Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Re-thinking the Tal Law

The Jewish Press reports that the Charedi world is up in arms about the possibility that their Bnei Torah will be conscripted after the expiration of the Tal Law. I have already stated my views on this subject. To briefly restate them, I believe that in a society where the draft is mandated, all citizens should be subjected to it equally. There should not be one group of people who are exempted as a class. There can be deferments. But those deferments should be equally applied and – again - not granted only to a single class of people.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute who has himself served in the IDF seems to have some sympathy for the Charedi position. From the article:

Donniel Hartman, who says his father “broke with his ultra-Orthodox brothers when I was drafted into the Israeli army,” wrote this morning in Ynet that “the forced conscription of the ultra-Orthodox community (and for that matter, the Israeli Arab one) is a mistake, and does not sufficiently take into account the current peculiar nature of Israel’s multinational Jewish identity.”

At first glance I found it a bit odd that Rabbi Hartman is to the right of me on the issue of Charedim serving in the Israeli military. But upon reflection I see his point. It would be foolish to so suddenly institute such a massive change into Israeli society. I do not believe for a moment that the IDF would even desire such a change. Even if there were no resistance - the logistics alone of a sudden and massive increase in the number of Charedi recruits into the IDF are almost impossible to imagine.

So after thinking about it I tend to agree with him – if not in ideal terms at least in real terms.

I think the government of Israel and the IDF realize the hornet’s nest that would be opened if Charedi youth were not left alone as they have been since the founding of the state. That’s why the TAL law was such a good idea. It enabled Charedi Bnei Torah to remain in the Beis HaMedrash for as long as they want and gave them an option to leave honorably after dedicating only one year of their lives to national service. My only reservation is that I believe that all citizens should be given the same option.

The Charedi response to the possibility of drafting their Bnei Torah has been swift and furious. Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach recently wrote that it is considered a Yehoreg V’Al Yaavor – that one must give up his life before serving in the military. I find this position to be very difficult. My guess is that he does not actually believe that literally. Otherwise he would have been vehement in his opposition to Nachal Charedi which caters to Charedim and honors their Hashkafic needs. I do not recall such opposition from him.

My guess is that it was just rhetoric to show how strongly he is opposed to the draft being applied to Charedim. It is also a well known fact that Nachal Charedi actually has the support of Rav Aahron Leib Steinman. I doubt that he would support anything that is a Yehoreg V’Al Yaavor.

Rav Steinman is nonetheless up in arms about this new development too – using similarly strong language. From the article:

Rabbi Steinman noted that “this is a big problem. Time and again they’re trying to harass the learners of Torah. Torah study is the most important thing for the people of Israel. We have no right to exist as a people without Torah. In all our history, the Jewish people survived because of the Torah, and over that we must give up our lives.”

How do we reconcile of this? What is the right thing to do? …for Charedim, and for the country? It is certainly not to just suddenly impose a draft on all Charedim. It may not be an actual Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. But it would certainly would be a stupid thing for the government to do.

That said - I agree that the Jewish people cannot survive without the Torah – as Rav Steinman indicated. We need the best and brightest among us who are highly motivated to dedicate their lives to studying it. We need experts to tell us what the Torah says on every subject. Following Halacha is the way we fulfill our obligation as Jews. That sometimes requires expertise beyond what even those of us who try to follow it meticulously.

What we do not need is tens of thousands of Charedim using the Beis HaMedrash as an excuse to get out of military service. As I have said many times Judaism does not require that everyone must spend all of their time learning for as long as possible. It should be the case that all who do are automatically exempted from military service. Not any more than any other group of people who spend their time studying other important disciplines. Like cancer research – for example. Yes, there ought to be exemptions. But only to elite of both groups. Not to the run of the mill students.

The rest should be subject to some form of a draft to serve their country in some capacity. I would certainly include a Hesder option. And I would include a very liberal deferment policy to students of any discipline – whether in a Yeshiva or a university - until they complete their studies. This should be the policy for as long as the draft remains mandatory. That would make it fair.

What about the attitude that one never finishes learning Torah? One can make the same argument for cancer research – until a cure is found the work is not complete. The Tal law provided for this by allowing a Yeshiva student to make a decision at age 22 to do army or national service for one year and then go into the workforce. It should apply to all students including those in universities.

The one thing that must change is the idea of automatic exemptions for a single class of people. It is grossly unfair to all other classes. I realize that the priority the Charedi world places on Limud HaTorah. I agree that Talmid Torah Keneged Kulam – that Torah learning is equivalent to all other Mitzvos. But that does not make serving in the military or doing national service a Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor.

I understand the angst of the Charedi world about this. And I understand their reaction. But with all due respect I think it is harmful to say it is a Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor because their concept of Daas Torah will cause them to take such statements literally.

Modifying the Tal law as I suggested is the way to go. I believe that this is the ultimate solution to the problem. I would suggest the Israeli government re-write and pass a Tal law along those lines.