Is Studying Torah a National Service?

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Last week, we ran a column that brought to light a less-than-glamorous aspect of Israeli history. We thought deliberately about whether this story was appropriate to share. Some would argue that sharing Israel’s blemishes in a world of so much anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment just fuels the flames. Others, however, would argue that the willingness to share failures and challenges in Israeli history is the ultimate demonstration of the confidence we have in our own story. At Jerusalem U, we fall more on the latter side of the dispute, believing that if we ask our students to premise their relationship to Israel on delusions of perfection, then the moment they are disabused of this notion of perfection, their whole relationship to Israel will be threatened.

Yet, although I am in favor of sharing Israel’s imperfections with students, I support this approach on one condition: it is shared in a context that shows consistent love, support, and a deep relationship between the educator and the State of Israel and Israelis. In this case, the messenger matters, and as educators, it’s important we all ask ourselves these three questions:

  1. Am I showing the students that I unequivocally have a deep attachment to Israel?
  2. Do my students think about me as someone who is an “oheiv Yisrael,” “lover of Israel”?
  3. Do I exhibit feelings of genuine pride for Israel?

If the answer is yes to those questions, then delving into an exploration of Israel’s mishaps will help foster what Hanan Alexander calls “a mature love for Israel.”

Yet I fear that if we focus on criticism without anchoring that criticism in love, attachment and an uncompromising relationship, we will fail our students and our good intentions will yield students who have a tenuous relationship with Israel at best.

In that regard, I encourage you to share with your students our “Random But Important” section, which highlights the remarkable achievements of Israelis in the Jewish state.

Though today’s The Weekly is not about exploring any Israeli blemish, in this edition, we discuss a thorny and tense concern that cuts to the heart of Israel’s character as a Jewish state, and the role of the Haredim in Israel.

I hope today’s column is helpful in teaching this complex story with your students.

What Happened?

Israeli newspapers are abuzz with talk of possible early Knesset elections, sparked by the contentious “draft bill.” The historical background of the draft bill goes all the way back to the founding of the State of Israel, when David Ben Gurion negotiated with Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leaders on how to navigate the tensions of Israel functioning as a modern state while also being Jewish. The Haredi community was suspicious of the secularism of the fledgling state and wanted to keep a distance from it. Ben Gurion agreed to keep Shabbat as a public day of rest, the army would only serve kosher food and matters of personal status (marriage, conversion) would be determined by religious authorities.

When David Ben Gurion was elected prime minister, he decided to include the United Religious Front, which included non-Zionist and Zionist religious parties into his government to form his block. Ben Gurion was against including Herut (Menachem Begin’s party) or the communist party in his government, so he felt compelled to include the United Religious Party in his government, which meant the religious party had the leverage.

Since Israel’s founding, conscription into the military is mandatory for all Israelis (except Israeli Arabs), lasting three years for men and two years for women. The Haredi community was opposed to joining the army and insisted it should be exempt from military service, and instead they would learn and pray – a life philosophy known as Torato Umanuto, “The Torah is his occupation.” They argued that learning Torah and praying would service the new state. Although Ben Gurion was opposed to this idea conceptually, he imagined that the Haredim would become a relic of the past (he was wrong) and agreed to exempt them. In 1949, 400 Haredim were exempted from military service, and now that Israel’s population has grown by 15,000 percent, 62,500 Haredim are excused from serving in the army.

Haredi military exemption has caused significant controversy in Israel, as many Israelis think the Haredim should serve just like every other Israeli Jew. Fast forward to 2002, when the Tal Law passed. The Tal Law allowed for the continuation of Torato Umanuto, but with the hope that the number of Haredim exempted would gradually reduce. In September 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Haredi exemption from army service is unconstitutional, and gave the government until December 2018 to come up with legislation accordingly.

Today’s draft bill would increase the number of Haredim required to serve in the army and do national service. As the December deadline approaches, there is much disagreement within the Knesset, and there is speculation that this will lead to the dissolution of the current government coalition and catalyze an early election.

Why Does This Matter?

