The concept of ‘Toratan omanutan’ (‘Torah is their occupation’) has become distorted in recent decades. In the Talmud, it is applied to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his cohorts, who were so completely devoted to Torah, they did not need to interrupt their studies to recite the Shema and Amidah (Shabbat 11a). The ‘Kollel Concept’ has evolved into a societal expectation, where it assumed that every young Haredi man spend many years studying fulltime before and after marriage. Even those who are not the best and brightest, not our future spiritual leaders – rabbis, teachers, and poskim – are expected to devote themselves fully to Torah study, instead of pursuing a career.
This was not always the case. Jewish Tradition has always valued Torah im derech eretz, the healthy balance of Torah study and work. After all, the Sages of the Talmud were woodcutters and water-carriers. Even into the 20th Century, many Rabbis balanced their role as spiritual leader with a parnassa. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and family, for example, used to sell candles and yeast in Luban. And as is well known, the Chafetz Chaim owned a small grocery store with his wife.
In the early days of Statehood, when Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the famed Chazon Ish, and other leading rabbis reached a compromise with David Ben Gurion to provide military exemptions for yeshiva students, only some 400 students were exempted. Writing about a Milchemet Mitzvah, the Chazon Ish himself recognized that “if there is a need for them, they must come to the aid of their brethren” (Orach Chaim, Eiruvin, no. 114). Over time, the number of exemptions has grown to become %15 of the population, a significant percentage. How the words of the Chazon Ish ring true today!
Those who do not serve in the IDF claim exemption under the guise of Toratan omanutan, their complete commitment to Torah study. But the real issue is not one of halacha. The truth is that for many, the insistence on exemption is one of convenience. Yet others are motivated by anti-Zionism. They do not want to recognize the Modern State of Israel or serve in its army. If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that halacha requires some form of service – for everyone. No exceptions. No exemptions.
Moshe’s argument to the Tribes of Reuven and Gad, “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you sit here?” (Num. 32:6) resonates today with those who see the imbalance of the current situation. Israelis who do serve in the IDF harbor feelings of anger and resentment towards their coreligionists who do not. Many are also upset by the government’s financial support of Haredi yeshivot and institutions, whose beneficiaries do not serve. What’s missing is a sense of equality; a sense of shared responsibility; and a sense of shared destiny.
For those who want to balance their commitment to Torah study with a commitment to Army service, Hesder (lit. arrangement), is the best of both worlds. Hesder units are comprised of the best and the brightest – serious talmidei chachamim and serious soldiers – serving in the most elite combat units, many of whom rise in rank due to their devotion.
Recent years have seen a gradual shift in the Haredi attitude towards military service. Haredi units, which offer religious accommodations to soldiers, are growing in size due to the educational and career opportunities they offer young people. In addition, new technical schools, catering to Haredi men and women, encourage greater integration into Israel’s workforce. While only a small percentage of the Haredi community currently takes advantage of these programs, there is movement in a positive direction.
The future is uncertain, with the Kadima party leading a committee that will propose an alternative to the Tal Law, set to officially expire on July 31st. But one thing is certain: The current situation has become untenable. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that he is committed to “a more egalitarian and just law,” to replace the status quo. His promise is not just good politics in an election year – it’s what Jewish Law requires.