It's almost impossible to overstate the effect that the Internet has had on the parameters of discourse in the frum community. This first became apparent to many people during the controversy over my books, when myself, Rabbi Gil Student and several others were able to publicly present a defense of the rationalist approach to Torah and science, and many people were able to voice their distress and fury with the ban. This put the other side in a panic. They were used to controlling the public discourse, via the Yated, the Jewish Observer, and so on, which never allowed criticism to appear. They were not used to people being able to talk back and get their side of things across to the public. They can't figure out how to operate in a world where everyone can make their views available to a public, which enables people to (hopefully) make intelligent choices as to which side is presenting correct conclusions.
A similar phenomenon, albeit on a smaller scale, is playing out with Cross-Currents, the website that presents charedi apologetics. A few weeks ago, they published an article by Rabbi Yair Hoffman that sought to justify why charedim don't serve in the army. They would not permit me to respond properly in the comments, so I simply posted my response on this blog, which was read by over four thousand people. As a result, Rabbi Hoffman dedicated an entire article on Cross-Currents to responding to me. Again, I responded on my blog, and this time Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who runs Cross-Currents, wrote an article in response. He refused to post crucial comments of mine, and so I simply wrote another response here, in which I also pointed out the bizarreness of Rabbi Menken refusing some very direct critiques with the claim that they were "not germane."
At this point, it was beginning to look ridiculous that Cross-Currents was refusing to post so many critical comments. Jonathan Rosenblum published an article which blamed secular Zionists for Hitler's final solution, and comments pointing out the fallacy of this accusation were summarily rejected. As one person remarked to me, comments with no content other than a high-five to the Cross-Currents authors seemed to get through very nicely, but those of high-content, but critical of the column authors, are rejected. So Rabbi Menken wrote an entire post about "The Benefits of Ham-Handed Moderation," which basically said that people should trust them that they are letting through suitable critical comments. Of course, many people perceived this as trusting the foxes to guard the hen-house. David Ohsie promptly published a post here demonstrating the fallacy of Rosenblum's claim about Hitler, and it was widely applauded.
Meanwhile, I was still posting material explaining why charedim should share the burden of military service, and my readership had more than doubled. So Cross-Currents gave it another go, with an apologetic by Rabbi Doron Beckerman. Again, it was flooded with critical comments, virtually none of which were let through for several days, until I posted them all on my blog, and pointed out how Cross-Currents was once again refusing to allow cross-currents (ba-da-dum!). Soon after that, the critical comments all suddenly appeared on Rabbi Beckerman's post - with the exception of mine!
And now, Cross-Currents has published a rejoinder by Rabbi Beckerman to my comments that were never able to appear on Cross-Currents in the first place! This is the third Cross-Currents article in the last few weeks specifically aimed at rebutting me, by the third such person to do so! I'm not even bothering to submit comments there any more - I suspect that my blog has many more readers than Cross-Currents anyway. The discussion is better off taking place here, where the forum is more open.
Still, all these polemics are a considerable drain on my time and energy. I'm grateful to David Ohsie for his assistance, and I would certainly appreciate it if other people could step up to the plate and write full-length responses. It seems strange that the public polemicist for Religious Zionist ideology should be me, seeing as I've been a Religious Zionist for less than ten years. Meanwhile, here goes with a response to Rabbi Beckerman.
Response to Rabbi Beckerman regarding Yeshivah Students and the IDF
Rabbi Beckerman claimed in his original article that "there was always a portion of Klal Yisrael that was dedicated to full-time Torah study and that did not serve in the army." Naturally, I assumed that he was making the common mistake about the Tribe of Levi, but he says that he was instead referring to the talmidei chachamim that the Gemara says should not be drafted. However, I have already quoted Rav Hershel Schachter, who points out that these Gemaras specifically mention talmidei chachamim, and does not refer to stam yeshivah students. Furthermore, while it is indeed true that Torah scholars have always existed in Klal Yisrael, never was there a clerical class with the belief that the overwhelming majority of their children, simply by virtue of having not explicitly renounced membership of that class, were exempt from all other obligations.
Rabbi Beckerman then engages in an astonishing piece of circular reasoning:
It is clear that the essential basis of the exemption granted to the Levites was not that they taught Torah, for if this were the case, the very next halachah in Rambam would have stated “Not only the Tribe of Levi, but any Torah teacher…” It does not. The common denominator between Levi and the personage in the following halachah is their spiritual idealism, casting off worldly pursuits and engaging in service of Hashem. This is the hallmark of the Toraso Umnuso members of the nation...
Yet this only makes sense if one is assuming that Rambam is comparing those dedicated to spiritual pursuits with Levites vis-a-vis a military exemption. But, as Radvaz has already pointed out, Rambam is not making a full comparison of such people with the Levites - Radvaz notes that while the Levites were supported by the rest of Klal Yisrael, Rambam held that Torah scholars should not be supported by the rest of Klal Yisrael. Likewise, there is no exemption for Torah scholars from the army, and the Tribe of Levi themselves are exempt for the reason that Rambam makes clear - because they are involved in teaching the rest of the nation.
