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A Mistaken Plea to Klal Yisrael

Divinity exemptions are designed to produce clergy that will serve the populace, not so that every single member of it becomes a member of the clergy.
Haredim Can Be Trained to Do Anything

Photo Credit: Uri Lenz / FLASH90

One of the most pressing issues facing Israel right now (at least internally) is the issue of “What to do about the Haredim.” I do not say this in any pejorative sense at all. But the fact happens to be that the last election was all about that.  This is a subject that gets discussed a lot here. And it may be tiring to keep reading about it. But the issue has not gone away and remains as controversial as ever. It has as of yet not been solved.

I purposely characterized this as an over-all problem and not just a problem with the draft. Drafting Haredim into the army is but one facet of a much larger multifaceted problem. Aside from ‘sharing the burden’ of military service by submitting to the draft in equal proportion to the rest of the population, there are issues of rising poverty; the increased reliance taxpayer funded government welfare programs for sustenance; the  lack of education; and the ability to get decent jobs. And they are all related.

Let me begin by first making clear (if it isn’t already obvious by my many posts on this subject) that I am not opposed to the Haredi way of life. Nor do I reject the philosophy of learning Torah full time as a legitimate Hashkafa – even though I do not see it exactly the same way they do. But even if I didn’t agree at all – people have a right to believe as they choose and act in accordance with their beliefs as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. My only issue with Haredim is their unwillingness to accept – or at best to consider as second class – other Hashkafos. Like Torah U’Madah  or Torah Im Derech Eretz.

To the extent that Haredim in America are better educated and a lot more productive than their Israeli counterparts is to the extent that I support them. Yes, there are pockets where poverty is great and education poor to non-existent. Yet I think it is fair to say that most Amercian Haredim do get a basic secular education and in some cases go on to have professional careers. Or at least have to ability to do so. And the draft is not an issue here.

But as I mentioned so many times in the past – Israel is a whole other ballgame. Haredim in Israel are nowhere near where American Haredim are.  Haredi Hashkafos in Israel are so extreme that there is no such thing as education outside of Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) in high school and beyond.  There are some exceptions to that – but those schools are few and at best considered outside the mainstream.

I bring all this up in light of the lengthy cover story in Ami Magazine. Publisher Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter interviewed Rav Dovid Soloveitchik who is the son of R’ Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (The Griz).  He is a leading rabbinic figure in the Israeli Haredi world and widely respected even among Haredim in America.  R’ Frankfurter studied in his Yeshiva (Brisk) for a year and considers himself a Talmid.

R’ Dovid summoned him to Israel and expressed the urgency of spreading the word about his (and the virtually all the rest of the Israeli rabbinic leadership’s) opposition to the draft. That they consider serving in the army a Shas HaShmad is no secret. He has spoken about this many times. I covered one of those times right here.

What makes this interview interesting for me is the fact that Rabbi Frankfurter actually asked him questions that I would have asked. Although he unhesitatingly accepts the answers from his Rebbe, I do not. He promised to ‘spread the word’ through his magazine and this cover story certainly did that. At least to paid subscribers or those who went out and bought the magazine.

But the questions were a lot better than the answers which can all be refuted. The question I am most referring to is the following.

Rabbi Frankfurter asked him why Haredim could not do both – learn and serve in the army at the same time. His answer was that Torah can have no Hesech HaDaas (interruption of focus and concentration). Torah requires exclusivity. If someone wants to learn Torah he cannot have anything else with it. He must give himself over to Torah completely. A Bachur must commit his whole life solely to Torah. And he quotes the Rambam (Hilchos Talumd Torah 3:6) to prove his point:

A person whose heart inspires him to fulfill this Mitzvah in a fitting manner and to become crowned with the crown of Torah should not divert his attention to other matters. He should not set his intent on acquiring Torah together with wealth and honor simultaneously.

This not only precludes serving in the army while learning, it precludes any possible preparation for the workplace via an even basic secular education.

