Let Haredim and Soldiers Swap Roles

— by David Benkof

Controversy over haredi military service roils Israeli society, but respect for each side’s concerns and values can help resolve it.

Photo credit: Paul Arps

Photo credit: Paul Arps.

Haredim believe Jews of all backgrounds are equally commanded to learn Torah. Israel could diffuse Torah study by allowing non-religious, non-essential soldiers to choose among several serious beit midrash programs for beginners with different traditional, non-coercive approaches to learning. Topics covered could include military ethics and the holiness of protecting the Jewish people and its land.

For every hour a soldier learns, a yeshiva student would lend his abilities to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for an hour – checking an eruv, helping with kashrut and holiday observance, etc. Some haredi volunteers may prefer to relieve soldiers by repairing equipment, cleaning barracks, preparing meals, and performing clerical tasks. Haredi managers would supervise yeshiva students in all-male settings, with other accommodations when necessary. The program could coincide with bein hazmanim, when yeshivas are on break anyway.

Yeshiva students will help spread Torah learning, and promote halachic observance on military bases. They will also gain useful experience for entering the work force, and have a ready answer for accusations of refusing to help protect the country.

Non-religious soldiers will get time off after intensive training and duty, and some might find meaning and even inspiration in classical Jewish texts, especially those related to the military. Their morale will improve as responsibility for national defense becomes more equally distributed.

Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces

Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces.

IDF service and Jewish learning will be maintained or grow, and a wrenching national debate will begin to subside as very different Israelis gain exposure to other lifestyles without compromising their values.

Because of mutual wariness, neither community is likely to embrace the proposal right away, but a pilot program involving those most open to adjusting could help work out the details and build trust.

Accusing haredim of being lazy, unpatriotic ingrates has not facilitated solutions. But reminding haredim that their learning is no more meritorious than that of their less-educated brethren may actually gain their attention.

The Torah praises the arrangement of two Israelite tribes: Issachar, who learned; and Zebulun, who provided for their needs. Halachically, an Issachar-Zebulun partnership offers each side the same heavenly reward. So far, only haredim have been Issachar. If Israelis switched roles on occasion, the entire nation would benefit from the twin virtues of duty and Torah.

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Follow him on Facebook, or E-mail him at [email protected].

Sofer Case Means Draft Haredim

By David Benkof

The disappearance of Aaron Sofer in the Jerusalem forest is of course alarming.

But far more important is the instruction of Rav Aharon Shteinman shlita, today’s leading Lithuanian haredi rabbi, that Israeli students at the monumental Mir yeshiva put down their Talmuds and search for Sofer five days after he went missing.

Now, the odds that Sofer was simply lost among the trees are quite small. And he’s just one person.

Haredim by Effib

Haredim by Effib

But he’s a yeshiva bochur.

At the same time, haredim and their leaders have refused every single proposed compromise that would draft their youth – or at least some of them – into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They won’t even discuss national service. While the children of secular and religious Zionist Jews fight and die to protect our People and our Land, haredim have argued that they, too, play a key role in protecting Israel.

Torah study, they say, is a spiritual shield for Israel, which is as important as the military’s physical shield.

So why would Rav Shteinman order Mir students out of the yeshiva and into the forests? After all, many non-haredim were already physically searching for Sofer. Shouldn’t the Mir be a place to spiritually search for Sofer?

We can now see the obvious hypocrisy of haredi excuses not to participate in the IDF or at least perform national service. If they can put down their gemaras to look for one of their own, they can do the same to defend our nation against hostile enemies.

The premier argument for exempting haredim has been demolished.

I say draft ‘em all.

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Follow David Benkof on Facebook or E-mail him at [email protected].