Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, recently gave two addresses about the political situation vis-a-vis the charedi community in Israel. Over at Cross-Currents, in a post entitled Wake Up!, Rabbi Yaakov Menken has posted excerpts from these addresses. Unfortunately, the post is closed to comments. I would therefore like to post some responses here, from both myself and Menachem Lipkin.
It was pleasing to see that Rav Feldman did not make any claims about charedim believing that their Torah provides essential protection for the country. I have written on many occasions about how they don't believe any such thing, and it appears that this excuse is no longer being offered. Instead, Rav Feldman is honest, and gives the real reason why charedim do not want to go to the army: because it is an environment which is very harmful to the charedi lifestyle.
Now, I think that people should be able to understand that, and be sympathetic to it. Yet, contrary to what Rav Feldman thinks, it doesn't settle the matter. To quote Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein: "the robbing of our youths’ formative years as a ben Torah would be a price that we could not pay... But how do we ask other, reluctant Israelis to pay a different price so that we don’t have to pay ours? Who gave us that right?"
Everyone, charedim included, agrees that Israel needs a strong army. If charedim feel that they cannot do their share in providing manpower, then this means that they have a debt to the rest of the country. But Rav Feldman, and virtually every other leader and spokesperson for the charedi community, never make any mention of such a debt.
Rav Feldman claims that the charedi community should have the status of conscientious objectors. But they are not objecting to the goals of the army, or to its methods of war. They agree that the State of Israel needs defending from the Arab nations. They are simply objecting to they themselves having to contribute to these efforts, which is not what "conscientious objectors" normally refers to!
Rav Feldman then claims that charedim are doing their public service to the nation by learning Torah. But here he utilizes a tactic that is commonly used by charedi spokesmen. It is to use the word "Torah" without qualification, and thereby to blur the differences between studying Torah, teaching Torah, the relationship between the Torah and the entire nation, and the system of mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel. This is a mistake/ distortion that happens all the time, and I would like to elaborate by examining Rav Feldman's statements in turn.
"Learning Torah ensures the survival of the Jewish people."
Yes, that is absolutely true. However, this does not mean that the system of mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel ensures the survival of the Jewish people. In fact, the Jewish people survived for thousands of years without mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel. And the Religious Zionist community still manages to survive, and thrive, without mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel.
"Learning Torah should not be considered on a par with changing bedpans in a hospital?! How outrageous that this should be suggested in a Jewish state!"
It's not outrageous at all. Teaching Torah should certainly be considered at least on a par with changing bedpans in a hospital. But a person who is only learning Torah is not contributing to the rest of society (unless you subscribe to recent mystical ideas developed by R. Chaim of Volozhin). He is building up his own Torah scholarship, but that is not what "national service" is about.
"Without Torah, there would be no Jewish state, no claim to the land of Israel. How can learning Torah not be considered a valid public service?"
This is a perfect example of blurring the differences between studying Torah, teaching Torah, the relationship between the Torah and the entire nation, and the system of mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel. It is indeed true that without the relationship between the Torah and the entire nation, there would be no Jewish state, no claim to the land of Israel. But this does not mean that without the system of mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel, there would be no Jewish state, no claim to the land of Israel!
Learning Torah, knowing enough to live life as a religious Jew, is an essential task. But it is not fulfilling a service to the nation! Learning to read and write and do math is likewise an essential task, but it would not be considered fulfilling a service to the nation! National service means doing something for other people. Serving in the army is an immense service to everyone else. Learning Torah is not a service to anyone else.
Or, to put matters another way: You can learn Torah and serve in the army. Many, many national-religious Jews do exactly that. There are even some charedim who do that. To have all charedim learning not only for most of their lives, but also non-stop between the ages of 21 and 24, is not an essential national service!
Turning to the topic of education, Rav Feldman claims that the government has no right to impose an educational curriculum upon the charedi community, and that "nowhere in the world would they act so paternalistically towards a minority." How on earth can he say such a thing? Every Western country has compulsory education! Again, to quote Rabbi Adlerstein: "They uphold the need of a democratic society to assure that children are given both a chance at vocational success as well as share some information... that is meant to bring about some social cohesion." (Not to mention the fact that Chazal themselves held that a parent has an obligation to teach his child a trade!)
Rav Feldman complains that the natural leaders of the Charedim should be consulted before making such changes. Why? It's something that is a need for the rest of the country (who are financially supporting the charedim), as well as for many charedim. Adina Bar Shalom, Rav Ovadiah Yosef's daughter, appeared before the Knesset task force to help charedim enter the work force, and begged them to implement math and English because 50% of the boys in her chareidi college drop out due to their lack of math and English. If the leaders of the charedi community were open to discussing how this should be solved, then I'm sure that Lapid and co. would be open to consulting them as to how to go about doing this; but all the charedi leaders say is no, no, no.
