First, Understand "The Burden”
Of all the aspects of the avoidance of work and military service by Eretz Yisrael’s bnei Torah, one must be addressed before all others. Before we consider whether there is any way to explain our worldview to chareidi Israelis in terms they can understand and accept, there is a far more important question to ponder: Do we, shlomei emunei Yisrael, accept and understand it? Do we perceive why this is evil? Do we appreciate just how great a danger this poses to our nation?
The unfortunate answer, to a very large extent, is that we do not. There is a huge, perhaps unprecedented misunderstanding about this issue. This is evident simply from the conversations one has and hears, as well as from numerous other developments. A sampling:
A magazine produced by and for Zionist Jews features an MK describing how charedim have a "right" to create communities that are educated towards poverty and financially supported by the rest of Israel, under the banner of "United Torah Judaism." To insist upon educating towards poverty in defiance of Chazal's statements about how one must teach one's son a trade, and about how one should support one's family and even take a lowly profession rather than live off charity, is not exactly Torah Judaism.
A frum website features a chareidi gadol's three prohibitions for Eretz Yisrael’s frum community: serving in army units (even chareidi ones), participating in national service programs (even chareidi ones), and enrolling in job-training institutions (even chareidi ones). It is an astounding exercise in selfishness and self-destruction which, when practised by disadvantaged populations in inner-city America, we all recognize as a a tragedy. But somehow, its author’s background as a Gadol HaDor is supposed to give him carte blanche to legislate such distortions. It does not.
The aforementioned politically-involved Gadol HaDor, whose policies sought, quite simply, to end the Religious-Zionist community as we know it, is eulogized with high honor in an American magazine aimed at ehrliche Yidden in the Centrist and Modern Orthodox community.
We must attain clarity on what is at stake and what precisely we believe. Let us begin with that on which both sides agree. Haredi spokesman Eytan Kobre recently stated that while Iran is “a formidable enemy,” it does not represent “an existential threat” to Israel. Rather, it is “the Zionist project" that “poses a greater threat than … Ahmadinejad.”
Let us ignore for now, if we can, the breathtaking demonization of fellow Jews that statement represents. The man is right — Ahmadinejad is not the problem. There is, indeed, a threat different not only in degree but in kind, an existential one, facing the Jews in Israel, but it is not that slithering Persian snake and his mad pursuit of a nuclear device with which to bring about his dream of a world without Jews. It is there, of course, that the meeting of minds with Kobre ends, and a gaping chasm wider than all the universe opens between him and us.
The great catchphrase that has all the wise men, all the ostensible Gedolim, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues in unison, is “Daas Toyrah.” By this they mean that the burden of defending our nation has been determined by the Gedolim to be effected by those who learn in kollel.
We dissent. The crux of the matter is not who protects our nation, but who threatens it. And now, stand warned: I will pronounce what is for many Jews an insufferable heresy. True, we live today in a Torah-oriented Jewish world, in which “Daas Toyrah” is invoked endlessly to permit the airing of the most outrageous of views in Judaism’s name. As a result, there’s very little anymore that’s still regarded as blasphemous, but I’ll now say something that remains so: Nevuchadnetzar couldn’t destroy the Beis HaMikdash, nor can Ahmadinejad destroy Eretz Yisrael. Only Jews, those most spiritually potent of creatures, whose “feet are planted on earth, but whose heads reach the highest heavens,” can.
There, I said it. Actually, I didn’t say it — Rav Chaim Volozhiner did, in his Nefesh HaChaim (1:4). But please understand: In speaking thus, Rav Chaim, the Vilna Gaon’s prime disciple, was stating an axiomatic truth of the Judaism of the ages, albeit with a kabbalistic framework that was unknown to most of the Rishonim and strongly rejected by some. He was expressing a principle so fundamental to the Judaic worldview that it leaps from the pages of every sefer in Tanach and every masechta in Shas: Spiritual reality underlies — indeed, gives rise to — physical reality and thus is the far more real of the two, with the latter mirroring the former.
Welcome to Jewish reality — also known as reality according to the non-Maimonidean rabbinic authorities — where spiritual causes bring about material effects, both positive and negative; where the “action” all takes place in the spiritual realms, with the ensuing this-worldly results, substantive as they seem to the human eye, being mere afterthoughts. Our deeds, ours alone, activate spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs.
