Religion vs. Religion

It’s tempting to look at the latest crisis in Israel — over whether the Charedim should serve in the military — as pitting religion against the state. Just look at some of the comments from both sides. On the fervent religious side, Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef has declared a state of emergency. In his weekly sermon on July 7, as reported in Ynet, the rabbi is quoted as saying:

“We’re facing great distress. Unfortunately, there are some who think they can diminish the honor of the Torah, decrease the learning of the Torah, the number of those who study Torah, and the number of those who work for the Torah.”

He added: “We’re surrounded by people who hate us … Iran, Hezbollah and those Palestinians who hate the people of Israel. Who shall save us? The Torah! If the Torah hadn’t existed — the world wouldn’t have been created.”

Yosef has instructed synagogues in Israel and abroad to say the Avinu Malkeinu prayer twice a day until further notice. The prayer, which is recited during the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, includes the words “Our father, our king, tear away the evil sentence.”

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Nelly Barak of Arad, whose son, Lt. Hanan Barak, was killed during a June 2005 border incident:

“They [yeshiva students] should not use the Torah as an excuse. That’s unacceptable. Everyone is equal in this country. Why is my son’s blood worth less?” Barak said, as reported in Ynet.

She added: “When our children want to go to the university they first have to serve for three years [in the army]. The yeshiva students can also serve three years and then study Torah for the rest of their lives if they so desire.”

And right in the middle of this mess is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, desperately trying to balance both sides and keep his coalition intact. His new coalition includes partners from Kadima — led by Shaul Mofaz — who are pushing hard to enact a new law requiring the Charedim to serve in the military, while his Charedi partners on the other side are resisting these efforts.

This is an issue that was bound to erupt, ever since Prime Minister David Ben Gurion decided in 1948 to exempt yeshiva students from enlisting in the army. The exemption applied to only a few hundred students then; today, more than 50,000 yeshiva students study Talmud all day while other Israelis risk their lives to protect them.

Who ever thought that such an inequity could last?

Not only do these yeshiva students not serve in the military, they also receive financial aid from the government to sustain their Torah-only lifestyle. There’s something more than a little hypocritical about this. It’s like saying: “We want to learn Torah all day without engaging with the rest of secular society, but we will engage politically with this society to get their financial support.”

You might say it’s a classic case of the state versus religion.

But I think it’s a lot more than that: It’s also religion versus religion. Judaism hurting Judaism.

As one of the great religious Zionist leaders, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, once told me, nothing has created more animosity toward the Jewish religion in Israel than the fact that full-time yeshiva students don’t serve in the military. It’s easy to see why: If the ultimate representatives of Torah don’t do their fair share to defend their country, what does that say about the Torah they study and revere?

That’s why I so admire the religious Zionist movement, which has been able to marry both Torah study and service to their country. They have been the antidote to the isolationist tendencies of the Charedim. A few days ago, many of their leaders expressed support for the movement to introduce the draft to the Charedi world while also reaffirming the importance of Torah study.

Personally, I think the Charedim should see this crisis as an opportunity to honor their religion. They should stand up and say they will willingly serve. This would not just benefit their country; it also would honor the name of God in the eyes of every Israeli.

After all, where is it written in the Torah that defending your country and studying Torah are mutually exclusive?

And shouldn’t honoring your religion in the eyes of other Jews be as valuable as the mitzvah of Torah study?

Of course, because this is such an emotional issue, complicated by decades of ingrained habits and the reality of power politics, moving forward won’t be simple. So, to cut through all the drama, I asked my friend in Jerusalem, author Yossi Klein Halevi, to give me his take on the crisis. Here’s what he e-mailed me:

“We need to move on this issue with both sensitivity and resolve. Sensitivity in the sense of respecting the Charedi community for its extraordinary commitment to Torah, for assuming in many cases a voluntary poverty for the sake of study. And resolve in conveying the simple, non-negotiable message that the Israeli majority can no longer afford to carry, either economically or militarily, a rapidly expanding Charedi population.”

His last words perfectly summarized the crisis: “We simply can’t do it anymore.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at