The Sacrifices of Others

It's time for all of Israel to appreciate the sacrifices of others.
March 29, 2024
Ultra orthodox Jewish boys and men sit in front of traffic during a protest against the expiration of a law preventing them from being drafted into the IDF by blocking the main road in and out of the city on March 18, 2024 in Jerusalem. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Rabbi Tamir Granot is the Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Shaul, which is in South Tel Aviv.  He is a brilliant Torah scholar who wrote a Ph.D. about religious responses to the Holocaust.

Rabbi Granot’s son Amitai, (who was engaged to be married,) died on October 7th when Hezbollah fired missiles at Israeli positions in the North.

On October 26th, I visited with Rabbi Granot at his Yeshiva. In the course of our conversation, he explained that searching for meaning helped him cope with the death of his son. In an article he wrote at the time, he explained that “the way to deal with a period of difficult crisis like the present is never to blame, retreat into oneself, or despair, but rather to believe, hope, think only positive thoughts, seek out the good in people, and to find ways to act, save, help, and fix.”

And that is what he has been doing since October 7th. In particular, Rabbi Granot has focused on “the day after the war,” and bringing Israel’s diverse factions closer together in the future.

Right before Hamas attacked, there were acute divisions over judicial reform, which divided right from left, religious from secular. Rabbi Granot recognizes Israel can never return to the resentments and divisions of October 6th if it wants to survive.

After observing shiva for his son, Rabbi Granot immediately arranged meetings with a diverse group of religious and political leaders. His message to them was that they must learn how to understand each other’s worlds and appreciate the sacrifice each group makes for Jewish survival.

When I saw him in October, he felt his message was being listened to carefully. At that point, the country had come together in never-before-seen solidarity; significant ideological and political differences were put aside for the greater good. Non-kosher restaurants were turning Kosher in order to feed religious soldiers, and ultra-Orthodox organizations were bringing supplies to evacuees from thoroughly secular kibbutzim.

Recently, this unity has begun to shrink and shrivel; even with a war still raging on several fronts, old animosities have returned.

In the last few weeks, one issue that worried Rabbi Granot deeply has reappeared: the exemption of yeshiva (rabbinical school) students from military service. Right now, the government needs to introduce new legislation before this exemption, (which was long ago struck down by the Supreme Court,) expires on March 31st.

The debate over military service is often seen as part of the secular/religious divide; but that mischaracterizes the reality. From the very beginning of the state, there has been a heated debate within the religious community about army service. In 1948, one of Israel’s leading Rabbis, Shlomo Yosef Zevin, wrote an anonymous letter protesting the refusal of the Roshei Yeshiva (Yeshiva deans) to send their students to war. He felt it was an embarrassment that the greatest Torah scholars had ignored their own community’s obligation to defend the state. At the beginning of the letter he points out that saving lives is the highest responsibility in Judaism; if so, the pious should be first in line to take on army service.

In an agitated tone, Rabbi Zevin challenges his colleagues:

And you, our great masters, most of you admit the dire necessity of this necessary war….therefore, it is your obligation to encourage even Torah scholars, those young and healthy enough to go into battle, to do so. “Will you send your brothers to war, and yourselves sit at home?” (Numbers 32:6).

Rabbi Zevin’s argument is from an insider, directed at other insiders. He argues that the exemption of Yeshiva students from military duty is contrary to Torah values.

Many devoted Torah scholars recognized that both Torah study and military service are critical. The Yeshivot Hesder system was created to allow that possibility; its students spend five years in this intensive dual program, combining army service and Yeshiva study. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein explained the ethos of Hesder this way:

“Hesder at its finest seeks to attract and develop bnei torah (Torah students) who are profoundly motivated by the desire to become serious talmidei hachamim (scholars) but who concurrently feel morally and religiously bound to help defend their people and their country; who, given the historical exigencies of their time and place, regard this dual commitment as both a privilege and a duty; who, in comparison with their non-hesder confreres love not (to paraphrase Byron’s Childe Harold) Torah less but Israel more.”

Despite these arguments, the Haredi leadership has remained strenuously opposed to allowing Yeshiva students to join the army; currently, 66,000 students are exempted from army service. This has become a social norm, which makes it difficult for those who don’t study well to opt out of Yeshiva; currently, an estimated 20-30% of registered yeshiva students (and perhaps more) spend little or no time studying. But they remain in Yeshiva anyway, instead of serving in the army. To leave Yeshiva is considered to be an admission of failure.

Over the years, the issue of drafting yeshiva students has been politicized; as a result, the language used by defenders of the status quo has become harsher and harsher. One major moment of conflict was in 2014; the rhetoric used then by some Haredi opponents of the draft was “The government is going to send Yeshiva students to jail for learning Torah.” They equated the Israeli government with Czarist Russia in its hatred of Judaism.

