Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Growing Divide Among Religious Jews

Massive Charedi anti draft protest in 2014 (VOA)
A few weeks ago, one of the Charedi magazines had a story about the genuine concern many Charedi leaders have for welfare of soldiers serving uin the IDFat this time of war. If I recall correctly one particularly caring Charedi Rosh Yeshiva said that even though the Charedi world davening for the safety of the soldiers it is not doing enough. He said what we must do is ‘storm the heavens’!

Although I’m sure his words came straight from the heart, I was disappointed. Not that storming the heavens is a bad idea. Sincere heartfelt prayer is always a good idea in times of trouble. But storming the heavens alone does not entail any risk to ones life and limb. Which is what IDF soldiers are doing and this Rosh Yeshiva’s students are not doing. Had he instead urged his students to close their Gemarahs and march straight to the recruitment offices, I would had an enormous amount of respect and admiration for the courage to suggest his students violate the long held Charedi policy that  rejects army service for religious reasons. But he didn’t  do that. And although his concerns are real and deep, he missed the mark.

A religious parent contacted me today with his own heartfelt feelings about this issue. He has a child serving on the Gaza front. He apprised me about the growing divide in Israel. Not between secular and religious Jews. But among religious Jews themselves. A divide that seems to be reaching a boiling point.  

While it was nice to see unity at the outset of the war with the Charedi world now praising rather than cursing the IDF, that unity has quickly deteriorated into resentment by the families of those who serve  and the Charedi world that - with minuscule exceptions - does not.

There is little that distresses me about the religious world more than that. What unites us (Mitzvah observance) should be far greater than what divides us. But when one segment of religious Jewry is asked to put their lives on the line while another segment is exempt it becomes entirely understandable why this is happening.  That one side lets other people do the fighting and dying while the other side gets to live their lives without fear of dying in battle is an increasing bone of contention. 

That should not be  surprising since the parents of one side can barely sleep at night worrying whether their sons or daughters will ever be coming home - while the other gets to live their lives with minimal if any interruption. other than reciting a few extra prayers at the end of their 3 daily prayer services. While they might feel genuine concern for the welfare of soldiers – as did the abovementioned Rosh Yeshiva - the parents of those serving cannot help but feel resentment that their children are risking their live while the Charedi parents don’t even have to think about it.

The resentment is as much for the Charedi reasons for not serving as it does for the fact that they don’t serve. That they claim a religious exemption is insulting to their own religious sons riskingtheir lives serving. Why do Charedim warrant a religious exemption when so many other non Charedi religious Jews do not? Chardalim (Religious Zionists whose Mitzvah observance is as strict as Charedim) serve. Why should Charedim be exempt?  

What about the Charedi argument that the army is just a social engineering experiment designed to disabuse their youth from observance? That was often cited as an equal if not primary reason to reject the army. Charedi leaders had commonly said that army service is forbidden for precisely that reason. When presented with the opportunity to serve in units that provide a Charedi environment  their response was that it was all talk and in reality it was far from the truth. That Charedi recruits were  still subjected to questionable Halachic situations.

Well, how do they explain the Hesder programs that have been anound sinec practically the begining of the state? I doubt that those religiously motivated young soldiers sacrificed any of their religious principles. And that was well before the IDF decided to accommodate Charedi recruits with special Charedi units.

Although the Charedi world no longer besmirches the IDF that way since the war began, I doubt that have changed the view that the army causing immense spiritual damage to religious soldiers.

And yet, If I understand correctly the percentage of IDF casualties of religious soldiers is much higher than their percentage of the population. I have also been told that a lot officers on the front lines are religious, Kipa wearing Jews.

The Charedi leadership nonetheless clings to the idea that the army is just a government conspiracy to indoctrinate  Jews out of their Judaism. Although they haven’t been saying so lately for obvious reasons.

What about the real need for Torah study? Yes, there is a need. I would never suggest that Torah study is not important. Of course it is. During this time of war we dare not abandon it. But the idea of exempting all Charedim for that purpose strikes me as counter religious. It is easy to say how important Torah study is to the war effort when none of their youth is dying for their country.  It is just not right for Charedim to believe that others should be dying for their country while they have no worries about their young dying for their country.

The idea of refusing to serve in the army in a time of existential war was recently characterized by Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet as counter to Halacha. Regardless of what their religious claim for exemption reason might be. Yes there can be legitimate exemptions. But in no way should there be the blanket exemption that exists now for all Charedim.

There has been some movement in that direction among some prominent Charedi personalities . Jonathan Rosenblum has hinted at it. And recently Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has as well.

The paradigm must change. The hard core rejectionists who refused to allow their students to even register ought to themselves be rejected. As things stand now it should be obvious to even the most diehard Charedi leader that the IDF is more than just an experiment in social engineering. They must realize what the great R’ Chaim Shmulevitz realized that the both Yeshiva students and the IDF are vital to Israel’s survival. And to take it a step further and once and for all discard their paradigm of wholesale exemptions.

The army needs soldiers. Without Charedi participation there is a shortage. Which means an even greater burden on those that are serving - and in all too many cases dying.

If you are going to live in a country surrounded by mortal enemies, it requires everyone do their part and share the burden equally. That is not the case now. Even Charedim that are truly in awe of soldiers risking their lives for Klal Yisroel, that is not the same as actually doing it.

If the Charedi world doesn’t change their paradigm it might be changed for them. As noted in the Times of Israel:

Declaring that “all segments of society” must serve their country, National Unity ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot on Monday presented an outline for the enlistment of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army… 

Declaring that “all segments of society” must serve their country, National Unity ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot on Monday presented an outline for the enlistment of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army.

Addressing reporters in the Knesset, the two former IDF chiefs of staff conditioned their support for the government’s wartime push to extend IDF troops’ terms of service on its acceptance of their plan, which seeks to gradually increase the number of Israelis drafted over the course of the next decade. 

“All the people of Israel, all parts of society should take part in the right to serve our country. The challenges are enormous, and you cannot look those who are serving in the eyes and tell them that things will go on as they have,” Gantz declared.