February 21, 2013

Army for Yeshiva Students?

Rabbi Haber

Coalition negotiations are heavily underway here in Israel, and assumedly within the next few weeks we will have a government. Like the election campaign that preceded it, so far this process has been fairly low-key. Even though the upcoming government will look very different than its predecessor (the second-largest party in the likely coalition is Yesh Atid, a party that didn't even exist in the previous Knesset, and the third-largest party will likely be the Bayit Hayeudi, which is over twice as large as they were in the last Knesset), the public seems to be paying only a moderate amount of attention to what's going on. In fact, though, major changes may be on the way.

The single most contentious issue that Netanyahu will need to deal with is the issue of drafting Yeshiva students into the army. For those unaware of the history of this issue, back in the early days of the State, Ben Gurion agreed to exempt Yeshiva students from the army (there were only a few hundred of them at the time). As the haredi population grew and the numbers of deferrals swelled to the thousands and then tens of thousands, the government continued for many decades to grant deferrals at their discretion. About ten years ago, the practice of granting these exemptions was formalized by the Tal Law, but that was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court about a year ago. It will be the new Knesset and the incoming government's responsibility to pass a new law meeting the court's demand for "a more equal share in the burden".

The rhetoric coming from the haredi community reminds us that Torah study is the most important thing that protects the Jewish people. Haredi spokesmen say that Torah scholars preserve and protect the nation as much as soldiers do, and therefore anyone who wants to study Torah full-time should be allowed to do so. Formally, they agree that those who aren't studying should serve the nation, and the army has even set up specially designed haredi-friendly units, but the numbers of haredim performing military or civilian service is still very small. The haredi political parties, following the directives of their rabbis, are insisting on maintaining the uniform exemption from any military or even civilian national service for all Yeshiva students. In fact, just this week two of the most senior rabbis in the haredi world declared that there is absolutely no room for compromise on this issue.

How should religious Jews react to this? Is it true that learning Torah keeps the Jewish people – and the entire world – going? Personally, I must agree – yes, that is true. At the very beginning of his commentary on the Torah, Rashi (Bereishit 1:1) quotes our rabbis to explain to us that the entire world was created for the purpose of Torah. And every evening in our prayers, we refer to the words of Torah with the expression Ki Hem Chayyenu v'Orech Yamenu – the words of Torah are the essence of our lives and the secret of our longevity as a people. However, to go from this acknowledgment to a blanket permanent exemption for anyone enrolled in a Yeshiva – that, in my opinion, has no basis.

Moshe Rabbenu himself led the people in battle (Bamidbar 21:21-35), as did Yehoshua bin Nun and King David. These were all great Torah scholars, but they did not view themselves as exempt from military service. Furthermore, in a Milchemet Mitzvah [1], the law requires every single person to serve (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 7:4). There is no exemption granted there for Yeshiva students. Perhaps on the strict halachic level we can find grounds for leniency in our case [2], but I believe there is still a strong moral statement here. Participating in the country's defense is an obligation upon everyone, even those who study Torah.

We can understand this concept also in a very simple way. We have a principle that states Ein Somchin al Haness – we don't rely on miracles. If someone is ill, they must go to a doctor, even though we believe that ultimately, their fate is in the hands of Hashem. The same is true for defense. The sad reality is that we have a lot of enemies just outside (and inside) the borders of our country who want to destroy us. It is therefore our obligation to defend ourselves – and again, all segments of society need to share in that burden.

Proponents of maintaining the status quo sometimes argue that the only way to produce serious Torah scholars – an existential need of the Jewish people – is to enable people to learn full-time without interruption. These spokespeople often argue that taking a young man out of the study hall during the formative years of his life would damage his ability to study Torah beyond repair, and thus mandatory military service would destroy Torah. Therefore, they claim, nothing less than the future of the Jewish People (which depends on Torah) is at stake here.

Personally, living as I do in a community which is home to a number of absolutely first-rate Torah scholars who served in the army when they were younger, I find that argument less than completely persuasive. At the same time, if this is the concern it could be solved by granting a limited number of exemptions to the top students. A committee of heads of Yeshivot could be established to determine which young scholars are eligible for exemption. I believe this can be justified morally and halachically, and is very different than the current situation in which exemptions are granted en masse with no qualifications or limitations.

Furthermore, the current debate in Israel is not only about military or national service. It's also about money. Since according to the current guidelines, the only way for Yeshiva students to maintain their army exemption is to be learning full time, this prohibits them from getting a job to help pay the bills. Therefore, government budgets are provided to support yeshivot and their students , again with no limitations on number, and the students themselves (many of whom are married men with families) often have very low income and thus receive welfare benefits as well. The result is an entire population of Yeshiva students who are supported from taxpayer funds. This sectors's percentage of the total population is constantly growing, making the system harder and harder to maintain – and this is the backdrop to the current discussions taking place within the coalition negotiations.

Frankly, it is very difficult to justify this enormous burden on the rest of society. Turning again to the Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10), we find very harsh statements about those who decide to study Torah without working, and to rely on charity for their sustenance. He refers to this as nothing less than a Chilul Hashem – a desecration of God's name! How is it, therefore, that full-time Torah study for the masses, which necessitates this reliance on charity, is promoted in haredi circles as the ideal?

Having said all that, however, there is still an additional problem. An attempt to draft thousands of Yeshiva students by force is not likely to be successful, and in fact could result in disaster. Therefore, I would like to propose a different solution, which relates the two issues I mentioned above: Government funding to yeshivot should be linked to a commitment to serve.

Under my proposal, all students who wish to study Torah would be exempt from service, and Yeshivot would receive full funding for each student for the first two years during which they utilize exemptions (this would allow masses of students to study for a year or two before beginning the army). After that, any additional funding should be dependent on the student entering some sort of service framework (regular military or civilian service, the Hesder arrangement, or new frameworks that could be established with the needs of the haredi population in mind.) As suggested above, a limited number of top scholars could get full permanent exemptions with continued funding. Anyone else who wants to continue learning without serving would be allowed to do so – but their Yeshivot would not be eligible for any further funding for those students. In this way, nobody will be forced to leave the study hall, and the burden on society would be reduced. Torah study can continue to flourish, but there will be strong incentives for Yeshivot to encourage their students to find the way to achieve the balance between study and service.

[1] An obligatory war – this is a halachic category than includes a number of types of wars, one of which is a defensive war. According to many authorities, every military action conducted by the IDF since the founding of the State is in this category.

[2] For example, once the government decides not to draft Yeshiva students, maybe that itself exempts them from service.

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