Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is the Army a Den of Iniquity?

There was a scene in the movie, Godfather III, where Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone who wanted to make his Mafia businesses legit said the following:  'Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!'

This is kind of how I feel about the divisive religious issues facing Israel. Issues that divide Charedim on one side and virtually all other segments - both religious and secular - on the other. And it only seems to be getting worse.  I keep trying to go on to other things, but that issue keeps dominating the news and my thoughts.

A few days ago, I received the following e-mail with respect to the new draft law in Israel: 
I would call myself a moderate charedi . And have considered many views on the current crisis in Israel re the draft. My views lean towards yours. However I was talking with someone whom I respect greatly who just returned from a trip to israel. He explained to me that although he doesn’t think the current yeshiva system is sustainable this whole thing turned into shma because some of the people involved have an agenda to secularize  and desensitize the charedim.
His example was that a bunch of nachal charadi recruits (i am pretty sure it was nachal charedi) were told to line up for medical inspection and to strip. Then a young female (19 or 20 or 21) comes in to do the inspection.  He mentioned this to a friend of his who is dati leumi and served in tzhal (he is 50 so it was a while ago) and he said that it doesn’t surprise him as this has happened.  
That is a pretty shocking story. So shocking that it is hard to believe it’s true. But then again it doesn’t necessarily surprise me either. There are unfortunately people like that. People that take advantage of their subordinates.  The command structure of any army lends itself to such abuse. That’s why the incidence of rape is so high in the US army and yet so little is done about it. Most good people in the army don’t do that. But enough of them do to make it a real problem.

Assuming it really happened,  does this incident represent what the army is all about?  Clearly it does not. But if you are a Charedi who vehemently opposes the army, you might take a story like this to be the rule. Or at least a frequent occurrence.

I get letters like this all the time from Charedim who use stories like this to justify their opposition to  the draft. Especially to people like me who do not share the Charedi Hashkafa that every single person should be sitting in the Beis Hamedrash full time for the rest of their lives. How can anyone justify sending a pure and innocent soul into conditions like this, they ask?

My answer is that no one in their right mind would. And none one does. The fact happens to be that this story is not the norm. 

What is the norm has been described time and again by people in Israel who have served both in the regular army and Nachal Charedi. Many of my nieces and nephews have served and are serving. They have never experienced anything like this. This is not to say there aren’t problems. But life is full of problems. The army is certainly no exception.  You deal with them when they come along.  What is the army really like? The JerusalemPost has a wonderful article by an American who made Aliyah and is now serving. Here are just a few of his words: 
The army is full of Orthodox Jewish men and women, who carry weapons and undergo the same training and day to day life as any other soldier.
A military day starts like this: You are up before the sun, and those who want to pray are led away to a synagogue (found on any base, just a five-minute walk from your barracks) just in time for morning prayers. The army gives ample time for prayer (I never received less than 45 minutes for any prayer of the day), regardless whether any soldier requests the time or not.
Those who choose not to pray are forced to clean the barracks, bathrooms, etc. So if you were the type who wanted to pray, but didn’t want to wake up early in the mornings before work or school, your problems are solved, because you’ll have to be awake before the crack of dawn anyway. And what else do you have to do at that point? Essentially, people who didn’t pray in civilian life, pray in the army…
The entire army, as a government institution, must observe all Jewish holidays and dietary laws. Hence, all the food is kosher and supervised by the rabbinate. If you are a vegetarian, or if you eat only Glatt Kosher, you will receive exactly that and the food, will be good…
I often interact with soldiers from the Netzach Yehuda battalion, otherwise known as “Nahal Haredi,” which is a battalion made to specifically meet the needs of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) tradition. In this battalion, you will not encounter any female soldiers. You will not encounter any female commanders.
You will not encounter any female instructors. You will not encounter any female officers. You will not encounter any female doctors/nurses, nor any female social workers. No females, period. You will not only have specific times for prayer, you’ll have specific times for Torah study. You won’t merely be eating kosher, but Glatt Kosher. 
I have to ask, which picture is the truer one, the one the letter writer described of or the one from a soldier who lives it?

For me the answer is obvious. There are just too many people that I know who have served in the Israeli armed forces. And their experiences as they have told them to me are far more in line with that solider than the images one gets from the letter.

And yet whenever one talks to a Charedi in Israel, they completely reject the more likely scenario and insist that the less likely one is the norm. They insist that the Israeli army is the worst den of iniquity a Jew can experience. That one must avoid it like the plague for fear that they will end up stripping for a female superior officer with no recourse of action.

This is such nonsense that it is hard to believe that this is what most seem to believe, and yet they do. I have to conclude that their biases blind them to reality. They see an exception and believe it is the rule. And they will 'swear on a stack of bibles' that it is so.

All of this continues to divide Charedim from the rest of mainstream Jewry both observant and not. But apparently they don’t care. They believe in themselves so much - no matter how many people disagree with them, their way will prevail because God - their Daas Torah tells them - is on their side. 

The rest of us? We will die out just like all other Jews in history that dared to challenge their Torah True ways. Forget about Conservative and Reform. They believe that even observant Jews that differ with them will wither on the vine. In the end they will see us as scoffers and even Apikursim for daring to differ with the Daas Torah of their rabbis. In time we will all disappear. Who will remain? They and only they will. God will see to it.

I don’t see things getting any better. The fight continues as Charedim consolidate and keep up the negative rhetoric against any detractor. We may very well end up as two nations. One nation that is a complete Yissachar. But without a Zevulun if they keep vilifying us. The nature of the Yissachar/Zevulun relationship is that it is voluntary. 

But what will the other nation look like? Can we be sustained without a core of Jews who study Torah full time? We need Yeshivos like that too! Where will our rabbinic leaders come from? 

Are they right? Will their current system be sustainable? Will God give them money like Manna from Heaven? Even if the Charedi parties return to power at some point and restore all the budget cuts that affected them negatively, can the Israeli economy sustain a break backing budget that this would certainly entail? Time will tell. But the future does not look all that bright from here, unless something drastically changes.