Shabbos Parshas Chukas was the annual “Shabbos of Chizuk,” when leading Rabbis at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College (which is located in Baltimore County, about 5 miles north of the Orthodox neighborhoods of Northwest Baltimore) spend Shabbos in the community, speaking to encourage Torah study and learning. The Rosh Yeshiva [Dean] himself, HRH”G Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, spoke at the Agudath Israel of Baltimore after mincha.
I was surprised that he chose to speak about the situation going on now in Israel, on a Shabbos talk intended to strengthen learning and attachment to the Yeshiva. But the Rosh Yeshiva explained that this discussion is critical. The situation is very serious, and many American Jews don’t understand the extent to which this is so. People think, what is wrong if Orthodox Jews serve in the Army? And what is wrong if they study math and science, like American students do?
The following day, I wrote up my best recollection of the Rosh Yeshiva’s remarks, for his corrections and approval before publication. But even better, the Rosh Yeshiva was invited to deliver an improved and expanded version of his remarks to a larger audience in Toronto, via video. With appreciation to the Rosh Yeshiva and the organizers, the following is excerpted from both addresses.
One must begin with history. At the founding of the state, the Zionist establishment needed to show that all of Jewry was under their umbrella. The state and religious Jews, though, had diametrically opposed definitions of what it means to be a Jew. The Zionist definition is a nationalist one. According to the religious definition, a Jew is part of a nation that received the Torah at Har Sinai, adheres to its laws, and believes that it is a nation because of the giving of the Torah.
Some Jews chose not to back the state. Our Gedolim felt that they could join with the state, on condition that they be granted autonomy. They would have their own education system, and other autonomous rights. This was the basis of the status quo agreement. Whatever took place before the formation of the state would continue in the same manner: the laws of marriage, Shabbos as a day of rest, and religious Jews would have an autonomous education system.
Soon after the founding of the state, Ben-Gurion went to visit the Chazon Ish to persuade him that religious Jews should be drafted into the Army. Ben-Gurion said that the state could not survive without it. The Chazon Ish countered that the Torah could not survive with it. The Torah has a 3500 year record of survival, while Zionism was a nationalistic theory with no real ideology — and the latter must yield.
The Chazon Ish knew that Torah learning could not flourish, and Gedolim could not develop, if youngsters spent three of their most formative years in the Army. But even more important, Ben-Gurion wanted the Army to be a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world, to forge them into a new nation. Charedi Jews did not, and do not, want to be melted down. Living in an environment of chilul Shabbos, rampant immorality, and questionable Kashrus is toxic for our youth.
What Charedi parent in the United States would send his son to dorm in a co-ed secular university for three years? There are parents who do this, but we also know the tragic results. This is why we have separate schools, separate newspapers, no television, no unfiltered Internet. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on education systems that isolate our children from secular culture.
The politicians’ promises to the Charedim are like all promises of politicians. You don’t need to be a general to understand that a general cannot issue a command to march tomorrow, call up the commander of the Charedi unit, and have the other say “wait a minute, tomorrow is Sukkos, I have to ask my Rav if we’re allowed to march.” You can’t run an Army in that fashion, and the Army itself says so. Benny Gantz, Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told Shas Knesset member Nissim Zeev that it is simply not practical to have large numbers of charedi-only units. An Army must be integrated, and at the most they could handle one more battalion like Nachal Charedi.
The Hesder model is not truly separate, and the results are predictable; a large proportion of them are lost to Judaism. According to Rav Eliezer Melamed, Rosh Yeshiva of the Religious-Zionist Yeshiva Har Brachah, 20% come out completely secular. Those who return to Yeshiva are weakened in their commitment to Torah. When I moved to Israel, the Religous Zionist party had thirteen seats in the government, and today they have five. This is in no small part due to the secularization of their youth in the Army.
Even were it true that it had the status of pikuach nefesh, which it does not, Charedim cannot serve in the Army. Spiritual pikuach nefesh is of no lesser importance than physical pikuach nefesh. We should have the status of conscientious objectors in any democratic society.
So they say that instead, students should leave Yeshiva and stop learning Torah for “public service.” How absurd! Learning Torah ensures the survival of the Jewish people; it has done so for thousands of years, and, as we have seen before our eyes, it rejuvenated American Jewry after the Holocaust. Learning Torah should not be considered on a par with changing bedpans in a hospital?! How outrageous that this should be suggested in a Jewish state! Without Torah, there would be no Jewish state, no claim to the land of Israel. How can learning Torah not be considered a valid public service?
Now let us turn to the attempt by the government to introduce secular subjects into our educational system. We may wonder, why do we object to introducing the same subjects taught in American Torah high schools? But we cannot judge Israel like the United States. The problems and challenges are different, and the ways that we must respond to those problems are different.
Lapid’s party says that they have to impose these changes on the Charedim, because they will not do it otherwise. How helpful! Did he ask the Charedim what they want? Shouldn’t the natural leaders of the Charedim be consulted before making such changes?
