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The Real Reasons why Charedim don't Serve
Only if we understand it can we talk about how to address it
The 2000 or so older charedim that recently decided to join the army for various limited roles is a welcome development. Yet they are still only a tiny fraction of the 150,000 that avoid serving. In order to decide what to do about this, it’s crucial to understand the reasons for it.
In previous posts, I analyzed popular purported reasons - that it’s because learning Torah offers more significant protection, or that learning Torah is more of a national priority. I and demonstrated that not only are they invalid, but charedim don’t actually believe in them anyway. There are, however, numerous charedi leaders who have been honest about the main reason why charedim don’t serve in the army, such as Rav Aharon Feldman and Rav Aharon Lopiansky. In order to understand this properly, it’s helpful to contrast it with the reasons why non-charedim do join the army. There are three reasons that play a role, each to a greater or lesser degree, and none of them apply to charedim:
I. Recognizing the national necessity of a draft
Anyone who grasps the responsibilities of running a country realizes that defense is something that needs to be taken seriously by everyone. Israel is a tiny country with many enemies, both outside and inside our borders. We need a large standing army and an enormous amount of reserves.
But charedim simply don’t grasp responsibilities on a large scale. Their mindset is one of a person in a small, heimish community. Most of the development of Torah and rabbinic literature happened when Jews did not have sovereignty, and did not focus on large-scale thinking. That’s one of the reasons why the Meron disaster happened - charedim just don’t grasp that running an event for hundreds of thousands of people requires a whole different level of safety and planning and professional guidance and compliance with international standards. Likewise, they don’t think at all about how the mass kollel movement and the lack of secular education will impact the national economy as the charedi population rapidly grows. Their political representatives are focused on what they can get for their community, not on what the country needs.
II. Feeling social responsibility to the nation
For secular and religious Zionists, responsibility to the State of Israel and to the nation is a major factor in the difficult task of serving in the army. We are citizens of the State, we feel part of Am Yisrael, and this is our obligation. How can we not share the burden? And for the Dati-Leumi community, it’s also a religious obligation; as Moshe Rabbeinu said to the Bnei Gad and Reuven, if they do not share the burden of fighting, they will have sinned both to the people and to God.
Charedim, on the other hand, just aren’t part of the nation to the same extent. They do not identify as Zionists, they isolate and insulate themselves from the wider public, and they are, by nature, a distinct sub-community. Moshe Rabbeinu’s argument to the Bnei Gad and Reuven, “Shall your brothers go to war and you remain here?” rings so true to non-charedim, but just doesn’t have the same impact with charedim, who don’t really see themselves as part of one family in the same way.
In fact, certain extreme charedi rabbinic authorities, such as Rav Dov Landau and Rabbi Yitzchak Morgenstern, are opposed to charedi yeshiva students even praying for the welfare of soldiers specifically and dedicating Torah study in their merit. Connecting with soldiers in any way risks blurring the boundaries.
III. Personal benefits vs. personal costs
The army enables enormous personal growth, and plays a major role in why Israelis are so successful. Conversely, the risks of physical harm are relatively low (at least, before October 7th). Secular Israelis are not concerned about spiritual harm. It bothers Religious Zionists, but they either choose hesder, or are more swayed by the previous two reasons that we mentioned, or are more interested in the spiritual benefits of serving in the army than the spiritual risks.
For charedim, on the other hand, the benefits are irrelevant, because the costs are prohibitive. For Litvishe charedim, learning Torah full-time is not only the highest value, it dwarfs all others. For Chassidic charedim, isolation from other ways of life is of paramount importance. The world of the army is completely different from the carefully sheltered environment of the charedi world and reflects contrary values. Most National-Religious young men can finish hesder with as strong an identity as when they started, if not stronger; the same would probably not be the case for charedim. Charedim would lose allegiance to traditional insulated sources of authority and practice and dilute their passion for being charedi. There is even a high chance of charedim stopping being religious (with regard to Bein Adam Le’Makom) altogether. For a community in which religion, specifically the Bein Adam LeMakom aspects of charedi Judaism, are the most important priority in life by far, such harm and risks are simply prohibitive.
Now, while this makes charedi opposition to serving in the IDF understandable, it is still not actually a legitimate justification. In response to Rav Aharon Lopiansky writing that “the robbing of our youths’ formative years as a ben Torah would be a price that we could not pay,” Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein responded pithily, “Agreed. But how do we ask other, reluctant Israelis to pay a different price so that we don’t have to pay ours?” There is, of course, no answer to that question.
Still, given all this, the idea of getting anything other than a tiny number of charedim into the army is simply unrealistic. And any attempt to impose it by law just wouldn’t work. There’s no point having soldiers who are totally opposed to serving, and many of them would go to prison rather than serve.
So what can be done? I’ll discuss that in another post.
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