwhelming number of yeshiva-oriented Torah Jews in Israel.
There were moments in the Saturday-night program when Rabbi Paley sounded a similar theme to that of MK Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid when he was here a few weeks ago. Paley said, in response to a question about the nature of chareidi life in Israel, that “there has to be improvements and adjustments” to the current, somewhat untenable, status quo.
Rabbi Paley was most likely referring to the unsustainable nature of the current dynamics of the economy that demands that taxpayers support hundreds of thousands of yeshiva students and their growing families. He said that with the passage of the new Perri Committee plan that mandates that yeshiva students register to be eligible to serve the country in some capacity, many of the efforts to help integrate the chareidi population into the workforce have been set back considerably.
The Saturday-night panel in Far Rockaway included Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Yeshiva Darchei Torah; Rabbi Aryeh Z. Ginzberg, rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center and a contributing editor to the 5TJT; Eytan Kobre, a columnist for Mishpacha; and Rabbi Paley. The thrust and theme of the evening was that yeshiva life in Israel is under attack, and its existence is being threatened by legislation being passed by the current government.
MK Lipman has said that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is a good and even wonderful person who has good intentions, but that does not mean that Lapid doesn’t also harbor some animosity and perhaps even disdain for the religious way of life in Israel. Lapid, as a youngster, was led to believe that the frum lifestyle was ultimately going to ground itself down and would eventually disappear. One of the panelists mentioned that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was so magnanimous toward the yeshiva community 65 years ago because he believed it was a relic of the past that would soon be gone.
In the meantime, Torah in Eretz Yisrael is growing, flourishing, and getting stronger, kind of upsetting the vision some may have had of the modern State of Israel. One needs to understand and be sensitive to the reality that the chareidi lifestyle is a cloistered kind of existence with very limited exposure to the outside world. That’s why the imagery of young men being pulled kicking and screaming from the study halls and rushed into the army has alarmed and even frightened so many.
Unfortunately, there are extremists in both camps indulging in hyperbole and painting an extreme picture of the new laws that looks nothing like what is being suggested today.
It is perhaps Rabbi Meiselman, who runs a yeshiva in Jerusalem, that says it best. He explains that there are three major segments of Israel society today—the chareidim, the Mizrachi or modern Orthodox, and the secular Jews who comprise the largest segment in the country. Sometime in the not-too-distant future the chareidi population will become increasingly dominant, and that concerns those who see Israel as a free-flowing democracy that keeps its religious consciousness tucked away somewhere safe.
“They are uncomfortable with the idea that we in the chareidi community do not desire or yearn for the things they yearn for and desire,” Rabbi Meiselman said. The rabbi said that the Torah community endeavors to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and that this is a concept that the secularists either cannot grasp or refuse to grasp.
Eli Paley, the publisher of Mishpacha says that he prides himself in having open dialogue with many of those in the Knesset who are responsible for the new legislation that down the road has the potential to impact the chareidi sector more than any other. He said that while he had spoken about the matter extensively with Yesh Atid’s number-two man, Rabbi Shai Piron, he was shocked at comments made by Piron just several days after they met. Piron said to the Israeli press, according to Paley, that the chareidim were simply parasites.
I spoke with MK Lipman last Sunday and asked about that comment specifically. Lipman said that those were words he would not have chosen, but that what Piron was saying is that the country cannot afford such a large segment of the population that lives in a parasitic fashion, and not that chareidim were specifically parasites.
You can rest assured that there have been and that there will be many misunderstandings going forward that are not dissimilar to this one. As long as I had Lipman’s attention on Sunday, I asked him to clarify a few things that I had heard the day before from the panel. For example, I asked him to explain why the new policies would place any obstacles in the way of professional training for those who planned to go to work, as Paley explained. He said that there may be a drop-off in the numbers of those seeking job training only because of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the new laws. He added that in fact the Knesset has earmarked $50 million annually over the next few years specifically for job training for chareidim and that he expects there to be a net increase in the numbers over the next few months.
On the matter that there is a design here to break up the chareidi community in some way, MK Lipman says that he knows all the ministers involved in the legislation on a personal basis, and that there are absolutely no negative or evil designs or intentions at play here.
I asked him whether it was true that the military was fully staffed and that there simply was no need for large numbers of chareidim in the IDF. He said that this was a false assertion, that he has met with the generals and officers involved and that there are needs in a number of areas and specifically in technology, in which those from the chareidi community would excel.
And finally, I asked Lipman about the assertion that as much as half of the secular 18-year-olds were simply not joining the IDF and that no one was concerned or doing anything about it. He said that there indeed is this problem, but that the number was just 20%, and at least half of those are being identified and prosecuted.
These are tough issues. The chareidi community sees itself as being under siege, with Torah and the Torah way of life under attack. Both Rabbi Meiselman and Rabbi Paley mentioned in passing that economics was a serious problem and that there were very urgent problems dealing with parnasah. They did not, however, link what is going on with the need to alleviate the situation, which seems to be the prime catalyst for these intended societal adjustments.
Lipman said on Sunday that the roshei yeshiva he communicates with have told him that once it becomes legal to go to work without doing any service—as is the case between now and 2017—they expect at least 6% of the yeshiva population to seek training and employment immediately, and ultimately many more. He says that this will help the self-esteem of many and make it possible for men and women to finally see their way clear to supporting their families. He says that this is a large part of what he is involved in. “Does that sound anti-chareidi to you?” he asks. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.