One of Lapid’s cohorts, who is a Rabbi, has said that the Gedolim are against any changes in their society for “corrupt” reasons. This is the word he used. He obviously never came into contact with Gedolei Yisroel. According to him, only Lapid is uncorrupted, only he does not care for power and fame — he whom Time magazine describes as “walking with the swagger of someone who expects to become Prime Minister.” Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman shlit”a, Rav Chayim Kanievsky shlit”a, Rav Shmuel Auerbach shlit”a, cannot be trusted to care about the Charedi community… only Lapid, the television host turned politician, son of perhaps the most rabid charedi-hater in Israeli history.
Nowhere in the world would they act so paternalistically towards a minority. Imagine the United States government telling the Amish, “you are not productive enough, and this is why you are poor. Therefore we are enacting laws to force you to stop using the horse and wagon. Oh, but we’re not doing this out of discrimination or lack of respect for what you’re doing, but for your own benefit.” What an uproar would sweep America!
Why does this happen in Israel? In truth, it doesn’t happen in Israel either, except with the Charedim. Do you know how they teach arithmetic in Israeli Arab schools? “Ten Jews are standing at a bus stop. A suicide martyr kills seven of them. How many Jews are left?” Yet we dare not interfere with their educational system.
Even from a secular standpoint, the primary purpose of education should not be to expand a government’s tax base, but to educate young people to be human beings. Thank you, Mr. Lapid, but we don’t need your help. We don’t need the assistance of a morally bankrupt society, in which you can buy nearly everything with bribery, in which two presidents and seven ministers have been indicted. We don’t have 60% of our children coming to school with weapons. We don’t need abortion clinics or drug rehab centers. Our students are educated not to lie, cheat or steal, but to love Jews, love Judaism, honor their parents and respect authority. If anything, the secular education system, which is producing a decadent society, should be copying our system, not trying to interfere.
Moreover, Gemara prepares a person for modern technology more than even math and science. When our students enter job training, they score higher than their secular counterparts, because their minds have been developed. A recent United States Department of Education study concluded that in order to deal with the computer-based society of the next decade, education should not emphasize facts, but critical and logical thinking. And this is what Gemara does to a mind.
The real reason why they want to change our educational system is not our purported poverty, but to secularize us. They are afraid that we will outnumber them in 50 years, and they are trying to “solve the problem” at its root. Stanley Fischer, a secular Jew who is Governor of the Bank of Israel, said that unless the situation changes, Charedim will constitute the majority in another several decades — and something must be done. Ephraim HaLevi, a former head of the Mossad, said that the Charedim are a greater threat to Israel than Iranian nuclear weapons, and Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, said something similar.
In Lapid’s words, “we have to break down the ghetto walls,” and this is “an historic opportunity to bring the Charedim into our worldview.” This is the real issue. And although Lapid and his cohorts deny it — depending upon the audience they are addressing — the question is whether we will be permitted to maintain our lifestyle.
This is why there is such demonization of religious Jews, especially since Lapid was elected. In the newspapers, you can see caricatures of religious Jews no different than those in the most anti-Semitic journals. Television hosts and nightclub comedians serve up a constant flow of ridicule. When a crime is committed by a Charedi Jew, the newspapers invariably report that it was a “Charedi crime.” Would the American press report a criminal as “black” in similar fashion?
One of the slogans that brought Lapid to power was “sharing the burden.” The claim is that the Charedim take billions from the government in welfare, and do not pay taxes, thus they must be forced to work and pay taxes. This is sheer demagoguery. Even those in Kollel have wives who work and pay taxes. Every item purchased in Israel carries a 17% and now 18% VAT except fruits and vegetables, and the Orthodox, with their large families, are the largest block of consumers. Half the cost of an apartment in Israel is taxes.
Why should the government take their tax money, and put it into services they don’t use? Why should they pay one billion dollars annually for television, plus for sports stadiums, university buildings, and even police and prisons that their population rarely needs, if ever?
The Charedim bring in more tourists than any other sector. There were over 250,000 people Lag B’Omer at Meron. El-Al would go bankrupt if not for the Charedim. Every year, 20,000 students come to Israel from the United States and Europe to study in traditional yeshivos and seminaries, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the Israeli economy.
We support our Kollelim; the government gives minuscule amounts. We put up new buildings with our money to which they contribute nothing. How dare they take our taxes, use the money for services of no use to us, and then claim that we are not “sharing the burden?”
Please be advised, Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Lapid, that we do not feel that we can survive as a nation with your proposed laws.
I will give myself as an example of what is going to happen. I moved to Israel with three small children 50 years ago, with tremendous difficulty. I wanted to study Torah and experience the Kedushah of Eretz Yisrael. I only moved there because I was assured that we could raise our children as religious Jews, without government interference and without them having to go into the Army. This might not be true any longer. If you pass a law saying that it is criminal not to enlist in the Army, then although I love Israel no less than I did 50 years ago, and have for 50 years built up my entire family structure in Israel, I will nevertheless do everything possible to pull my family out. The dedication of my future descendants to Torah is more vital to me. We will pack our bags, as Jews have done many times throughout our history, and escape from this danger. Spiritual danger is more devastating than physical danger. It is tragic that a Jewish state will force me to do this, but it is no less dangerous for me and my future because it is a Jewish state.
Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Lapid, don’t try to wreck our lives as Jews, and don’t tear apart this country. Because that is what you are doing with your misguided efforts to change our way of life.