The difficulty in writing about Orthodox Jewish political issues in Israel is our lack of antepredicamental orientation. Or, if you don’t want to look that word up, we lack the ABCs. Yet, since the question of Yeshiva students and the military draft is on the front burner of Israeli political and judicial life, we must make an effort to at least lay out the parameters.
Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Yeshiva students have enjoyed -- if that is the verb we want -- a deferment from military service in Israel. This has not been limited to a particular number of years, or even to pursuing a program of rabbinic ordination. In theory, a man could dedicate his entire adult life to Talmud study and thus never be drafted. However, he also forfeits certain payments and privileges granted exclusively to veterans.
This was not imposed; it was something their representatives requested 65 years ago, when only a few hundred such scholars had survived the Holocaust period. Yet it was a choice that would predictably lead to eventual friction. Indeed previous generations of Diaspora rabbis were leery of allowing Jews to be disqualified from military service, lest the society turn against them for not shouldering their share of the load. In the early ’80s I interviewed an older gentleman whose father was the last rabbi of Minsk in Belarus before the Czars lost power in 1917. He described to me how an anti-Semitic defense minister convinced the czar to release Jews from conscription, and how efforts were undertaken by the rabbinic leadership to reverse this decree.
Still, had the scholarly culture in Israel been similar to its counterparts in the U.S., Canada, or England, the deferment could have remained in place forever.
Most Orthodox Jewish boys in these countries put in a few years at a yeshiva after high school, eventually leaving to the professional and work world when family expenses mount. A relatively small percentage stays on to become rabbis or public intellectuals. If that was going on in Israel, the scholarly or clerical deferment could stay under the radar, alongside concessions granted to nuclear physicists and star soccer players.
Instead, the culture in yeshiva circles in Israel has been to try to stay there for life, relying on donations to avoid leaving academe. The premise presumably was that special times call for extreme commitment. This has resulted in an epistemophiliac community unrivaled in Jewish history. (Don’t want to look that up either? They are devoted to the pursuit of knowledge.)
Seven thousand students graduate high school each year in this segment of the population (known as Haredi), virtually all of whom hope to study Bible and Talmud for as long as donors can be found to support this lifestyle.
The Supreme Court of Israel has stepped in, ruling last year that applying a military deferment to an entire community inherently undermines the basis of citizenship. It has given the government a grace period to fashion a workable system. The new governing coalition has put forth a plan that would allow all 7,000 to defer service for three years after high school. At that point, a panel of scholars would have the power to issue 1,800 long-term passes. The rest of the 21-year-olds would be assigned to various strata of army and civilian roles in service of the nation.
This leaves these scholars in a quandary. The Torah obligates every Jew to participate in national defense under an entire series of specific and general instructions.
One, there is a codified commandment (Leviticus 19:15; Talmud Sanhedrin 73a) not to stand by when the blood of your friend is endangered.
Two, there is a codified commandment (Deuteronomy 22:2; Talmud Sanhedrin ibid.) to act in protection of the life and property of one’s fellow citizens.
Three, there is a communal obligation to participate in public protection (Talmud Shabbat 42a, 150a, et al.).
Four, there is a moral imperative of being a good neighbor, which includes acting to reinforce all institutions that hold the society together. (See Talmud Brachot 8a; Mishna Avot 2:9.)
Fifth and sixth, the most powerful of all, is the codified obligation to act in ways that impress the society and lead people to respect God, along with a codified prohibition against alienating the society and causing them to believe that God’s Word is misleading people. (Leviticus 22:32; Talmud Yoma 86a.)
This last category puts the clerical at the mercy of the laical. If the scholar behaves in a manner that turns off the layman, he is guilty. Furthermore, this one area of Jewish law includes a powerful wild card: if an individual of good conscience believes the rabbinic leadership is damaging the reputation of God’s Word, he is responsible to follow his conscience over their advice. (Proverbs 21:30; Talmud Brachot 19b.)
Until now this community of very bright, very motivated people has been spared the fulfillment of the service obligation by the grace of the broader society. Whether it was done with good intentions or as a strategy to marginalize is now irrelevant. Henceforth the country says it can no longer make that concession. This is a true moment of moral testing, a crisis of conscience. We pray for wisdom and grace.