Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Talis, Tefillin, and a Tank

About twenty five years ago I saw a documentary on PBS called West Bank Story. It was about life in and around Chevron. It was a pretty even handed account of the settlers in Chevron, the Hesder program and Chevron’s Arab population. I will never forget how I felt watching that show.

The dedication and pure idealism that those settlers lived made me swell with pride. So too did the very same idealism and heroism of the Hesder boys. They spent their days in periods of alternate learning Torah B’Hasmada Rabbah and serving in the IDF. That really made me proud of my people. What a Kiddush HaShem, I thought. I still feel that way every time I recall it.

This - I thought - is the essence of what Torah Judaism should be - literally serving God and country. The courage of these young men was touted by the documentarians . The Hesder students would volunteer in groups for the most dangerous missions.

These soldiers were admired not only by their own Religious Zionist community - but by the secular population as well. They realized that these young men truly believed in what they were doing and were putting their own lives at risk daily so that Israel would remain safe.

As a result their casualty rate was higher. But this did not deter them. They felt it was their religious duty to serve God and country. I truly felt both proud - and a bit ashamed that I was not right there with them doing what I could.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. The unified support that religious Zionist leaders had for their country has evolved into a mess – a hodgepodge of differing views on how to apply religious Zionist principles. On the extreme right there are some who now advocate open rebellion against military orders that contradict their messianic vision about Eretz Yisroel. As for the settlers of Chevron then and now… well let’s just say I view them a lot differently now.

Pride was not the feeling I had as of late about these extremists. I often wonder if those settlers I so admired 25 years ago are the same ones who so violently oppose the government now. It is as though I am looking at two different worlds.

But my pride has been restored. Yesterday while watching the news reports about the war in Gaza I saw several images of religious soldiers. In two sepearte news reports the images were of a soldier in Talis and Tefilin - Davening. And in two different scenes of wounded soldiers – both were wearing Kipot. I cannot tell you how much pride I have when I see scenes like this.

Contrast that with what has been reported about Yeshivos in the south in close proximity to Gaza. This is from Marty Bluke on his blog The Jewish Worker:

Many of the yeshivas in the South (Ashdod and other places) have temporarily moved to Yerushalayim or Bnei Brak. On one hand the move is understandable, with rockets landing in Ashdod they wanted to move to a safer place. However, on the other hand, this raises some serious questions. The Charedi world justifies the draft exemption for yeshiva students based on the following:

1. Torah learning protects everyone
2. The boys are engaged in מלחמתה של תורה
3. Talmidie Chachamim don't need protection

Based on these it would seem that the Yeshivas should stay where they are. If the boys who are learning are engaged in war just like the soldiers why should they abandon their posts? In addition if Torah learning protects, let them stay where they are and be protected by their Torah. Their move undermines the claim for draft exemptions and looks very bad. The soldiers are entering Gaza to fight while the yeshiva bachurim are fleeing to safer havens.

I completely understand Marty’s point. But I also understand the need for these Yeshivos to leave an area that is being bombarded with rocket fire. I quite understand their life and death fears. And I can even hear the argument that they need to learn in an environment free of fear if that learning is to have any value to anyone. It would take super-human Bitachon – faith in the protective quality of one’s own learning to be worry free and to ignore the rockets being fired at them.

So, I understand what they did and why they did it. But frankly I am not as proud of them right now as I am of that soldier I saw in his army fatigues ready for battle with Talis and Tefillin - Davening next to his tank. May God protect him.