But first, a joke: A girl of marriageable age brings home a young man to introduce to her parents. The father and prospective son-in-law sit down for a chat. “So, do you have a job?” The boy answers piously, “The Aibishter [God, in Yiddish] will provide.”
“Well, how are you going to afford a house? A car? Food?”
After every question, the young man answers with the same. “The Aibishter. The Aibishter will provide.”
After he left, the girl ran to her father, eager to hear his opinion. “I like him!” proclaimed the father.
“You do??” said the girl excitedly.
“Oh yes,” he continued. “He thinks I’m God.”
A similar situation exists in modern-day Israel, with the government playing the role of the father. Since the early days of the state, yeshiva students have received exemptions from military service, service which is mandatory for their non-Haredi brethren. To receive the exemption, one must fulfill two requirements: Learn full time in a yeshiva and not be employed in any salaried job. So choosing the exemption path not only means avoiding army service, but essentially confines the yeshiva student to a lifetime of government handouts, since he has no way to earn a living. And indeed, housing in Haredi neighborhoods is often heavily subsidized; the large number of children that many Haredi families have means a larger-than-average “kitzvat yeladim,” the federal child allowance.
The Tal Committee, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal, dealt with this special exemption status a decade ago, and Tal Law was passed as a temporary law. According to the law, yeshiva students can defer army enlistment until the age of 22 (instead of 18, like the rest of the country’s youth). At that time, they can choose between a one-year civil service along with a paying job, or a shortened 16-month military service, with future reserve duty. However, Tal Law did not drastically change enlistment numbers in the Haredi communities, and this year it was deemed unconstitutional. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to work out a constitutional replacement law that would spread the burden of service in a more equitable manner.
There are no shortages to the controversies ignited by this ruling as well as the formation and subsequent disbanding of the Plesner Committee, which was dedicated to hammering out an acceptable alternative. Among the seemingly unsolvable questions: What should be the proper enlistment age for Haredim? What about the service of Arab-Israelis? If service is deemed compulsory for everyone, should those who continue to avoid service receive sanctions or fines? And, if Haredim do join the army, what does that look like? How can the army accommodate their religious needs for Shabbat, kashrut and avoiding contact with women?
Essentially—how does one change the status quo? Haredim have grown up for generations understanding that at the age of 18, unlike their secular or national religious counterparts, they will enter yeshiva and stay there. In their minds, they are protecting Israel by their constant Torah learning. Others may defend the country and enter the workforce; their job is to keep up the spiritual end.
My question is: How and when did endless Torah study become the ideal model for living? In the Haredi mindset, jobs are only an option for those who can’t hack it as full-time Torah scholars. But let’s go back, waaaaay back to the Five Books of Moses. In the Torah? Lots of fighting. After leaving Egypt, for example, the Israelites encounter many hostile nations on their long, meandering path to the Promised Land. And they battle. Yes, we are often reminded that God is behind our victories, and that we need prayer and not just weapons. But still, we fight. One of the parshiot (Torah portions) begins with the words, “Ki tetzeh lamilchamah,” (When you go out to war.) Not if, but when—fighting and defending are a part of life, so here are some rules about it. Later, the entire book of Joshua describes “kibbush ha’aretz”—conquering the land. And that did not happen in a study hall, but on the battle field, with fighting and weapons and deaths.
Not only that, but many of our revered rabbis and sages held down jobs in addition to learning Torah extensively. Rashi was a vintner, for one. So why is forgoing anything but Torah study held up as such a lofty ad revered ideal? Army and jobs were a way of life for our ancestors. What happened?
Haredim are raised in a culture of Torah-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else. Learning at the state’s (and taxpayers’) expense, sitting in yeshiva at the expense of defending your country and providing for your family. Naturally, they can’t imagine enlisting in the army—they’ve been indoctrinated all their lives with the notion that Torah will hold them up all by itself.
But even our sages did not believe that. A table with one leg is unstable and shaky, they taught. A famous verse in Pirke Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) teaches:
“Al shlosha devarim ha’olam omed.” On three things does the world stand.
“Al haTorah.” On Torah study.
“V’al ha’avodah.” And on work.
“V’al gemilut chassadim.” And on acts of kindness. (Ethics of Our Fathers, Chapter 1 Mishne 2)
The Haredim have Torah study and acts of kindness perfected. But what happened to avodah?