Pragmatism over purity
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 26, 2002
Opponents of the Tal Committee recommendations, enacted into law on Tuesday, are the Naderites of Israeli politics. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, it will be recalled, won 97,000 votes in Florida, by offering his supporters the ultimate thrill: moral purity. By refusing to choose between Republican George W. Bush and his Democratic opponent Al Gore Jr. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, equally subservient to the marching orders of corporate America, according to St. Ralph Green Party voters gave Bush the election.
The irony was not lost on thousands of erstwhile Nader supporters that by pulling the lever of the environmental party, they had cost Gore, a fanatic on environmental protection and the author of a bestseller on the subject, the election and handed it to Bush, one of whose first acts as president was to pull the United States out of the Kyoto Accords on global warming. (For purposes of the metaphor, ignore the fact that the Naderites’ folly turned out to be a godsend for Israel.)
Israelis who insist on the principle of absolute equality in military service have similarly adopted a stance that can only work at cross-purposes to their professed goals. Any attempt to force 18-year-old yeshiva students into the army is doomed to failure. The only result will be to cause haredi society to circle the wagons ever tighter against attack and to withdraw further from any contact with the broader society. In the process, the two principal grievances of the secular public against haredi society - its failure to share equally in military service and its lack of economic productivity - will only be exacerbated.
The two "grievances," of course, are intimately related. Until now, if a newly married yeshiva student wanted to leave the yeshiva to support his family, he had the specter of three years of military service hanging over him. That constituted a massive economic disincentive to giving up full-time yeshiva learning: Instead of improving his economic situation by going to work, he risked placing himself in a much worse financial and familial situation.
The Tal Law addresses these grievances by lowering barriers to haredi entry into the workforce. First, by offering yeshiva students the opportunity to pursue a year of non-yeshiva studies, at age 22, without being immediately subject to the draft, and second, by providing a truncated period of service for those who want to go to work.
How will the Tal Law work in practice? No one knows for sure. Many secular commentators who have never seen the inside of a beit medrash are convinced that most yeshiva students are miserable captives, who will flee at the first opportunity. Maariv editor Amnon Dankner, for instance, proposed last week exempting all haredim from the draft, as a means of emptying out the yeshivos and ending their "degenerative lifestyle."
(Dankner¹s proposal would surely be struck down by the Supreme Court - and properly so. The Tal Law grants a draft deferment for those engaged in particular types of activities, which anyone could theoretically choose to do. Dankner would create an exemption for certain classes of people, based on birth not actions, a notion anathema to the principle of equality.)
Those who expect a mass exodus from the yeshivot will surely be disappointed. On the other hand, there are unquestionably those who feel trapped in yeshiva, and others, even very talented Talmud students, who are forced by financial exigencies to seek a livelihood outside yeshiva. Contrary to the popular mythology, it is impossible to raise a family on child allowances alone.
And contrary to another common myth, the lack of a high school education will not prove a major impediment to haredi entry into the workforce. I have seen yeshiva students prepare themselves for the math matriculation exam in the space of a few weeks. Few of us could fill a page with what we learned in high school. At best, we develop the ability to think, and there is nothing that teaches analytical rigor like Talmud study.
To be sure, the Tal bill is little salve to secular Israelis long embittered by the deferment from military service of those engaged in full-time Torah study. From their point of view, it is, at best an accommodation, not a solution. The willingness, however, to make that accommodation with reality may signal a new maturity in Israeli society - a preference for practical compromise over ideological purity and satisfying expressions of hatred. Even Ha¹Aretz¹s Shahar Ilan, the paper¹s designated anti-haredi reporter, came out in favor of the Tal Law on the grounds that it will increase the number of haredi soldiers and workers.
The Tal Law, then, is a victory for commonsense, a recognition that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Nevertheless, I agree with my esteemed colleague Evelyn Gordon that preference should be given for military training for those who avail themselves of the Law¹s options for leaving yeshiva over "equivalent" forms of national service. As Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak once said that that the army had no use nor need for haredim. The manpower surpluses of Barak¹s tenure, however, no longer apply. Reserve soldiers are stretched to the breaking point, and the new Chief of Staff Moshe Ya¹alon came into office warning of the danger of all-out war on three fronts.
Haredim have never claimed some unique exemption from physical danger, only that their Torah learning is a vital element of national defense. Anyone not learning Torah, however, has no more reason than the next person not to see combat.
That point, incidentally, is commonly missed by those who suggest national service for haredi yeshiva students as an alternative to military service. Giving up Torah learning to paint garbage cans is a far greater insult to the importance of Torah learning than do so to pick up arms in defense of the Jewish people.
The oft-made claim that haredim cannot be molded into soldiers is ridiculous. Hovering over a volume of Talmud may not be the best physical preparation for the rigors of military service, but neither is sitting in front of a TV fours hours a day, like the average Israeli teenager.
Nor, I think, should the proposal for two weeks of civil defense training, or even some form of basis military training, be dropped entirely. True, trust does not yet exist in haredi society to accept a mandatory requirement. There is a fear that the two weeks of mandatory service would only be a prelude to far greater demands in the near future, and that accepting any requirement would leave haredi society haggling over the price, not the principle, as George Bernard Shaw put it in another context.
Yet, I believe, that if the army made such training voluntary during the long Pesach and summer semester breaks, it might be surprised by the haredi response. There is a growing recognition in haredi society that in the event of all-out war there would be a wide variety of crucial manpower needs, and that the middle of a war is no time to provide that training.
Among those reporting for training would be some "action" seekers. But my guess is that some of the finest, most sensitive yeshiva students would also volunteer. The latter have most fully integrated the belief that Torah studies "protect and save," and they learn with the intensity that flows from the belief that they are thereby saving Jewish lives. Because they truly believe that they serve the Jewish people by learning, they would be willing to serve in some other fashion during their breaks from intense learning, provided appropriate frameworks could be created.
Let the experiment begin.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list