With all due respect, to the Rosh HaYeshiva, this is hardly an argument for not having a dual army/Yeshiva program like hesder. Nor is it an argument (as implied by his response) to reject all limudei hol past 8th grade (where basic math and the Hebrew grammar are the only secular subjects taught).  What the Rambam must have meant is that it is indeed preferable to study Torah without any distraction. But I doubt very seriously that he meant that this should be the way of life for every single student from age 12 and up to the exclusion of ever learning how to make a livable wage.

If that were the case, the Rambam could never have studied medicine. He must have at some point done both. Perhaps his Torah study was at its best when he was not distracted by parnassa (livelihood) concerns. But I seriously doubt that he would tell anyone to ignore it. What he probably believed was that one should strive for pure Torah study. But not at the expense of learning to make a living. Else, how could he have become a doctor? He therefore must have also believed that it is legitimate to combine Torah study with preparation for a Parnassa. Either that, or he was not very good at taking his own advice.

The same argument can be made for the requirement to give up a couple of years to serve in the army. And if one can still study Torah during that time – like the hesder program does – all the better.

That secular studies harm Torah scholarship is disproved not only by the Rambam – who many say was an exception to his own rule because of his genius, but by his own cousins the Rav and Rav Ahron who both attended university, one receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin and the other a law degree from NYU. Is there anyone who would say that the Rav or R’ Aharon were deficient in Torah knowledge?

Lest anyone say that they too are geniuses, Rav Ahron clearly states that full time Torah study is not for everyone. Who says that every Haredi in Israel must learn full time from the moment he starts school until well after he is married with children? Rav Ahron might argue the reverse and say that geniuses in Torah like the Rambam should study full time and not be distracted by parnassa concerns. Everyone else should be kovieh itim (set aside regular times for Torah study) and serve God by what suits his intelligence and personality the best.

Returning to the issue of the draft – I completely reject R’ Dovid’s characterization of it being a Shas HaShmad. He compares it to Czarist times and characterizes what is going on now as a 100 percent war against the Torah.  I think it is quite clear that R’ Dovid is living in the past on this issue. He remembers Ben Gurion who personally saw no value in Halacha and thinks the current political leadership is no different.

For example Ben Gurion and his wife did not bother having a religious marriage ceremony. They only had a civil ceremony in New York. He refused to ever wear a kipa. He ate bread on Pesach. His concession to the Chazan Ish about maintaining the status quo – guaranteeing Haredim would continue their British mandated control over religious matters in the new State of Israel was entirely political. He did not want them to oppose the creation of a state in the U.N. which they were going to do. When he promised them that, they supported the creation of the State.

But things are not like that now. Had he paid attention to Yair Lapid during the election he would know that. Ever since the six day war and especially since the Begin era there has been an increase in the respect for Torah among Israeli leaders.  Unlike R’ Dovid, Haredi writers have taken note of the fact that the current Knesset has more observant Jews serving than at any time in history.

This is not a Shas Hasmad. If it were, I would support them. The more these rabbinic leaders say it is, the less credible they sound. Instead of ‘spreading the word’ the way R’ Dovid and his Shaliach (messenger) Rabbi Frankfurter are. They ought to sit down with the government and work out a compromise that everyone could live with.

Just like there was a divinity exemption in my day when America had a draft, so too there should be one in Israel. The only problem in Israel is that because of the philosophy of full time Torah study for everyone – every single Haredi man gets a divinity exemption. That is not right. Divinity exemptions are designed to produce clergy that will serve the populace. Not so that every single member of it becomes a member of the clergy.

With this philosophy in place, the Israeli government has no choice but to set up a quota system – where a certain percentage of young Talmudic scholars will be fully exempt and even subsidized by the government with a living wage. The rest must register and share the burden just like Dati and secular Israelis do. What that percentage should be can be negotiated by men of good will.

There should also be a track whereby a Haredi can both serve and continue his studies simultaneously the way Hesder boys do. And certainly religious sensitivities of Haredim must be honored so that their way of life is not compromised. Which means that Nachal Haredi and similar programs need to be improved and expanded.

I truly believe this approach or something like it is the best solution. But as long as Haredi rabbinic leaders like R’ Dovid Soloveitchik so stridently sees this as a Shas HaShmad, it will not happen.

As for injecting some secular studies into their curriculum to improve their lot… well… one step at a time.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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