I write this article after a gathering of 300,000 – 600,000 Jews in one place to protest recent army service. This is not to be minimized, though very non-understood. Why are so many Torah observant Jews opposed to army service? Well, I was going to write mostly on that and try and make sense of it, but “Rabbi Akiva” does a much better job of it. He is a Lubovitch Rabbi who serves in the Israeli army reserves and has both a son and daughter who served in the Israeli army. After a quick synopsis of some of his articles, it’s on to the Torah observant approaches to the modern state of Israel. I have spent much time trying to understand the different approaches and which opinion I believe. I am going to try and keep my opinion out of it and just explain those opinions of others, which is actually quite easy as my mind is still not made up. I can argue most (not all) of these opinions.
An “Ultra-Orthodox” Jew’s Experience with the Israeli Army
Rather than re-invent what’s already been well written by someone closer to the issue than I am, I direct you to three articles by “Rabbi Akiva” a Lubovitch Rabbi in Israel. He runs the mpaths.com blog.
Article 1: His Daughter in a regular unit without religious soldiers. In short, she went to the army against his wishes to serve the country there. She was well treated and special accommodations were made for her religious dress (she strictly wears long skirts only) and her job was to be in charge of kashrus on the base, making that a bit easier for her. Suffice to say, it wasn’t easy for her in an environment antithetical to religious values. I had heard similarly from Rav Mendel Weinbach zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. He was supposed to look the other way when men and women went into each other’s barracks. It’s not an environment for a Torah observant Jew, especially not one who is 18 years old and still figuring out life. A similar problem exists, and is one in which most Torah observant Jews avoid in the United States – it’s called the freshman year dorms. Though in smaller scale, similar fights have happened over observant Jews who felt forced into such situations.
Article 2: His Son joins Nachal Charedi. Here is a description of a Torah observant Jew who wants to serve in the army in a program which accommodates Torah observant soldiers … but has to “know someone” to even get in. There is so much more demand (or was) than there are (or were) spaces. After overcoming that hurdle, the author tells us that the environment in this special unit was, for the most part, pretty decent. My own editorializing – if there’s such demand and willingness, and the program is already in place, why doesn’t the army just exponentially increase the size of such programs and let it play out naturally? Well, that’s pretty much the position of the Likud party, but is certainly not that of Yesh Atid who is in the government coalition and wishes the Greeks beat the Jews and we didn’t have Chanukah. That comes next…
Article 3: Why Rabbi Akiva Joined the Rally Against the Israeli Government. He makes a great many points. In summary: a) Only Torah Observant Jews are singled out as criminals if they don’t join the army; b) Israeli law prevents Jews who study Torah from working so they can’t [note – this is a point where I agree with Yesh Atid … this is finally changing); c) institutes of higher education in the religious system aren’t recognized as degrees [note – I have seen articles about Charedi high schools for girls that give the same secular studies as another, but are frowned upon when working with the Israeli system to get a proper diploma … so it seems to work both ways]; d) the feminist movements in Israel don’t want to see more Torah observant Jews in the army and segregation of men and women which has limited the expansion of programs such as Nachal Charedi in the first place; e) the army often disrespects even non-Charedi religious soldiers, forcing them to go to social events having nothing to do with fighting for the country, where they are subjected to content inappropriate for anyone, and most certainly, Torah law.
The “Actively Destroy Zionism” View
Now on to the views of different sectors within Torah observant Judaism. Again, I preface with stating that these are not opinions – I am just codifying and trying to understand the different views.
The Neturei Karta are a group that wants to see the modern state of Israel gone and actively works towards that goal – even a religious state would be no good until G_d wills it. Their complete position can be found here. They see the whole concept as contrary to Jewish law, citing the Talmud in Kesubos, page 111a about three oaths the Jews took, one of which is that we would not resettle the land by force. I’m not going to go into the different interpretations here, but suffice to say, religious Zionists have a different take on it. Neturei Karta are a new grouping of Jews, originally from Jerusalem, that continued in what are some fairly widely held beliefs in the Torah world pre-1948. I don’t think that can be minimized. However, their approach today is, I will admit, difficult to understand as they do things like meet with holocaust deniers because they also want the State of Israel destroyed, albeit for very different reasons. I read accounts of the one of the founders who used to do things like block police cars on Shabbos in Jerusalem until he got arrested. He was protesting the desecration of the Sabbath, and sees the zionists as secularists who are hostile to the Torah and so is hostile in return.
The “Be Polite but Don’t Give an Inch to Zionism” View
This view has been, to my knowledge, best articulated by the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum. The English language biography was excellent. This is also the view held, I think, by most Chassidm with the exception of Lubovitch, though even the latter group was anti-zionist in Europe. (They changed their views in order to conduct outreach to the masses of less Torah observant Jews.) Many “Litvish” (non-Chassidic) Jews also hold this way, though they are mostly, I think, the next category.
