In the early 1950s, there existed a virtual consensus concerning the future of the chareidi community in Israel: Except for a few pockets of the old yishuv in Jerusalem, chareidi Judaism would be a historical memory within one generation. That view was shared by charedi Jews and the regnant secularists alike.
Less than five hundred yeshiva students learned in the two major yeshivos of the time: Hebron and Ponevezh. Even within the citadel of the old yishuv in Meah Shearim, there was not a house in which someone had not been swept up by the Zionist movement, which was viewed as the vanguard of the future. One of our generation's greatest Torah scholars recalls that only two boys with whom he went to cheder remained religious.
To the dismay of some and the delight of others, things have not quite worked out as foreseen. The chareidi community in Israel today numbers at least half a million people and controls nearly 20% of the Knesset members. And the community is growing rapidly.
The leaders of this community for the last half century have viewed themselves as living in an extraordinary historical moment. While the Jewish people, lost one-third of its members in the Holocaust, the percentage of the world's Torah observant Jews killed by the Nazis was much higher. In addition, with the sole exception of the Mirrer Yeshiva, all the great centers of Torah learning were wiped out.
The task that the post-Holocaust Torah leadership set itself was nothing less than the recreation of great centers of Torah learning in Israel. To do so, they first had to build an entire community around the absolute primacy of Torah learning. They succeeded to a miraculous degree.
Yet while chareidi community has flourished to an extent totally unexpected, all is not rosy within chareidi community. The explosion of the chareidi population itself creates its own challenges. An intensity of vision appropriate for a small nucleus of dedicated idealists cannot be imposed upon a much larger and more diverse community.
Not every boy is suited by temperment or ability for life-long Kollel learning. And the effect of not providing respectable alternatives is felt in the tiny percentage of those who drop out and the larger number who remain in yeshivos without enthusiasm. (The latter group is not nearly so large as assumed by secularists, who mistakenly believe that one must be a genius to enjoy or even excel in Talmudic learning and that the only purpose of yeshivos is to produce a certain number of rabbis.)
The long-range economic viability of the community is another concern. In many families, the third generation of those who chose to dedicate themselves to full-time Torah learning are reaching marriage age. For all that parents do everything humanly possible to help their children, and ensure that sons and sons-in-laws can remain in full-time Torah learning for years after marriage, many do not have the resources to do so.
The challenge confronting the chareidi rabbinic leadership, then, is how to steer a course that preserves the hard-won triumphs of the past half century while adapting to changing circumstances. The very success of the community makes it harder to do so. As difficult as it is for defeated leaders to "Declare victory and leave," as Senator George Aiken advised America to do in Vietnam, and as Israel is currently doing in Lebanon, it is even more difficult for leaders whose side is by all external measures thriving to resist the temptation to carry on exactly as before.
Thus the success of the chareidi community dictates that any changes in direction will be evolutionary not revolutionary. But those incremental changes, designed to prevent chinks in the armor from expanding, are under way. The proliferation of institutes providing technical education for chareidi men in a wide range of subjects, the growing number of yeshiva graduates in private law schools, the rapidly expanding career paths for women all point to a growing social acceptance of the need for economic self-sufficiency.
Whether these evolutionary trends continue or not will depend to a large extent on the secular community. If the chareidi community perceives itself under siege by those who seeks its destruction -- and such elements are hardly lacking in Israel today -- it will retreat behind ghetto walls. (Note that in America, where tolerance is the watchword and religious Jews face no organized enemies, chareidim are far more likely to work outside the community.)
Any frontal attack on the yeshivos -- in particular an attempt to draft most 18-year-olds -- will be rightly seen as an attempt to destroy the chareidi world. The yeshivos are not just one type of chareidi institution, they are the community's lifeblood, its very raison d'etre.
The two most often voiced complaints about the chareidi community are its failure to share equally the defense burden and its lack of economic productivity. Israeli policymakers must shed the illusion that they can solve both problems. If they take an absolutist position on the former, they will fail, and, in addition, bring to an end trends they view as favorable in the economic sphere.
The Tal Commission wisely avoided the trap of letting the quest for perfection (from the secular point of view) destroy the good. The Commission correctly recognized that many chareidim see a world of difference between adumbrated service for 24-year-olds and full army service for 18-year-olds. By twenty-four, most chareidi men are married. They have already founded a home on the basis of intense Torah learning, have reached a sufficiently advanced level of Torah learning to ensure that Torah study will remain the center of their lives no matter how they support their families, and are mature enough not to be intimidated into violating their religious beliefs in the army.
If enacted, the Commission's recommendations will encourage the integration of more chareidim into the economic life of the country and create a larger reservoir of young men trained to fight in event of war. It would also signal a determination by all segments of Israeli society to live together and to eschew dreams of destroying one another in some macabre Congo Death Match.