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Chareidim 2014 AJN

Tuesday, 01 July 2014 | 3 Tammuz, 5774


Rabbi Ralph Genende

It was nobody less than our greatest leader and teacher of all times, Moshe Rabeinu, who articulated the issue with crystal clarity: “Shall your brothers go out to battle and you will sit here?” (Numbers 32:6).

The background was the request of the tribes of Gad and Reuven to settle on the east bank of the river instead of crossing the Jordan to conquer the land of Israel. Moses thought they wanted to “sit out” the confrontation and was incensed. Jewish destiny was beckoning, Jewish history was waiting for this moment and they would choose to abdicate their responsibility? It’s a striking articulation of an issue as critical today as it was some 3500 years ago: the obligation to share the burden and privilege of fighting for your land and your people.


The issue is of course most pertinent to those living in Israel but is of vital concern to all Jews. It has been brought to a head by the Knesset decision to draft the Ultra-Orthodox (Chareidim) into the Israeli army to perform national service like all other Jewish citizens of the country. This decision to no longer grant them military exemption has sparked a furious response and the protest prayers held by the Melbourne Adass community and supported by the Kolel and some leading Chabad rabbis is a local example.

For many it is simply astonishing how a community that is living in Israel benefitting from its services and the protection of the army can exclude itself. For the majority of Chareidim however, the army and the state are the enemy, the “other” who is threatening to undermine their very raison d’etre – the study of Torah. Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, a Chareidi spokesman speaks about “our community, our religion” as being “diametrically opposed” to their values and their “nationalist Zionist mindset”. He asserts that Judaism is a religion not a nation and that for millennia we didn’t have an army and country and we survived because of our Torah.

There is truth in this assertion; for thousands of years Judaism was a religious way of life surviving through the emphasis on Torah study as one of its primary goals. The traditional religious ideal was one focused on a maximal separation from the mainly hostile forces and toxic influences of the world.

In my opinion what it fails  to accept and acknowledge is the historical reality of a modern Jewish state. What  it fails to recognise is  that there has been a profound shift in Jewish consciousness (and the existential Jewish condition)  after the Shoah and the birth of the State of Israel. What it wilfully rejects is the world-view that Judaism is about a sacred people living independently in their own country.

Religious Zionism doesn’t deny the Chareidi right to be different and in the debate with our Chareidi brothers and sisters we need to be respectful and tolerant despite the deep divide. In fact we should encourage the Chareidim to see conscription as an opportunity rather than a punishment; an opportunity to promote Torah learning in the military context Religious Zionists have forcefully demonstrated that you can combine a high level of Torah learning with an equally superb level of military achievement. It also allows the large number of young men who are not cut-out for years of exclusive Talmud study to enhance their self-esteem and participate in an institution that can give them life skills.The Israeli government needs to act smartly and slowly in bringing change to the Chareidi population. The Chareidi leadership needs to act wisely and thoughtfully in its response to the government.

The language of discourse on both sides needs to be tempered by compassion rather than rage. I am saddened by the description of Chareidim as “parasites” and the arrogant dismissal of their lifestyle. They are Jews who bring an enormous energy for chesed and a passion for the study of Torah. They also preserve Jewish values with punctiliousness. I am wounded by the rhetoric of the Chareidi protests and placards: the comparison of Israel to an evil enemy state (and sometimes even as a Nazi state), the assumption of Chareidi superiority; the sense that only they have a true understanding of Torah; their triumphalism and disdain for secular Israelis and religious Zionists. I don’t get their rejection of the Jewish dream of freedom, the freedom to make your own decisions and carve out your own destiny. I reject their assertion that serving in the IDF contravenes Torah and that Torah learning is all that counts. I am appalled by the assumption that other Jews should carry the responsibility for their security.

Adass and the Kolel are entitled to their viewpoint. It’s a legitimate Torah perspective but since it’s intensely disagreeable to me I will think twice about supporting them. I will however continue to respect their devotion to Torah and the continuity of Judaism.

The Purim story is a stark reminder of Jewish survival in a hostile world, of the need to arm yourself and fight back against your enemies. Moshe didn’t exempt anybody from the battle for Israel nor did he grant dispensation in the battle against Amalek. He stood with the nascent Israel army, his arms proudly held up, his body erect, his spirit proud, his message unequivocal: Stand up and fight together with your people!