Whatever your views may be on the particular issue of the Israeli draft, if you identify as a genuinely believing non-Maimonidean Torah Jew, you subscribe to this way of seeing the world, and it informs the way you live your life. It is why you insist on not working on Shabbos and Yom Tov, believing that G-d will bless your household for declaring Him Master of your destiny; it is why you pray thrice daily for all your needs; it is why you trade the so-called “high cost of Jewish living,” as expressed in money, time and convenience, for the riches of a spiritually elevated life that connects you to the Eternal One and through Him, to eternity.
And so, if we are to be religiously consistent, it is through the prism of this irreconcilable divide over the fundamental nature of reality that the attempt to avoid military service and working for a living must also be viewed. What most threatens Israel’s future existence? The Torah is unequivocal on this: Not an Iranian mushroom cloud, but Jews — and especially fervently religious ones, who are more accountable for their actions — acting un-Jewishly.
Incidentally, one need not be a benighted Religious Zionist, his big tomes of Scripture and Talmud in tow, to believe that Israel’s fate is bound up with its inhabitants’ conduct — one can even be, say, Eytan Kobre. Not unlike a Southern Baptist preacher, the lawyer-turned-Torah-spokesman has only the Gedolim to guide him, yet he has famously, and admirably, stated that he believes our claim to this land to be based on adherence to the Torah and Talmud. Well, now, they say “talk is cheap,” but ought he not to be held to his words?
So we open the Torah and read: “You shall observe all My decrees and all My ordinances and perform them; then the land to which I bring you will not disgorge you” (Vayikra 20:22). Let’s charitably assume for the moment that transgressing “all My decrees and all My ordinances” doesn’t, G-d forfend, include things like avoiding paying taxes and shirking military service without one of the Torah's explicit exemptions (as Moses himself said, "Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?"). But surely, at a minimum, it refers to the litany of sins set forth in the immediately preceding verses: sexual immorality and all the rest.
So when we read that Agudath Israel has instructed rabbis not to report suspected pedophiles to the authorities without the permission of rabbis who have no training in such matters, and who have proven completely incompetent and to have covered up for molesters in the past, what are we to think? What does the estimable Mr. Kobre think of his community serving as a blight unto the nations? Does he ever ponder what the Author of Leviticus thinks of the fact that just minutes from Kobre's law practice in Brooklyn, countless minors are abused for unspeakable purposes — or can’t he spare a minute from plotting the next diatribe against the Zionists?
And what guarantees Israel’s safety? Jews acting like Jews and doing those things that Judaism teaches bring blessing and peace and sustenance and every manner of good fortune into the world. And among these, our Sages teach, none can remotely compare to Torah study for the protective merit and abundance of blessing it affords. Which is why one wonders why charedi yeshivos fled the beleaguered Ashdod and Netivot region as soon as troubles started with Gaza, and why they are so desperate for financial help from the Zionist government rather than relying upon the abundance of blessings afforded by Torah study. Perhaps it is because they are aware of the deficiency of their Torah study; as our Sages teach, Torah study is most beautiful when accompanied by derech eretz. Moreover, as wonderful as the modern invention of the kollel is for their contribution to the contemporary profusion of Torah learning, there’s no gainsaying the Torah's clear pronouncements, codified by Rambam: the only exemptions from military duty are for men with new homes, new vineyards or new wives, and not for those who wish to learn Torah. Furthermore, there’s no gainsaying Chazal's clear pronouncements: kol Torah she'ain imo melachah sofo betelah vegoreres avon, any Torah that is not accompanied by work leads to neglect and sin; and that kol she'aino melamed es beno umnos ke'ilu melamdo listos, one who does not teach his son a trade is as though he has taught him to steal.
So let me understand: Now, as this fragile little country, whose 65-year history has been a string of wondrous miracles, faces the apocalypse being feverishly readied by the lunatic of Teheran, now is the opportune time to insist that the temporary measures invoked after the losses of the Holocaust must be concretized into a complete and permanent reformation of traditional Torah society? Now, with the returns of the Charedi project in, and the result a country where hundreds of thousands of Yidden are condemned to poverty with all its associated problems of shalom bayis, theft and other tragedies; where charedi youth are so disenchanted with the lifestyle that is forced upon them that many rebel and come to a tragic end in Yerushalayim’s holy streets; where the drive to segregate themselves from wider society is so strong that reporting serial molesters to the authorities is regarded as mesirah — and all the while vicious enemies encircle us — is this the moment to insist upon the negation of the traditional Jewish community, where working for a living is considered normative and praiseworthy, and everyone is united as one people to follow the Torah's laws and values which stand between us and a violent vomiting out of the inhabitants of this most spiritually sensitive of lands?