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What Charedim Need To Understand About Religious Zionists
How to Avoid Family Rifts
Since the Hamas war started, I’ve become aware of several families which have developed rifts between charedi and non-charedi relatives. And when this war is over, there is going to be a rift between charedi and Zionist society which will be greater than ever seen before. While some will say that “now is not the time to talk about this,” I think that now is davka the time. It is important and I hope that my comments will be helpful. My goal in this post is not to argue against the charedi perspective; it is to explain what the religious Zionist perspective is, and how to avoid family - and national - rifts.
The charedi world is very far from monolithic. There are some sectors in which they are continuing life as normal and talking about how secular Israel is getting a Divine message about the arrogance of the IDF. There are other sectors of charedi society in which many people (I’m not sure what percentage of the community) are making various helpful efforts to assist with the war, such as by providing supplies. There are a small proportion who do incredible work with Zaka and Hatzolah. There are even a (very) small number who, amazingly, are trying to join the IDF in various capacities; the publisher of the Israeli Mishpacha magazine announced that he was trying to help with such efforts. And there seems to be a widespread increased consciousness and identification with the nation in general and the IDF in particular.
The problem is that some charedim (especially Anglo-yeshivish types) make statements to their non-charedi relatives which, to their minds, sound to be very gracious and representing a spirit of achdus, as well as reflecting the unequivocal Torah perspective. They do not realize that from a religious but non-charedi perspective, these statements are (A) theologically invalid, and (B) offensive.
I’m referring to the various campaigns and statements like, “the yeshivah students are the soldiers in Hashem’s army, they are providing the merit by which the soldiers survive and triumph, they are fulfilling a role of equal (or greater) importance, look at our amazing achdus!”
This makes perfect sense from a charedi perspective, in which the starting point is that learning Torah automatically creates an unimaginably great merit. Therefore young men who are learning Torah are providing an invaluable service for the Jewish People. Accordingly, Israel is benefiting tremendously from all those many tens of thousands of young men who are learning in yeshiva rather than serving in the IDF. (I am not sure whether charedim believe that Religious Zionist young men should also exempt themselves from army service and stay in yeshivah; I’d appreciate hearing charedi perspectives on this.)
But from a religious Zionist perspective (see Rav Eliezer Melamed’s discussion here, here and here), the starting point is that every able-bodied Jew has an obligation to serve in the army and try to protect the Jewish People. This is a mitzvah, a chiyuv, on all Jews, which takes precedence over everything. (There may be an exception for a very small number of elite scholars whose mission is to be teachers of the nation, if they are not needed for the war effort, but there is certainly no exemption for standard yeshivah students.) It is like tefillah and every other obligatory mitzva and obligation. You can’t say “I’m not going to davven because I’m learning Torah,” or “I’m not going to say Kinnos on Tisha B’Av because I’m learning Torah,” or “I’m not going to help my wife because I’m learning Torah.” And if you do, your Torah has no merit.
It’s not that the spiritual merits are unimportant to religious Zionists; it’s that they are obtained elsewhere. There are many people who are unable to serve in the army - too young, too old, unfit for whatever reason - and their Torah is a source of great merit. Note that even if every single able-bodied charedi yeshivah student were drafted, there would still be more people learning Torah than at any previous point in Jewish history. And there is especially valuable merit from the Torah being studied by young men who will be serving later in life, or who have already served, or who are in the army right now. (Last night, my daughter had a half-hour break from her duties on her army base; she went to the Beis haMidrash and we spent half an hour on the phone learning the pages of Maseches Shabbos that she took upon herself to learn in honor of a friend who had hoped to complete the masechta during his service but was killed last week.)
And there are merits other than Torah study, which from a religious Zionist perspective (and, I would strongly argue, a traditional Jewish perspective) are even greater. The merits of my daughter’s Torah study are eclipsed by the merit of her actually serving in the IDF; and that merit is in turn eclipsed by the merit of those who are moser nefesh to risk everything by serving in combat roles. The greatest merit in our national history is that of Avraham Avinu being ready to sacrifice his beloved son, not Moshe Rabbeinu learning Torah. As Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach said, “Whenever I feel the need to pray at the graves of tzadikim, I go to Mount Herzl, to the graves of the soldiers who fell Al Kiddush Hashem.”
There are plenty of merits from people legitimately studying Torah, and there are even greater merits from people who serve in the army and are actually literally moser nefesh for the Jewish People. But, from a religious Zionist perspective, there is no merit at all from people who should be serving in the army and instead avoid their obligation, just like there is no merit from people who learn Torah instead of davening or instead of helping their wives. And, from a religious Zionist perspective, there is no national achdus when one large and growing sector of the population is avoiding its responsibility to share a very difficult national burden.
Yes, I am well aware that charedim see it entirely differently. But the point here is to explain the non-charedi perspective, and I think it should be possible for charedim to understand it.
Now let me turn to why such statements are perceived by non-charedim not only as religiously invalid, but also as offensive. The fact is that even from a charedi perspective, whereby yeshivah students are doing something of extraordinary value, it’s undeniable that it does not come at any personal risk or great sacrifice. Yeshivah students are not worried that they are going to be shot and killed in the Beis haMidrash, or captured and hauled off to Gaza. Kollel wives are not raising their children alone, worried for the lives of their husbands who are away in combat. Everyone knows that this is true, but not everyone appreciates its significance.
And it’s beyond that. Chaviv Rettig-Gur wrote that there is “no one without family and friends reeling from the Hamas onslaught, no one, including this writer, not overcome with anxiety for relatives or neighbors now called up to the war.” But that’s just not true. The majority of charedim do not have relatives or neighbors called up for war. They are anxious and worried, but there is simply no comparison when there is no immediate personal risk to loved ones. Almost everyone in the non-charedi community personally knows of someone who has been killed or captured; this is not the case for the majority of the charedi community. Almost everyone in the non-charedi community has family that are being called up, and is dreading what will happen; this is not the case for the majority of the charedi community.
Accordingly, when someone is living in a state of extreme anxiety for their loved ones as a result of the sacrifice that they are making, it’s hurtful to hear others who have avoided all such sacrifice and anxiety boasting that they are equally sharing the burden. It’s tone-deaf, it’s insensitive, and it creates resentment.
If you are charedi, I hope that you are joining the small but growing number of charedim who recognize that real achdus means sharing all responsibilities. If not, then I hope that you are at least helping in other ways, both material and spiritual. And if you are in yeshivah, or representing those in yeshivah, please do not cause bad feeling and resentment at this time. Respect those communities who are making sacrifices infinitely greater than that of your own community, sacrifices from which you benefit. If this causes conscious or subconscious feelings of guilt or inadequacy then you need to honestly acknowledge that and not let it cause cognitive dissonance. Give nothing but praise for those who are making the ultimate sacrifice. You can tell them that they are at the forefront of your thoughts, but do not try to tell them that your contribution is comparable.
Terrible things have happened and will yet happen. Let us at least take advantage of the opportunity to strive towards true achdus.
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