This view says that Jews shouldn’t have founded the modern state, and though often denied, the Satmar Rebbe biography states outright that zionism caused the holocaust by provoking the non-Jews to be against us. The zionists are anti-religious and anti-Torah (and people like Yair Lapid play right into this) and are trying to destroy Torah Judaism. With the founding of Israel, there is much evidence for this from the Children of Tehran, refugees from Europe who arrived in Israel, being coaxed into secular homes and screamed at if they said kaddish for their dead parents, to the disappearance of babies from religious Yemenite couples.
In this view, no money is taken from the Israeli government. The money is raised internally within organizations such as Chassidic groups, and they aren’t serving in the Israeli army anytime soon because they ideologically hold that the state is an evil institution. I heard Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, a Bostoner Chassid, say zionism is a big question mark. We don’t know whether it’s good or bad. At the same time, I heard his Rebbe, the Bostoner Rebbe say quite clearly that there is one Rabbinate in Israel and that he, even as a Rebbe of a Chassidic court, can’t conduct a wedding without approval from the Israeli Rabbinate. The Charedi bais din’s also work with the Rabbinute, though are separate. On the other hand, I heard Rabbi Gottlieb say that a secular Jewish government in the land of Israel is “totally illegitimate.”
I might also add that I had a midnight conversation with a Toldos Aaron Chassidic Jew in Meah Shearim, Jerusalem about this. (He was actually from Boro Park, Brooklyn and spoke perfect English.) He said that before 1948, the religious Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, who were most of the population, used to attend each others weddings and celebrations. The Arabs would buy kosher meat from Jews and so on. History tends to show a less idealistic picture, but in my review of The History of the IDF book by Yigal Alon describing Israel in 1903, it seems to corroborate this view … as long as the Arabs were the ones on top. Their laws require Muslims to be on horses while the non-Muslims walk next to them; their religious places to be the highest in the city, and so on.
Keep Separate but Do What You Need to Do with the State to Meet Your Needs
As I understand this view, the Chazon Ish said (I have not found a direct quote) that it’s true, the Israeli government is run by people against the Torah and the halacha [Jewish law] is that we don’t partner with people who are against it. However, it is not called “partnership” when you are doing what is necessary to get along with someone else. In fact, the secular government has more power and so it’s certainly not a partnership. The Chazon Ish and Rav Schach in B’Nai Brak, Israel helped found the United Torah Judaism political party (well, one part of it). R’Schach actively supported Shas, the party for the sefardi Jews headed by Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l. The Chazon Ish did vote and take part in the government and be a part of it. In this view, there are different roles – just as an army has it’s roles where one person is a front line soldier, another sits in a bunker working intelligence, and another writes the newsletter, Jews also have different roles. Some fight in the army, others learn Torah and teach Judaism to the next generation.
In Israeli elections in the 1980s, the left wing wanted to form a coalition with the religious parties in order to give land to Arabs for their own country. They thought they’d find a partner with R’Shach who, for example, was very against the building of the modern city of Beitar, a Charedi city on land captured in 1967. R’Shach was against provoking the Arabs in any way and I have even read in one of his books, was against proclaiming “Jerusalem is our eternal capital” because a) we know it’s true anyway, and b) it will only anger the Arabs. However, in the election, he sided with the right wing parties and joined their coalition because the right wing parties were made up of traditional Jews and not those who are antithetical to Torah and the values passed down from Mt. Sinai.
The State of Israel is a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
Here is the first real cultural leap, at least among Ashkenazi Jews. These are Jews who tend to actively be engaged with secular Israeli society, earn higher secular degrees, and serve in the army or national service. Some do study Torah full time as well, and some protest against mandatory draft of Torah scholars. They hold that the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment of prophecies that Jews would return to the land in mass and have added prayers to the prayer books praying for the welfare of the state and call it the “footsteps of Mosciach”. Maybe. (Whether or not that should be added to the prayer book as fact, I think, is a larger problem.)
I don’t have as much familiarity with Sefardi Jews and their way of thinking, but the group, even when religious, seems to be pro-Zionist. Most of them, having come from living under Arab rule, maybe know something that the Ashkenazim find harder to understand.
Still, religious Zionism has problems with much of the secular nature of Israel, but will actively compromise with it and live within it. The more right wing parties were livid, for example, when courts were allowed to operate over a three day religious holiday (in Israel, this only happens on Rosh Hashana and only in some years) to which the religious Zionists responded it was a good compromise as in almost all cases, the courts would be respecting the holidays. The religious Zionist approach is usually a pragmatic way of living in Israel.
Even further, in this view, there are many who say the holocaust was caused not by zionism (as the Satmar Rebbe said) but by being physically weak and failing to move to Israel when we had the chance. We now have an army and can defend ourselves without relying on other nations who, one after the other, harmed us. Thus, we should and must preserve and make stronger the state both physically and spiritually. This includes both army service and Torah learning. As R’Mordechai Becher put it to me, if you live in a country, you shouldn’t remove yourself and his opponents in yeshiva had much less to say against him when he had a gun on him. (He also taught in what is politically right wing Ohr Somayach with R’Dovid Gottlieb, quoted above.)
