The Charedi protests: A response to David Suissa

I consider myself a friend of David Suissa. I like what he is about, trying to bring disparate segments of our Jewish community together.
March 12, 2014

[David Suissa: Charedim should start with ‘thank you’  /
Knesset passes Charedi draft law / Community response]

I consider myself a friend of David Suissa. I like what he is about, trying to bring disparate segments of our Jewish community together. That is precisely why I feel obligated to respond to his recent negative column on the Charedi rally last week in Jerusalem. 

He characterized the rally of more than 500,000 as a demonstration. It was not. It was a prayer gathering. There were no speeches, only the recitation of tehillim (psalms) and selichos (prayers for forgiveness). Participants were told not to bring signs or shout slogans.  Those who attended the gathering were moved by its somber tone and uplifted by praying out loud with half a million people. This rally was not about yeshiva students evading the Israeli draft, nor was it a protest against the conclusions of the Shaked Committee, which, most analysts claim, leave Charedim in a better position than they are today. As Rav Aaron Leib Shteinman, shli’ta, the senior Torah leader in the Lithuanian Torah World stated, it was to pray for the negation of proposed legislation that would mean that Torah study in the land of Israel could be treated as criminal behavior.  Remove the criminalization of Torah study and there is no rally. 

Yes, they realize that the criminal act would be noncompliance with a universal draft law, not Torah study per se. That is true, and beside the point. It is simply an affront to Jewish memory that the principled choice to study Torah could result in prosecution. 

One also has to understand the reaction of the Charedi community in the context of recent unabated attacks against it, promising “to teach them a lesson” and “fix their values.” The paternalistic adage of “we know what’s better for you” and “we will force you to accept our way of life” only served to unite Charedim in a common struggle of resistance. It is interesting to note that many of the social engineering proposals being legislated in the Knesset were already happening, only in an evolutionary manner.  More and more Charedim were joining Charedi-friendly units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and entering the workforce. Those trends have now been set back many years. Instead of aiding what was already occurring, politicians, who for 60 years used the Charedi parties to stay in power, now scapegoat them for all of the country’s problems. Sounds like an old familiar tale. 

Suissa writes eloquently of the importance of the IDF to the security of all Israelis. I would add, to all Jews around the world. They are owed a great debt of gratitude for their “mesirus nefesh.”  If we don’t thank them enough, we are guilty. By the same token, it is important to realize the value to our entire nation of those dedicating their lives to Torah study. I am not referring to the value in spiritual currency, as David remarks. Rav Saadia Gaon wrote nearly 1,200 years ago in his seminal work, Emunos V’dayos, “Ein umaseinu uma ela ba’Torah” (Our nation is only a nation through Torah). By that he meant that the Jewish people have only one commonality and one common destiny, and that is the Torah. Jews may all relate to the Torah differently. They may understand it differently and observe it differently, but they all relate to it. The 60,000 or so idealists in Israel who chose to make the study of Torah their life and submit themselves to a life of poverty in the process are to be cherished, not denigrated. They hold the torch that binds us to the land of Israel and justifies our being there. I will not argue the relative importance of Torah study versus army service, but let us at least understand the value of those Torah scholars to our nation. They too are serving the country.

Lastly, I must address the opening foray of Suissa’s article. “Put yourself in the shoes of the Israeli mother whose son was killed while serving in the IDF … (as) you watch close to a half a million ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrate against a bill that would force some of them to serve in the IDF.” While there were no reports of such mothers complaining, and there were participants in the rally who themselves had lost children and loved ones, Suissa’s point, heard all too often, begs a response.

In reality there is no answer to a mother who lost a child. Such people have made the ultimate sacrifice for the Jewish people. The Talmud refers to them as “Konai Olam Haba.” They own their part in the World to Come. Yair Lapid, who did his military service as a correspondent for the IDF periodical “Bamachaneh,” has no answer. David and I, who have enjoyed our Sundays in sunny California while the children of those mothers gave their lives so that we Diaspora Jews would have a safe haven should the need arise, have no answer. At least the dedicated Torah scholars in Israel are giving up something for the Jewish people. That may not be the best answer, but it is certainly better than ours. 

David Suissa responds:

What my friend Irving Lebovics says was just a “prayer gathering” with a “somber tone,” the Associated Press described as: “Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied in the streets of Jerusalem, blocking roads and paralyzing the city in a massive show of force against plans to require them to serve in the Israeli military.” Beyond his effort to put a soft spin on the rally, Lebovics missed my essential point: The Charedi tradition of ignoring civil obligations in favor of full-time Torah study dishonors the very notion of Torah. It makes the Torah look cloistered and insular, turns Torah study into an excuse to not serve the country and makes Torah a divisive force rather than a unifying one. After all, if studying Torah means living off the blood, sweat and taxes of others, how can this injustice not turn Jews off from Torah? I know Charedim in America who, in private, seem to understand this. Rather than feeding into the sense of victimhood of their brethren in Israel, they ought to show them some tough love and implore them to get with the program. Instead of waiting for the state to “force” them to fulfill their civil obligations, Charedim in Israel must lead the way. They should study Torah and willingly contribute their fair share to society. That combination would honor the Torah more than a million prayers.

Dr. Irving Lebovics is the chairman of Agudath Israel of California.

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