That crisis, like many others, passed, and the rhetoric was mostly forgotten; but right now, right in the middle of a war, the issue of drafting Yeshiva students has come back. An extension to the yeshiva student draft exemption has expired, and without new legislation, these students will have to report to the army.

In response, harsh rhetoric has exploded again. In a shocking statement, The Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Yitzchak Yoseph, said about drafting Yeshiva students, “If they force us to join the army, we will all move abroad.” This statement was not an outlier; the words used by other religious leaders have been equally inflammatory.

Rabbi Granot was shaken by these words.

In a videotaped talk, he spoke about the importance of each group in Israel learning to respect each other. He repeated, as he has said many a time, that secular Israelis need to have a greater appreciation of how yeshivas are preserving the Jewish tradition. He emphasized that:

And you, our secular brothers, should tell the yeshivot, “We want yeshivot and we will never harm them. We also wish to learn Torah, in our own way, and we will defend and support yeshivot—if you will be our partners.”

He had redoubled his efforts to dialogue and unity since his son’s death, and he has not left that commitment.

But he is also the father of a fallen soldier. And in a pained voice, Rabbi Granot turned to Rabbi Yitzchak Yoseph and said:

…Your words about drafting yeshiva students caused my wife to cry for 24 hours straight. I wish to open my remarks with her tears—the tears of the mother of my son, Capt. Amitai Granot z”l, who was killed five months ago in the battle against Hezbollah.  Amitai was a 24-year-old yeshiva student, he learned for three years in yeshiva, he enlisted and was an officer; he deeply wished to return to his learning in yeshiva. He loved the Torah to the very depths of his soul….

On behalf of my wife, Avivit, Amitai’s mother, I ask you, Honorable Rabbi, in the name of her tears: Am I wrong? Is it in vain that our son now rests in a grave on Mount Herzl? Should he, and all his friends buried alongside him, have remained in their yeshivot, delegating to secular citizens the duty of mesirut nefesh, ultimate sacrifice? Perhaps they should have gone abroad to study Torah and to avoid enlisting?…..

Honorable Rabbi, you should seek forgiveness from my wife, from her tears, and you should go up to Mount Herzl and ask forgiveness from Amitai z”l, a yeshiva student and warrior, and from all the righteous and holy and pure Torah students who choose to fight, as well as from the soldiers who do not study Torah—all of whom gave their lives in defense of our nation and those who dwell in it. Is it reasonable to leave the Holy Land to avoid defending it in a milhemet mitzva (necessary war) for the salvation of the entire nation? Are we in the Russian Empire? Is this the Czar’s army? Are Jewish boys being dragged off as cantonists?

In this pained cri de coeur, Rabbi Granot exposes the greatest obstacle to building unity for the future. On October 7th, when the future of the State of Israel hung by a thread, it was soldiers like Amitai Granot z”l who saved the lives of every Israeli citizen, including, of course, every Yeshiva student. And so many like Amitai have lost their lives; since October 7th, 597 soldiers have given their lives in defense of the Stae of Israel.

What disturbed Rabbi Granot most about these statements was the profound lack of appreciation for military service. Rabbis like Yitzchak Yoseph were treating service in IDF as a calamity, one so awful it would make sense to move to another country; the disrespect for every soldier, as well as the young men and women buried on Har Herzl, is implicit.

The way forward on this issue is fraught with difficulty; some compromise will be proposed, debated, and then another. At some point the process will end. But sadly, this may lay the ground for future conflict, because achieving unity through compromise is no simple task. Often, people are angrier after compromising, with a sense of buyer’s remorse; they are left feeling they have given up too much and gotten back too little.

The only way to an authentic compromise is both sacrifice and appreciation. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks correctly points out that the overarching theme of Vayikra is sacrifice, and explains in his commentary to Parshat Tzav that the ability to sacrifice is critical for society:

Lose the concept of sacrifice within a society, and sooner or later marriage falters, parenthood declines, and the society slowly ages and dies. My late predecessor, Lord Jakobovits, had a lovely way of putting this. The Talmud says that when a man divorces his first wife, “the altar sheds tears” (Gittin 90b). What is the connection between the altar and a marriage? Both, he said, are about sacrifices. Marriages fail when the partners are unwilling to make sacrifices for one another.

I would add one point to what Lord Rabbi Jakobovits said. If we don’t appreciate the sacrifices of others, relationships will fail as well. Every good relationship requires both sacrifice and a true appreciation for the sacrifice of others.

This lesson is more critical than ever for Israel, which is once again descending into paralyzing dysfunction.

It’s time for all of Israel to appreciate the sacrifices of others.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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