Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Charedim - The End of the World as They Know It?

I hope it lasts. A new unity government has been formed in Israel between the Likud and Kadima. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (pictured with new Kadima head Shaul Mofaz) will retain his position with many important ministerial portfolios being given to Kadima. Netanyahu’s call for early elections has been canceled. New elections are not due until 18 months from now in November of 2013. Both parties approved the deal almost unanimously with the exception of only one Likud member who voted against it.

Interestingly, according to one report Rav Ovadia Yosef’s Shas Party endorsed the deal. Which is curious since his party and none of the other religious parties are now needed to form a government. They have lost power. The ruling coalition has 94 of the 120 Kenesset seats. All they need is 61.

This development does not bode well for the religious parties. They will no longer be able to extort money for their schools and full time students by threatening to bring down the government by leaving the ruling coalition.  If they would leave now, it would be meaningless.

That said, it is always a precarious situation when two parties with different ideologies combine forces. When those differences come into play, the coalition could dissolve just as quickly as it was formed. But – for the time being it is a fait accompli.

One of the things they said they will tackle is universal conscription. This means that full time Yeshiva students may very well be subject to the draft. This is something that every single Charedi rabbinic leader opposes.  

Although the government has established special units called Nachal Charedi that caters to the requirements of Charedi Jews, this program only had limited support. One Charedi rabbinic leader, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, who did support it was opposed by the majority of other Charedi rabbinic leaders. And if I understand correctly even Rav Steinman supported it only as a limited alternative for Charedim who couldn’t hack it in Kollel. He certainly did not support it as an equal option with learning in a Yeshiva or Kollel for all Charedim.

The truth is that while Nachal Charedi has been a successful program, it is only a very small percentage of the IDF. I’m not sure whether that’s because of the limited number of available spots or the fact that most Charedim aren’t considering it. Perhaps it is a little of both. Either way Nachal Charedi does not seem to be the wave of the future for Charedim.

If their students are drafted, they will defy the order – even if it means going to jail. Full time students who might be inclined to consider it are imbued with a ‘Yehorag V’Al Yaavor’ attitude! Consider death! …before complying with a draft! (Hyperbole to be sure - but still…) This is much like they refer to anything the government wants from them that they do not approve of. Like inserting a minimal secular studies program into Charedi elementary and high school curricula.

They do not want the ‘anti Frum’ government to dictate anything. The only thing they will accept from the government is financial support. All while some of their leaders curse their government as anti Frum!

The draft situation is now in limbo – since the Tal Law was not renewed. The Tal law provided a mechanism for Yeshiva students to fulfill their military obligation by choosing (at age 22) a year of civil service alongside a paying job.  The law was challenged in Israel’s Supreme Court several times as being inequitable since it was not available as an option for any other Israeli. In February of this year it was declared unconstitutional. (…whatever that means in Israel since they do not have a constitution. But that is the subject of another post.)

One of the truly sore subjects among Israelis is the inequity of service in the military. Charedim generally do not serve.  Secular and Dati Leumi citizens that comprise the majority - do serve. Many putting their lives on the line - some of whom have been killed in the line of duty. So the animosity against Charedim on this subject is understandable.

The new government has promised to tackle this problem and pledged to have a form of universal conscription.

I think that this is only fair. I completely disagree with the Charedi position that for Yeshiva students, this is a Yehoreg V’Al Yaavor. If exemptions or deferments are to be given, they should be equally applied to all segments and not only to yeshiva students. University students should have this option made available to them as well.

A question has been raised about whether the IDF even wants all The Charedim to be drafted. The fear being that the army culture will have to change to accommodate great masses of Charedim whose standards of observance is not now currently accommodated by them.  And whose loyalty will not automatically be their military commanders but to their Roshei Yeshiva. These leaders do not want to change the current culture nor deal with all the religious strictures that Charedim will bring into the mix.

My guess is that there will be some sort of mandatory service required of Charedim that they can defer until they are ready to leave the Beis HaMedrash an option that should be extended to all Israelis.

When civil service was recently suggested as an option, Charedi rabbinic leaders said that they would not comply and would rather go to jail. It is truly sad that a government that mandates civil service which usually means doing some form of Chesed is considered an unacceptable alternative for Charedi students.

I realize why they are so opposed to it. They believe that an option to serve in the civil service that would fulfill their military obligation would destroy the Yeshiva and Kollel system as they know it. They think their Batei Midrashim would empty out as more and more Charedim will opt for it so they can become more financially productive for their families. That’s the reason for the Yehoreg V’Al Yaavor attitude.

I disagree that this will in any way destroy their Yeshiva and Kollel system. I think it will improve it. It will rid the system of those who are there for cultural reasons. It is obvious to me that the 60,000 Charedim now learning in Yeshivos or Kollelim should not all be there. Most are probably there because it is expected of them by their peers, families, and teachers. That is their culture. The system is no longer geared for the elite.

If any of this is implemented and accepted - those who are the cream of the crop with the potential to contribute in major ways to Judaism will stay in Kollel where they belong. Whether as big Talmidei Chachamim, Poskim, Rabbanim, and teachers - they will be able to serve the Jewish people as their future religious leaders. 

And the limited support available to them will be divided among a far smaller population. That will enable them to learn their craft without worrying about putting food on the table. Nor will they have to squeeze the government for more money. The government in theory will be able to give this elite group more money from a smaller pot. Everybody wins. Under this situation Charedim that should be working – will be.

None of this has happened yet. And if it is tried along the lines I suggest, the resistance by Charedim will be strong. So I’m not sure it ever will. But it should. It is the right thing to do. If this unity government sticks – which by no means is a foregone conclusion, I think they ought to try. There is no better time than now.