Sunday, March 9, 2014

And the Jews Gathered Together in Prayer . . . before Purim

Purim is upon us, and with it all of the topsy turvy, upside down views of life that are part of the Purim experience.

I guess that I am the odd man out, because I simply do not understand some of the great issues of the day. It seems to me that the leading spokesmen for various parts of society are speaking passionately in ways that runs counter to the facts.  I do not understand our government's stance in relation to so many issues, like for example the current crisis in the Ukraine.   I do not understand those who claim to be faithful to Halacha while advocating “Partnership Minyanim”, when every single posek of any stature has spoken against them.  I don’t understand how people still seem to have sympathy for Rabbi Avi Weiss when -- one week after they both bent over backward to try to accommodate him --  he published a scathing editorial in the NY Times attacking both the Chief Rabbinate and RCA, and attempting to legitimize non-Orthodox Rabbis.  

But I am most mystified in trying to understand the Chareidi world and its leaders.

We were witness today to a major rally in lower Manhattan, called for by the Chareidi leadership, as a day of prayer to Hashem to counteract the “proposed new law threatening the imprisonment of yeshiva students who refuse as a matter of religious principle to be conscripted into the military”. 

This Tefilla gathering was in solidarity with a far larger gathering last week in Yerushalayim, in which a massive amount of Chareidim gathered – I have seen estimates between 350,000 and 600,000 – in tefilla to avert the “terrible decree” that threatens the Chareidi community, i.e. the passage of the bill that was recommended by the Shaked commission.

In fact, Uri Regev, a reform rabbi who is viciously anti-Chareidi, said “The coalition has recorded an impressive achievement by approving a law that on the one hand will not bring about the enlistment of one yeshiva student, but has managed to gather together 300,000 haredim against it”.   All in all, I was not ready for this call for a Yom Tefilla.

Let us examine for a moment what the proposed law contains.  But before we do so, it is important to state what the current, pre-new law, situation in Israel is like.

In brief, at this time, according to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, it is estimated that there are close to 1,000,000 Chareidim in Israel.  With many families having eight or more children, that number is exploding, while at the same time, the number of secular Jews is not growing, due to having a low birthrate and a significant number who leave the country.   Best estimates that I could find were that over 43% of men between the ages of 25 and 64 are unemployed.  Many of those who are employed are limited by a very sparse, if any, secular education.   This means that close to 60,000 men are learning full time.  Many of those who are learning are doing so because they cannot get regular jobs, either because of the lack of secular education or because they will not be hired if they have not served in the army.  The poverty level among Chareidim is very high; the highest of any population in Israel.   Until now, the economic basis of this system was provided by a combination of: (a) Billions of shekels (with a B) budgeted annually by the government, (b) the income (mostly low wage) of working wives and mothers, and (c) donations raised from charities and families abroad.   In the last election and its aftermath, it became very clear that the non-Chareidi majority of the country was not prepared any longer to tolerate both the sharply increasing monetary burden of supporting the Chareidi system, and the sense that the Chareidim were not doing their fair share of carrying the civic and military burden of the State while receiving an ever increasing share of the benefits.   Chareidim believe, and I of course agree, that learning Torah is crucial to the defense and welfare of Eretz Yisrael.  Furthermore, those who are not anti-Zionist believe that they are in fact doing their fair share of protecting Medinat Yisrael with their devotion to learning.  However, I and many others wonder if this necessitates every single young man learning full time for many years (something that many cannot do effectively), or would it suffice to have either all learning for a limited time, or some outstanding ones learning permanently.  It certainly sounds increasingly hollow to non Chareidim, who feel that they are being taken advantage of when they are all required, with criminal penalties for non-compliance, to serve in the army for three years, while Chareidim are not.   The majority clearly is  no longer willing to tolerate this.

All this is simply a statement of the facts and is, or should be, well known.

Given the results of the last election, in which -- for the first time in a long while -- there are no Chareidi parties in the governing coalition, the government could have passed and implemented various draconian laws to change the situation radically and quickly.    Some in power intended to do just that, but cooler heads advised some moderation, lest a civil war erupt.  Nevertheless draconian budget cuts which deeply affected many parts of Israeli society, fell particularly harshly on the Chareidi community.  Both the support that was heretofore given to many Yeshivos and Kollelim and individual stipends that were given to families were deeply cut, leaving thousands of people, who were barely surviving until now, in a dangerous situation where they can not afford even the most basic necessities.

However, many in the government feel that the budget cuts, which some would argue are enough incentive to force Chareidi society to change its attitude towards military service and secular education, are not strong enough medicine.   If real change is to happen, it will have to be by passing a law that would formalize a system which would bring about real change.  Given the very strong battles that were forming around these issues, Ayelet Shaked of the Bayit Yehudi party formed a commission starting last summer, with the intent of working out a compromise that all sides could live it.  It is the result of that commission that prompted the massive Tefilla gatherings, in attempt to “avert the evil decree”.   Let us look at what the bill contains:

  • All full-time yeshiva students who are currently 22 or older – approximately 30,000 people – are granted an immediate and complete exemption for life.
  • Yeshiva students who are between 18 and 22 when the law is passed can defer their service until the age of 26 and then gain a full exemption for life.  If they want to leave yeshiva earlier than age 26, however, they will be required to perform either military or civilian service.
  • Targets will be set for Chareidi enlistment, which will be nonbinding recommendations during an intermediary stage of the law that ends in 2017.  That will include some enlistment in the military, while most will be required to do some civil service duty. Army service can be done in Nachal Chareidi, an exclusively Chareidi unit with minyanim and time for learning, or in Shachar Kachol, which teaches its participants trades like computer and electric engineering which they can then use for a livelihood after their service.  Civil service includes a variety of options – some are security-oriented (police, etc.) and some involve civil service in medical and other areas of need
  • If the target for 2017 is not met, however, then all Charedi yeshiva students aged 18 will thereafter be legally obligated to serve – with a possible six- to 12-month delay – except for 1,800 exceptional students each year who will get a complete exemption, to continue with their yeshiva studies.
  • There was also much debate about whether or not to include a criminal penalty for non-co-operation.   This aspect was, and continues to be, the most hotly contested aspect, as many feel that this will be counterproductive, and cause much needless enmity, while others see no other realistic way of enforcing the law.   A group of well known experts have advised against criminal sanctions.  Nevertheless, the conclusion of the commission left them in.

It would seem that the law went a long way towards accommodating the concerns of the Chareidi public.  Given that in a negotiation you rarely get everything that your side wishes, it seems to me that they have done very well.  In fact, Uri Regev, a reform rabbi who is viciously anti-Chareidi, said “The coalition has recorded an impressive achievement by approving a law that on the one hand will not bring about the enlistment of one yeshiva student, but has managed to gather together 300,000 haredim against it”.   All in all, I was not ready for this call for a Yom Tefilla.

I was thus somewhat torn about participating in  the Yom Tefilla.   Certainly, given the large number of Gedolim who signed on to the call for it, I had to participate. (It did trouble me that the unspoken haskafa that permeated the day was mostly that of Satmar, and that I feel that it is most unfortunate that the Agudah and the Moetzes are increasingly adopting that Hashkafa as I wrote about extensively here, but that it not for this discussion.)  I was very grateful that the organizers were wise enough, particularly at the insistence of Rav Aharon Shteinman shlita, to avoid any speeches and any political signs or slogans, in order to be as inclusive as possible. I did use the opportunity to pray for two things – (a) that the families who have suddenly been thrust into economic calamity, mostly due to the values of a society they have known till now, need much help in surviving and adapting to the new reality, and (b) that a peaceful way will be found to resolve the enormous tensions that have been created, such that Am Yisrael will not be torn apart along the battle lines that have been drawn, as neither side seems ready to back down.

Nevertheless, I was troubled by the clear implication that the purpose of the Yom Tefilla was to effectuate a return to the way things were, with no changes allowed on Chareidi society.  That on no terms should any Chareidim be required to serve in the army under any circumstances.  This is certainly the impression given to the media and general populace, with headlines such as “Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to lower Manhattan on Sunday to protest Israel's proposal to draft religious citizens to its army” in the NY Daily news being typical.   I am not against Chareidim going to the army.  I remember hearing clearly from my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, that those who are not learning full time studiously have no excuse but to  go to the army.  Furthermore, I am far from alone in thinking (though not many will publicly say) that as the Chareidi economic model is clearly unworkable and unsustainable for the future, hoping for no change is unrealistic.  (This is without discussing the need for the Chareidi world to take more responsibility for the country in general, as they evolve from being a small minority to a status approaching a majority of the population in the not too distant future, simply as a matter of demographics.)

Another interesting aspect of this discussion is – what should we in the Diaspora do about all this.  This is an important question, but this article is already long enough, and besides, this article by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton hits the nail on the head – I agree with him completely. (For those who cannot click through – he argues that we in America must also “share the burden” of protecting Israel in a variety of ways).

And so we come to Purim.   One of the most confusing rites of Purim is the mitzvah to drink to the point of “Ad Delo Yoda” (until one does not know and cannot make clear distinctions even between clear opposites such as Mordechai and Haman).   At least in regard to current events, it seems we are already achieving that status, even without drinking.  It is so very hard to discern what is right and proper, and how to think about current events and where we stand.   The best solution, it would seem, would be for  the day to arrive very soon when armies and economic problems will be a thing of the past, and we will have clarity and be free of those who seek to harm us.  Then we will be able to raise a cup and drink together to have only feelings of unity and brotherhood amongst us, forevermore.


PS - I constantly hear Chareidim say that it is very difficult to remain religious while in the army.   I saw this video last night, the celebration of Shabbos by IDF soldiers on the ship on the way to intercepting the arms boat at Port Sudan.   What a Kiddush Hashem!  (Note the commenters who focus on the Chillul Shabbos, which, while regrettable, was almost certainly done by a tink shenishba Israeli who was impressed by the power of Shabbos)

1 comment:

Nachum said...

The secular population of Israel isn't shrinking- secular Israelis have perhaps the highest birthrate in the Western World, and one of the few if only that's above replacement level- well above, in fact. They're just not growing as fast as the religious (Charedi and not) Israelis.

Of course, put that all together, even without adding Arabs (which would make it even higher), and Israel has the highest Western birthrate.