We then switch to a different Gemara, which states that "Rabbis do not need protection." I pointed out that the Ramoh restricts this to Rabbis of certain caliber. Rabbi Beckerman, who pointed to Rav Moshe Feinstein's application of this to yeshivah students, claims that it is "out of bounds" to reject Rav Moshe's reading of the sources in favor of the simple reading of the Ramoh. Yet there is a wonderful sefer in which the little-known author argues that Rav Moshe's interpretation of the Shulchan Aruch and classic poskim in many areas of hilchos eruvin is utterly untenable - and it is adorned with the haskamos of leading poskim. Furthermore, I'm not even claiming that Rav Moshe is arguing with the Ramoh - David Ohsie has convincingly argued that Rav Moshe is not presenting a blanket license for avoiding the army.
Rabbi Beckerman claims that my straightforward reading of Ramoh - that the Gemara's exemption applies only to a scholar of caliber - is a misreading, based on the Ramoh's source in the Terumos HaDeshen. But the Terumas HaDeshen is describing self-selecting elite students who trudge from city to city (and are apparently thereby exempt from taxes) while simultaneously being fluent in most of the Talmud and Geonim. It is astonishing that Rabbi Beckerman confuses this with the entire community of charedi 18-year-olds in yeshivah. The Terumas HaDeshen is much closer to Yesh Atid's model of 1800 select students that would receive an exemption. Likewise, R. Palaggi's essay is irrelevant; the whole point is that he is discussing someone who is displaying a unique commitment to learning, not simply someone who does what everyone else does. If that was the case, who should pay the taxes?
Furthermore, all this discussion regarding the Gemara's statement that "Rabbis do not need protection" and who it applies to is irrelevant. This Gemara, and the sources cited by R. Palaggi, are referring specifically to exemptions from certain taxes, not to fighting in a milchemes mitzvah.
Next comes a primary objection to the charedi claim that yeshivah students are doing their defense via Torah study - the fact that charedi yeshivos fled the South during Cast Lead. Yet it's not as though the entire population of the South fled; most people stayed and continued to lead their lives. The hesder yeshivot stayed, and were able to learn, as well as being mechazek the communities. Rabbi Beckerman claims that even when they fled, their Torah would protect the place from which they fled. I don't know why he is so sure of this; most of the traditional sources about Torah scholars providing a protective merit limit it specifically to the place where the Torah scholar actually is. Indeed, when one of the yeshivos temporarily relocated to Bet Shemesh, they were welcomed by a Rav who thanked them for bringing an "Iron Dome" to Bet Shemesh. Rabbi Beckerman claims that "Hashem surely knows that their intent is pure." Actually, I think Hashem knows that their intent was rather selfish. Fleeing the South is a blow to the morale of people who did not have the ability to leave. Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 7:15) harshly condemns soldiers that demonstrate anxiety and weaken the morale of others. Again, contrast the actions of the Hesder students, who stayed to learn and to provide moral support for the residents, even at personal risk. Now there's a sign of pure intent.
Rabbi Beckerman then defends his claim that "Charedi learning centers say Tehillim and daven in times of crisis specifically for IDF soldiers" by pointing to a kollel that said Tehillim for Gilad Shalit. First of all, there were far less charedim saying Tehillim for Gilad Schalit than there were who said Tehillim for the yeshivah students imprisoned in Japan. Second, Gilad Schalit was an extreme case. What about when the IDF launched its operation in Jenin? What about the countless acts of mesirus nefesh that soldiers do all the time?
I would like to conclude with three general observations on this topic.
First: All this talk about "Torah protecting" is a smokescreen and has nothing to do with why Charedim don't serve in the army. The reason is that they want to live their life in a certain way, the IDF would interfere with that, and they feel no obligation to share in the burden of the rest of the nation, because they don't feel themselves to be part of the rest of the nation.
Second: Even if you could come up with a halachic justification for charedim being allowed to not serve, this would not change the fact that it is immensely unfair to expect only non-charedim to bear the difficult burden of military service along with its risks. As Moshe Rabbeinu said, "Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?" It doesn't appear that he would have been satisfied with a reply that they would sit and learn.
Third: 32% of first graders in Israel are in charedi schools and are thus planning not to serve in the IDF. That would mean that in 12 years, a full third of the country would not be serving in the army (or participating in the professional workforce), and according to current rates of expansion, this proportion would increase. What on earth do charedi apologists propose? Should the army maintain a viable size by non-charedim increasing the number of years that they serve in the army? How many years extra do they have to serve in order to make up for all the charedim who don't serve? Five? Ten? Twenty? And what happens when even that is not sufficient? At what point do charedi apologists acknowledge that it is not only utterly unfair, but also utterly unsafe, to claim that yeshivah students should not serve in the army and that their "Torah protects"? And at this point, will they consider themselves apikorsim for going against the Gemaras that speak of the sin of drafting Torah scholars?