When "Eilu V'Eilu" Doesn't Cut It
In the latest attempt to justify the Chareidi world's systematic refusal to share in the burden of military service, Cross-Currents posted an essay by Rabbi Doron Beckerman. It is, of course, rife with problems.
Rabbi Beckerman's single-sentence summary of why charedim don't serve in the army is 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." This is false. According to Rambam, the exemption for the Tribe of Levi was because they were teaching the rest of the nation, not because they were dedicated to full-time study (which they weren't!). Furthermore, there is no clear basis for saying that a non-Levite can suddenly become an honorary Levite, nor that yeshivah students are of such a caliber.
Rabbi Beckerman continually blurs the distinction between rabbinic scholars and yeshivah students. He quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein, regarding the Gemara's statement that “Rabbanan do not require protection,” who seems to apply this to anyone involved in Torah study who seeks to become great in Torah - but Rabbi Beckerman fails to note that Ramoh (Yoreh Deah 243:2), surely a much greater authority, insists that it only applies to an outstanding rabbinic scholar, and that Radvaz and Chasam Sofer maintain that it does not apply to military threats.
Rabbi Beckerman also argues that Torah study of yeshivah students provides crucial protection, and attempts to justify the charedi yeshivos that fled the South during Cast Lead by arguing that "just a soldier in an indefensible position will sometimes retreat, Yeshiva boys will move away from the danger so that they can continue their study undisturbed by constant air raid sirens and provide this merit." Of course, this entirely fails to address the objection; soldiers will usually stay and fight, as communities indeed did in the South, in order to provide protection where it is most needed. By the same token, yeshivah students should be willing to suffer a small decline in the quality of their learning in order to provide their protection where it is most needed, if they are doing this as their substitute for serving in the army.
Rabbi Beckerman also claims that "mainstream Charedi society is very deeply concerned about the welfare of the IDF soldiers" and that "they daven and say Tehillim specifically for them in times of crisis." As someone who spent many years in charedi yeshivos and shuls, I can attest that this is simply false (and I'm pretty sure that Rabbi Beckerman knows that). At times of intense crisis, there may be Tehillim recited for the general situation, but never specifically for the soldiers, who are most at risk.
Unfortunately, the comments that were submitted to Cross-Currents, pointing out the above errors, were not accepted for publication; apparently, Cross-Currents is not so interested in comments that cross the currents of the worldview that it is trying to present. Another comment submitted by a friend of mine was likewise not published, but it is so important that I wanted to post it here in its entirety. It addresses a major theme in Rabbi Beckerman's article: that the different positions regarding yeshivah students serving in the army are simply a matter of halachic debate, like everything else, and that we should not challenge those who take a different view. My friend Joseph - a brilliant graduate of the finest charedi yeshivos - writes as follows:
May I humbly submit that R. Beckerman misses the fact this is not simply a 'halachic' debate. To give an example, there are several Charedi poskim, among them recognized Gedolei Torah, who adopt something approaching a permissive attitude towards tax evasion, even in Chutz La'aretz (see the following article from R. Chaim Rapoport: link). Now, were we dealing with a purely halachic question, most of us would have little problem adopting an 'eilu ve'eilu' approach. After all, who are we to criticize those who rely on the halachic reasoning of Gedolei Torah?
But I suspect that few of us would be happy to do that in this case, for essentially two reasons. The first is that issues relating to fundamental aspects of our worldview (especially matters of basic honesty) are much less amenable to an 'eilu ve'eilu' approach.
The second is that another community's decision to exempt themselves from what is commonly considered a basic obligation of citizenship (in this case paying taxes) has an affect on ME, in terms of how much tax I have to pay, and in terms of how I am perceived as a member of a broader community. It also leads to a fraying of the bonds of the society in which I choose to live.
To give another example, communities in which devastating child poverty and extremely high levels of welfare reliance are prevalent can certainly cite Gedolei Torah who legitimate the hashkafic and halachic foundations of their lifestyle. Yet few of us would be willing to agree that we are not entitled to an opinion on these unfortunate phenomena simply because of that. Should I accept that the worldview which systematically produces the humanitarian tragedies pictured so poignantly in the Kupat Ha'ir brochures is not one I am entitled to challenge, simply because those communities have 'al mi lismoch' on a halachic/hashkafic basis? To my mind that itself is a dereliction of moral duty.
The parallels to the issue of army service are clear.