Is Studying Torah a National Service?

(Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

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.”