Strangely, Rav Feldman then claims that the "primary purpose of education should be... to educate young people to be human beings." Well, yes, but that's not what's under discussion here. Rav Feldman then goes on about how secular Zionist society is morally bankrupt and leaders are bought off by bribery, whereas charedi children are educated not to lie, cheat or steal, and to love Jews and respect authority. Aside from the fact that this is completely and utterly irrelevant to the issue of teaching math, it's also completely and utterly false. Do I really have to go into details about how so many charedi leaders were bought off by the bribery of Leib Tropper? Or about all the lying, cheating and stealing that is done by charedi Jews, sometimes under the auspices of kollels and other such institutions? And this is directly attributable to the fact that charedim do not have the education, qualifications and inclination to be financially self-sufficient. As Chazal state, Whoever does not teach his son a trade, has taught him to steal.
Rav Feldman claims that "Gemara prepares a person for modern technology more than even math and science. When our students enter job training, they score higher than their secular counterparts, because their minds have been developed." But his students in Baltimore learn secular studies in addition to Gemara! In Israel, on the other hand, where they learn virtually no secular subjects, the students are ill prepared for any meaningful education. Again, recall Adina Bar-Shalom's testimony that 50% of her male students drop out due to lacking basic math and English!
And now we come to the tired old canard that the real reason why many non-charedim want charedim to get the most basic secular education has nothing to do with alarm at a growing sector of the population which is under-employed, does not build up the economy or workforce, and has its Knesset representatives insist on a "right" to be supported by the rest of the country. No, the real reason, says Rav Feldman, is the desire to secularize the charedim!
Surely he can't be serious. Eleven hours a week of math, English and Hebrew is going to “secularize” them? He must not have much faith in the Torah that they learn the rest of the time! The charedi-leumi community in Israel and the charedi community in America have even more hours of general studies. Wanting charedim in Israel to be more like charedim in the US is not wanting to "secularize" them!
Rav Feldman then repeats Rabbi Meiselman's slander about Naftali Bennett stating that the Charedim are a greater threat to Israel than Iranian nuclear weapons. As I wrote to Yated, this is a serious distortion of what Bennett said. It's strange that just a few weeks after Rav Feldman publicly apologizes for falsely reporting R. Dov Lipman's positions, he does the same with Naftali Bennett. Is it really so difficult to find out what a person actually said before condemning them in public? (UPDATE: After I sent a complaint to Rav Feldman and Rabbi Menken, this has now been changed to "Bennett said something similar." I'm not sure if Rav Feldman's speeches have likewise been retroactively corrected. And, of course, I would not agree that Bennett said something similar at all.)
Many years ago, in calmer times, Rav Feldman criticized the Israeli Yated for adopting a "siege mentality." He himself does exactly the same in his addresses, talking about "demonization of religious Jews." And it's ironic, considering that the charedi community equals, and probably vastly exceeds, its opponents in its demonization of them. Whether it's Rav Feldman calling Dov Lipman a rasha, Eytan Kobre saying that the Zionist enterprise is a bigger threat than Iran, or the Yated and Agudah rabbis comparing Yesh Atid to Hitler, Bilaam, and Amalek, I think that the charedi community wins hands-down on the demonization front.
Rav Feldman then repeats a claim that he made several weeks ago, that charedim pay taxes just like everyone else. I don't understand how he can say something that is so obviously false. A person learning in kollel does not pay anything like the amount of taxes that someone in a regular job pays. Sure, he pays property tax and VAT. Whoop-de-do! But his company isn't paying company tax, he doesn't pay income tax, and he only pays 10% of municipal taxes.
This in turn shows the flaw in Rav Feldman's complaint that charedi tax money goes to pay for things that they neither want nor use, such as television, sports stadiums, and so on. The amounts that are spent on such things are a miniscule fraction of that which goes to things that charedim do benefit from - infrastructure and defense. But more significantly, the amount of taxes coming from the charedi community, and their contribution to the workforce and economy, is so low that they are certainly not net providers!
Rav Feldman concludes by returning to the army issue, and asking the Israeli government not to "wreck our lives as Jews." I really don't see how the charedi-leumi community, which serves in the army, have had their lives as Jews wrecked. Still, if that is how Rav Feldman feels, to the extent that he talks about pulling his family out of Israel, so be it. In the US, he will find a government that also dictates basic secular education. And also one that, in times of war for national survival, would not grant an exemption to 20% of the population.
Being a citizen of the state carries responsibilities to the state. These may be spiritually threatening. They may even be physically threatening. I'm terrified about sending my sons to the army! But that is part of the responsibility and privilege of being a citizen of this tiny, precarious, amazing country.