Why Less Charedi Jews Will Join the Army
First, the Yesh Atid party isn’t the one to do it. You can’t antagonize people and tell them what they do is not worthy and expect to get your way. It won’t happen. It just reminds Torah Jews of stories of Russian czars doing the same thing, along with tons of other examples. You can’t change someone when you don’t even understand their worldview, let alone respect it. If you want people in the army, you can’t start by cutting funding to their school children and telling them they’ll go to jail if they aren’t like you and don’t hold the same values to join an army that doesn’t need the manpower in the first place. That works on a person who believes in nothing and has no chain of tradition past his own father. It shows that Yesh Atid understands nothing of how a Torah observant Jew operates and doesn’t act with even a subjectively decent way to treat a person.
Second, Charedi Jewry was already bursting out in all directions and is economically unsustainable. (For this, I agree with Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi.) This was starting to be solved on it’s own by introduction of more job training and higher education in a framework acceptable to Torah observant Jews. Problem: It’s now stigmatized and polarized by the forces working to impose on the Charedi community from the outside. This is precisely why the community has separated itself to begin with. If you can’t respect one another, there isn’t much hope of coming together.
Third, the current plan is just stupid. As written above, the internal demand by Charedi Jews to join the army was steadily increasing and gaining more acceptance. You can’t get a spot in Nachal Charedi without knowing someone. Instead of increasing the size to let more in, if you’re 18+ right now, you have no obligation to go to the army whatsoever meaning very few will enroll at all. Then, all of the sudden, everyone who doesn’t is a criminal. What? The wise men of Chelm seem to be controlling the Israeli government. (I am a direct descendant of an illiterate water carrier from Chelm.) A frog in a pot with slowly raising temperature will stay, but throw him in freezing water and the hot water and he’ll jump right out.
How to Fix The Problem
First, stop trying to get others to be like you. It doesn’t work. Respect them for who they are. The very religious and very secular play into each other’s hands – the secular don’t want to give money to the very religious and the very religious want only religious study without job training. So there is a 50% work rate for Chareidim in Israel with incomes far lower than those of secular Jews. Perfect until financial collapse for everyone.
Paraphrasing R’Mordechai Becher, what do Charedim expect when money is taken from the secular government, all the while telling them that they’re wrong for their beliefs? The secular public is “up in arms” over this basic lack of respect. An attitude of “thank you” for supporting Torah learning would go a long way. Secular Jews, for which I was once one, are more likely to hear, “I’m doing you a favor by keeping Judaism” which is true but has the implication that the other person is lesser.
On the secular side, stop trying to force religious Jews to be zionist or teach zionist education. That’s your value, not theirs but we can all get along in a country just like different people in other countries go to work together despite having very different beliefs. You’re not going to change them, you’re only going to antagonize. There are certain (many) religious Jews who will never join the army. Many other would join if there were an appropriate atmosphere – not through coercion or force but through respect.
What I would do, being highly influenced by American-style equality and democracy:
– Taking from Yesh Atid, I would allow all Jews, regardless of army service or not, to work. Good idea.
– Taking from no one in Israel, I would start with a school funding formula that funds every student equally. If you have 500 students in your school, you get 500x dollars … adjust this for local differences in salaries and costs of the class. It should at least be offered and there in a democratic society. If a school wants to take less or doesn’t want state funding, leave them alone but don’t be a bigot in your funding formula.
– Put more money into career opportunities for religious Jews, not penalize schools getting less money with … even less. If you want to give incentives to teach English, then do so but don’t penalize a school receiving 55 cents on the dollar by taking away more funds. That’s antagonism and makes people do the opposite of what you want.
– Give freedom of religion in the Israeli army. If a soldier is reprimanded because he refused to attend a concert with a female singer claiming a religious exemption, that is something for Rabbis in the Israeli army to answer. They, in turn, should answer to the Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. This is not something that a communist commander should be deciding and amounts to religious persecution. It is unconscionable that in Jewish state, you can be punished because you won’t violate Jewish law.
– Quadruple the size of the charedi units in the army, with army commanders having say over army issues and the Rabbinate having command over religious issues. No soldier should be punished for insubordination to a human commander while exercising religious freedom. All Jews, whether secular or religious, should have the same rights to use religious freedom as a reason not to take part in a non-essential event.
– Penalize those who dodge the draft the same whether they be a religious Jew, a secular Jew, or a non-Jew. Each are treated differently today.
– If the army is not okay with accommodating religious Jews under religious leadership and it doesn’t really need the manpower … then then she shouldn’t require them to serve at all. In fact, this is precisely what’s happened for so long. Changing this requires respect for religion of the person in all policies.