Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Day of Glory for Torah?

Image from last week's 'prayer rally' in Israel - Photo Credit: B'Chadrei Charedim
Today is the big day. But to my mind - not in any positive sense. It is the day where the divisions in Orthodoxy will be highlighted like never before. It is a day that may in the light of history be seen as the day Orthodoxy became permanently divided. I say this with a huge degree of sadness in my heart. And yet I have hope that I will ultimately be proven wrong. I hope that even among those who participate today, there will  be a sizable portion that do not really have their heart in it but will do so out of a misguided sense of loyalty.

I am talking about the Atzeres Teffila (prayer gathering) taking place in Lower Manhattan this afternoon. As most people know by now this gathering is being called by rabbinic leaders in America at the behest of their Israeli counterparts.  There was a published public announcement signed by a who’s who of Charedi rabbinic leadership that included members of the Agudah Moetzes, Lithuanian Roshei Yeshiva,Chasidic Rebbes and Sephardi leaders urging Orthodox Jews of all stripes (a hint to MO Jews) to join in this massive ‘Kiddush HaShem’.  

(Both Satmar  Rebbes must be feeling pretty good right now. I’m sure they view all this Charedi angst as coming to see things their way. Make no mistake. For Satmar - this is nothing more than another opportunity to bash Israel. They are happy to have other segments of Charedi society join with them in this ‘holy’ endeavor.)

What is becoming clear to me is that it isn’t all that clear what this Atzeres is all about. I have heard from more than one reliable source that the proposed draft law is something the Charedi rabbinic leadership can actually live with. Which is why I believe that the gathering will be addressed by a member of the Agudah Moetzes before the actually praying commences. He will explain it to the assembled.

It seems that this action (both here and last week in Israel) was taken and supported by even moderate Charedi leaders like Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. And that the reason they are making this mass public statement is because of the language that criminalizes the refusal of Yeshiva students to register for the draft. They see it as criminalizing Torah study.

Rav Shteinman who generally opposes demonstrations of this nature and tends to work within the system changed course. He supported this demonstration and no doubt supports the one taking place today in New York today.  He has purportedly cursed those responsible for ‘criminalizing Torah study’. He sees it as the biggest Chillul HaShem possible.

I would agree with his sentiments if it were true. But it isn’t. (Although I’m sure he believes it is. I believe that this is an instance where he has been misled. Because I don’t see how it can be any clearer that there is absolutely no attempt by the government to jail anyone for studying Torah.)

That this lie is being stated repeatedly by various segments of the Charedi community defies all logic and common sense.  Let us look at some relevant facts and see if any of them indicate that the government of Israel is out to jail people who study Torah.

1. The draft proposal does not force students to leave Yeshivos on pain of jail time. They are forcing them to join the army like any other Israeli Jew – and under some very generous terms. Refusing to do so  is called draft dodging in the civilized world.  That is what generates jail time. Nonetheless this is how it is being characterized: The government wants to jail people for learning Torah.

2.  All Yeshiva students that will reach age 22 by 2017 become automatically exempt from army service. They can stay in the Beis HaMedrash Ad Beas Goel Tzedek (until Moshiach comes).  That amounts to exempting  tens of thousands of current students of Torah. Even those who are not only mediocre but even those who fake it.

Does this in any way show that the government is out to jail those who study Torah? 

3. Even when the draft becomes mandatory - no one under the age of 26 will be forced to leave the Beis Hamdrash. They can learn 24/7 until age 26. 

Does this in any way show that the government is out to jail those who study Torah? 

4. There will be 1800 exemptions that will be given to Masmidim - the top shelf students of Torah. And they will be subsidized by the government. 

Does this in any way show that the government is out to jail those who study Torah? 

5. Even those who will end up serving at some capacity - they are being promised conditions that will enable them to maintain their ultra religious standards and will even be given some time to learn Torah during the years they must serve. Such a program already exists; it is supported by Rav Shteinman; it is successful; and it will probably be used as the model for Charedi participation. The army has three years to implement it.

Does this in any way show that the government is out to jail those who study Torah? 

6. And after they serve they can go back to the Beis HaMedrash with impunity for the rest of their lives. 
Does this in any way show that the government is out to jail those who study Torah? 

The answer is that it doesn't. It's time to expose the lie that the government want to jail students for studying Torah for what it really is: a lie!

So in effect the Atzeres last week in Israel and the one today in Manhattan is being called for the purpose of making a lot of public noise about something that isn't true.

Being jailed for learning Torah is not the same thing as being jailed for draft dodging. In fact no one will stop them from learning Torah even while they are in jail. 

(As an aside and something that I have said before - I don't think a single Charedi Yeshiva student will ever be dragged out of any Beis HaMedrash (…if it ever comes to that more 3 years from now). Time has a way of changing things. In any event  I don’t see any soldier or police officer that stems from a population the majority of which value their Judaism and are observant of many if not all Mitzvos –entering a Beis HaMedrash and arresting students en masse at gunpoint. There will be no Jews arresting Jews in Israel. I can virtually guarantee that.)

The Charedi world may be upset at what is happening to them. But lying about it does not help their cause except with their own flock that sees Charedi Daas Torah as the word of God Himself. ‘If the Gedloim tell us it’s so. It’s so.’  

Knowing all of this, I have to wonder why anyone would want to have a mass rally in NY that may very well be the most divisive event to occur among Orthodox Jews in my lifetime!

And finally I have to ask. In light of all this, where is the Kiddush HaShem? I think it is worth considering what the actual perceptions of the non Charedi public will be. Will this prayer rally put Judaism in a positive light? This leads me to an interview with Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, the head  of Machon Shilo. I find his logic difficult to dispute. It follows.