  1. Power of Torah study? – Long before the State of Israel was established, Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the spiritual father of religious Zionism, pleaded with the United Kingdom’s Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz to ensure that students in yeshiva should not need to serve in the British army when it defeated the Turks in 1917. In Igrot Harayah, volume 3 page 88, he wrote, “The success of the country in its war depends upon talmidei chachamim toiling in Torah. In their merit, the war will be won. They help the country more than the fighting troops.” What lies at the heart of the issue is whether Torah study is a contribution to the State. Haredim contend that Torah study is what keeps the Jewish people going, physically and spiritually, while secular (and many religious) Israelis do not view Torah study as an equal contribution to the state as army service.
  2. Divide between religious and secular – Whether apocryphal or not, there is a story that in 1952, when Ben Gurion visited Israel’s Haredi rabbinic leader, the Chazon Ish, Ben Gurion asked him what he would do if he were prime minister and everyone learned Torah instead of serving in the army. The Chazon Ish purportedly responded by saying, “This question reminds me of a story about a person who caught frostbite on a freezing winter day. The man said, ‘If it happened in the summer, where would I get snow to massage my ears?’ The same thing is true of the Israeli army: the only reason we need you is because you have taken the Jewish people from Torah observance.” This perspective is shared by many ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel now.
  3. Toppling the government – Would the UTJ (United Torah Judaism) party topple the government or not if the military enlistment bill stands as currently constructed? Although it seems like they will not topple the government, it remains to be seen how Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the UTJ leaders work this out. If the ultra-Orthodox parties leave the coalition, Prime Minister Netanyahu would either need to bring opposition parties into his government or hold new elections.

Diversity of Perspectives within Israel

This is a topic that Israelis feel very strongly about, whether they are for or against. The general Haredi opinion is that Torah study is its community’s contribution to society. Plus, Haredim live insulated lives and avoid contact with secular culture, including the IDF. There is a Haredi unit in the IDF, but this represents a small fraction of Israel’s large Haredi population. Haredi newspaper Hamodia reported that Haredi leaders instructed Haredi Members of Knesset to vote against the bill, and to subsequently drop out of government if it passed (which would threaten the coalition’s existence). However, more recently, they instructed to ask for changes to the bill and avoid government collapse.

On the other hand, the majority of the population thinks that Haredim should have to serve in the army (or do national service) just like everyone else. They do not like the fact that they and their own children risk their lives protecting the country while Haredim enjoy the safety of yeshiva.

This week, Finance Minister and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon announced his support of the bill if the IDF supports it, stating: “The army drafts soldiers, not rabbis and politicians. Therefore, if the law is acceptable to the IDF, we will support it.”

Discussion Questions

  1. In the popular Israeli TV show Shababnikim, a Haredi yeshiva student says to a secular IDF soldier: “If there were a completely Haredi army, and you knew that if your child served in it he would likely become Haredi, would you let him go?” Explain the perspective and concerns of this character in the show.
  2. The new bill would increase the number of Haredim who must serve in the IDF or do national service (helping the sick, elderly, youth at risk, etc.). Is there a difference between serving in the army and doing national service? Might one be a better “fit” for the Haredi community?
  3. As Jews in the diaspora, do you feel that the responsibility of serving the State of Israel should only fall upon its citizens? If so, what are the implications about the responsibility the State of Israel has or does not have to Jews around the world?
  4. If America had a mandatory draft, would there be reason to exclude certain communities (ex. ultra-Orthodox Jews, Amish, Mormon, etc.)? Why or why not?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Have the students explore different Jewish values: human dignity, equality, Torah study, pikuach nefesh (saving lives), prayer; and ask them to rank them from most important to least important. Afterward, discuss how this should or should not relate to the issue of Haredim and drafting into the Israeli army.
  2. Ask students to read this article about President Reuven Rivlin’s speech at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session that began this week. Have students underline key points and then discuss what President Rivlin means when he says that infighting is a greater threat to Israel than nuclear bombs or terror.
  3. Develop empathy: When discussing empathy in Israel education, it is seemingly about empathy for the other side (i.e., Palestinians and Israeli Arabs). However, encourage your students to have empathy for both the Haredi perspective and those who oppose it. Ask the students to list three reasons why the Haredim should feel the way they do and three reasons why secular Israeli families strongly feel otherwise.

Further Reading

  1. Haaretz opinion piece on the implications of Haredim in the IDF
  2. Times of Israel blog offers an opinion from a different angle
  3. Ynet (Yediot Achronotopinion piece with a compromise position

Engaging with Israel: Random but Important

  1. US-Israel startup Sense Education was named the number one edtech company at the South Summit’s enlightED competition in Madrid. The startup, which assists teachers in grading open-ended assignments, was one of 600 competitors.
  2. Israeli mathematician Dr. Gal Davidi may have solved a 200-year-old math problem! He and his Bulgarian partner are awaiting approval and can potentially win $1,000,000 and make math history.
  3. Food trucks are the next big thing in Israel. More and more are popping up throughout the country. Unlike in America, these trucks have their engines removed, so to move from place to place they are towed!

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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