| Second Thoughts |

A Provocative Exchange

If this is how we are perceived, perhaps we need to work on correcting the impressions we make


MY recent column, “Democracy or Demography” (Issue 954), suggested that the passions that secular Israelis are expending on the (un-spontaneous) judicial reform demonstrations are misdirected. In place of the crocodiliatics about the future of Israel’s democracy, their energies should be directed to their own personal future: Will their grandchildren even identify themselves as Jews? The column suggested that thoughtful secular leadership realizes that they are losing the future, having raised generations that know zero of Jewish heritage, are in thrall to Western culture, and view Israel as just a Hebrew-speaking version of Spain or Greece or the US.

We contrasted this with religious youth: an appreciation of the Land’s sanctity, a negligible rate of yeridah, rejection of superficial Western values, and, among the chareidim, a large segment that willingly sacrifices material pleasures for Torah study, thus forging new links to our heritage.

The column resulted in a letter of protest from a prominent secular Israeli that contained a litany of complaints against religious and chareidi Jews. I cannot cite the entire letter — he sent it to me personally and not for publication — but in any case his arguments were quite familiar: that we look down on nonobservant Jews; that we seek to impose our ways upon others; that we are intolerant fanatics and refuse to listen to other points of view.

Although these slogans are not new, they should not be dismissed out of hand. If this is how we are perceived, perhaps we need to work on correcting the impressions we make.

He stressed one point , however, that reflected the festering wound that separates chareidim from the rest of the country: the issue of non-army service. My mention in the column that young men in kollel sacrifice a great deal in order to continue Torah studies enraged him. He felt that I was equating the kollel yungerman’s sacrifice of luxuries to the maiming or death of a young man his same age while fighting in the IDF.

This is an old and potent complaint not easily answered, especially to someone who is not a believer and for whom Torah study is just another subject like mathematics or physics. Nevertheless, the sore spot rankles, and needs to be confronted. (Although there is a legitimate opinion that since the issue cannot be adequately discussed with someone who does not appreciate Torah, it is best not even to make the attempt.) In my personal response to him, I tried to address this painful issue. I pointed out that even in the midst of World War II the US did not draft divinity students, and that it is universally accepted that students receive stipends for their advanced studies. This is the essence of my response which I share with you:

Jews are engaged in a struggle, literally, for survival. Physically, we must have armed forces, and I have great respect and deep sadness for those young men who sacrifice life itself in order to serve. But they will have died in vain if in two generations there is no Jewish People to speak of, and a State of Israel that is just another Mediterranean country. For us to continue as a viable Jewish People and Jewish state, we must have another army of young men who give up much to maintain the spiritual component of the Jews.

I am not equating the death of a young soldier to the sacrifices made by a serious kollel student. But before censuring young scholars who are serving Torah full-time while not serving in the IDF, we must unemotionally consider this self-evident postulate, fraught and hypersensitive as it is: that the long-term contribution to the future of Am Yisrael — sub specie aeternatis — is also in the hands of the serious Torah scholar, though in a more subtle and in a less obvious degree. My heart aches when I pass Har Herzl and think of the thousands of youngsters who in the prime of life gave their all for this land. But my heart also knows that Am Yisrael requires other kinds of soldiers as well. The dedicated scholar should be praised, and the dedicated soldier should  be admired. We are not G-d; only He can weigh the two kinds of contributions to the Jewish future.

However, transcending our different views about full-time Torah study is our shared concern about tomorrow. Unless secularists introduce some authentic Torah values into their lives, they and their children will fall by the thousands like lemmings over the cliff — which would be a great tragedy for all of us. These judicial protests are, I submit, misdirected energy that would be best spent in ensuring that coming generations will remain Jewish Jews who, figuratively speaking, will at least know the difference between Moshe of Sinai and Moshe son of Maimon….

To date, my interlocutor has not responded. Although his overall strictures are not new, they should be heard and, somehow, answered respectfully. V’da mah shetashiv (Avos II:19).

Stay tuned.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 964)

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