A Letter to a Troubled Charedi Father

I received an email from a Charedi man with two sons in learning (one in Lakewood), who is very troubled by the current rejection of the draft. It is obvious that he does not count himself among those who do not understand that learning Torah all day requires extreme dedication and personal sacrifice, and is providing a profound service to the Jewish people — including by helping protect it. In other words, his problem is not with those who are successful in learning, but with those who are not. Why are they not in the Army, and why are the Gedolim, at present, making no effort to send them where they belong? This is a point addressed briefly by Rabbi Doron Beckerman in his larger post on the draft issue, but deserves greater elaboration.

This is my reply:

In an ideal world, it is obvious that any charedi boy who is not successful in his studies, and is prepared to go out to work, ought to be doing military service in any situation where everyone else is subject to conscription. That is indeed simple fairness; the IDF is preserving the security of Israel, and those who do not protect Israel by learning should certainly participate.

But, and this is a particularly large but, in order to respect the religious liberty of all people, a civilized nation has to provide the opportunity for a soldier to preserve his own religious values to the maximum extent possible — in our case, Torah and Mitzvos. If we expect Brazil and Denmark to respect the rights of religious soldiers or exempt them from mandatory service, we can and should expect the same of Israel.

In other words, the State of Israel should be expected, at a bare minimum, to provide a proper and kosher environment where a person can remain observant while serving in the Army. The problem is that it has thus far failed to achieve this quite basic goal. We know about the Hesder officers who were disciplined for excusing themselves from hearing a woman sing. A friend of mine in Hesder (Yeshivat HaKotel) told me that because he wasn’t fit for a combat unit, he spent a year in an office with a young woman who found it uncomfortable to keep her pants closed. And besides the two officers who resigned from involvement with Nachal Charedi because the IDF wasn’t keeping its promises, Rabbi Akiva Path described in detail his son’s horrible experience. He had nothing but tuna fish and corn for weeks, there was insufficient time for the most basic davening, he was challenged to violate Shabbos and Yom Tov repeatedly, and he would have had to go AWOL to perform the Mitzvah of hearing the Megillah on Purim — not because of any military need, but because of the arbitrary decision of the base commander.

What the US Army was anxious to provide to soldiers in Iraq was denied a charedi soldier on a base next to a community with religious residents — for no reason whatsoever. Participating in Nachal Charedi directly impeded his ability to perform Mitzvos. No one who values the Mitzvos of the Torah can declare that acceptable under any circumstances whatsoever. It’s a deal-breaker — and this is why there is, at present, no “deal.” It’s why the next Path boy got an exemption.

What is an appropriate solution? The IDF must revise Nachal Charedi to make it a truly acceptable framework for an observant Jew. Israel is not a Third World country. It is not Tzarist Russia. It claims to respect freedom of religion. Anything that is a “right” is, by definition, something that we must honor and respect 100% of the time. Not “most of the time.” Not “at the discretion of the commander” when there isn’t the least military need. If you respect the rights of another only until you don’t, you’re not respecting their rights at all.

If the IDF creates a solid Nachal Charedi program, then the government can expand the financial benefits, call it the route into the working world, and guess what? There will be a “deal”, and the program will expand naturally. That is, in fact, the road that was quietly being traveled to address the problem — before this government came in and bulldozed that roadway.

The current government is making no positive changes to Nachal Charedi to address its problems — rather, it is saying we are going to take charedim out of yeshiva, whether or not they are truly not learning and ready to go out to work, and put them in an unacceptable environment more consonant with the values of the secular Israeli. And to put a cherry on top, the Army declares it has no need for the additional manpower — but no matter, the government will compel young men to compromise their religious values to “share” a burden that is, in actuality, “shared” by a dwindling number of front-line troops.

At some point, it becomes obvious that since the Army doesn’t need the manpower, and religious values are being trampled rather than respected, that there is another agenda: social engineering. It’s about changing the Charedi world into something it isn’t (and some have been quite blatant about this). The wolf is wearing sheep’s clothing, bejeweled with platitudes about “sharing the burden” and “participation” and “valuing the IDF.” Don’t be fooled. It’s the value of Torah that is at stake, not that of the Army.

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