“We do not want to fight with the non-observant community. We love them, but we will never join the army by any means whatsoever. We will resist, and we will give our lives as we did in exile. We will resist as strongly as we can. We will fill the prisons so that the Torah will maintain its status,” Rabbi Yisrael Pinto, a yeshiva dean in Jerusalem, says, without blinking.
Pinto is not the head of a large, well-known yeshiva. He leads about 50 students in the Mekor Hokhma Vehayyim (Source of Wisdom and Life) yeshiva and one other kollel.
Still, his attitude is a good representation of the haredi approach over the past several weeks in the dispute over the ultra-Orthodox sector’s non-service in the Israel Defense Forces. He hopes to discuss the importance of religious study, how the community copes with the sanctions and the economic threats, and mainly the widening rift with “our non-observant brothers.”
According to Pinto, the biggest issue that has made itself felt over the past several weeks in the haredi community is that it is helpless in its attempt to explain the importance of Torah study. “We, the entire people of Israel, and non-observant people as well, some of whom perhaps understand less but still understand, know that the only thing that keeps the state going and protects it from all the threats is Torah study,” he says.
“That is the strongest army. It is obvious that if there is no self-sacrifice when it comes to Torah study, the state will not last. It is written explicitly: ‘One who dies in a tent’ [Numbers 19:14] – this refers to the tent of Torah. Just as the army is on duty 24 hours a day, there needs to be Torah 24 hours a day, too.”
Pinto adds, “The conflict between the army and Torah study is happening precisely at the most important age for a yeshiva student, the age when his character takes shape and he learns how to build a Jewish home. The years between the ages of 18 and 22 are the most critical ones for a yeshiva student to study Torah.”
Dying in the tent of Torah
Pinto has a prepared answer to the claim that while non-religious men go running through rough terrain, the yeshiva students sit in air-conditioned buildings. He says that non-religious people are not suckers, but rather “partners.”
“That’s one way to look at it, but there’s another way, which is that non-religious people have full merits just as religious people do,” he says. “They have the same merits that come through Torah study. They just don’t realize it ... It’s like two people who are in a dark room and the floor is covered with diamonds. I’m stuffing diamonds into the non-observant man’s pockets even though he doesn’t see it. I’m giving him this merit. Actually, thanks to the non-observant people, thanks to the people who go to the army and protect us and give us the opportunity to continue to study Torah, they are full partners in our observance of the commandments. Today it’s critical. Today many people don’t observe the Torah or keep mitzvot, not Shabbat, not kashrut, so where can they get merit from? In the merit of their going to the army, they enable young men to sit and study Torah. Yeshiva students protect the soldiers with their study. It’s actually a perfect partnership of interests and an equal bearing of the burden.”
Pinto uses the well-known assertion that the army has no interest at all in the ultra-Orthodox. “The army doesn’t need or want the haredim. Look how many non-combat positions they have. Besides, if haredim go to the army, the non-observant people won’t want to be there. Parents won’t send their children for fear that they will become religiously observant – they’ll encounter prayers, classes on religious topics, special prayer groups. They’ll see the light and go back home with sidelocks and a beard. Believe me, no non-observant person wants that to happen to his son in the army.”
Pinto says that most of the population in Israel wants the yeshiva students to go on as they are and not join the army.
“I travel around the country a lot, including among the non-observant population,” he says. “Non-religious people understand how important the yeshivas and Torah study are. Aside from a few leftists and some media personalities who like to stir up this argument and create conflict between haredim and non-observant people, most of them understand how important and necessary this is. Those who serve in the Golani and Givati Brigades also know that it’s important that there be yeshiva students.”
Pinto mentions the comparison between the exertion required in the yeshiva study hall and that required by soliders.
“I see yeshiva students with three or four children who kill themselves in the tent of Torah,” he says. “They don’t rest for a single moment. You can’t engage them in conversation about everyday matters for a minute. They get up early in the morning and don’t leave their books until noon. They take an hour’s rest and keep going until evening. The ones who have children go home to help out, but the young men stay to study until very late and night – and all this for 3,000 shekels [$762] per month. These are people who renounce this world entirely for the sake of Torah study. They don’t buy clothes, they don’t eat in restaurants, they give up any chance to have a career, all so that the Torah will last.”
He adds, “I want to see one non-observant person who can stick to a schedule like that. If the non-religious people change places with us, they won’t be able to manage it.”
Like the rest of the haredi public, Pinto believes a solution will be found that will enable the yeshiva students to continue studying. A mass draft is out of the question.
“We love our non-observant brothers very much,” he says. “We were raised and educated to love the entire Jewish people. We want very much to be brothers, but there will be no mass draft here. There will never be any such thing as a forcible draft. There is no agency capable of doing it. Our young men are filled with faith and confidence in God and they obey the rabbis. We are not the national-religious public. What happened during disengagement will never happen to us. If rabbis order us to resist by force, we will resist with all our might. We do not want such a rift within our nation, but we will fight over this because both we and the non-observant population are dependent upon the Torah. We live in the same boat, and if we sink, everyone else will sink, too.”
While the haredi Knesset members kept a close watch on every word that they uttered this week, the lay leaders of the haredi community were unrestrained, and even allowed themselves to make statements beyond the pale. One such was Yehoshua Pollack, a well-known, long-time political fox among haredi wheeler-dealers, who held key positions in the Jerusalem municipality and was even briefly a Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism party. He claims wholeheartedly that not all the haredim should sit in yeshivas, dedicating their time to Torah study, thus refuting one of the most popular haredi claims against army service.
“The problem is not modesty at all,” Pollack says. “When you go to the doctor in the hospital, are all the nurses dressed modestly? But you still go, because it’s important. Modesty is a side issue that can be dealt with.”
Pollack, too, asserts vigorously that every young man who wants to study in yeshiva and devote his life to Torah study must do so. “Plesner himself agreed to that,” he says. “The main problem is that instead of encouraging people to go to the army, they encouraged sanctions and penalties, and the haredi community cannot agree to that. It would have been much simpler and more appropriate to provide incentives to those who didn’t want to study.”
So is money the problem?
“It’s not a matter of money,” says Pollack. “I say that those who don’t devote their lives to Torah study should go to the army and get a job. If we provide incentives, we’ll know exactly who really wants to stay and study in yeshiva and who doesn’t. We’re not a factory for draft-dodgers. Those who really want to study Torah will give up anything, any amount of money on earth, in order to keep learning, and those who don’t will likely give in to the incentives. That’s how we’ll know who wants to stay in yeshiva, and we’ll have to let them stay, because Torah study is sacred.”
Pollack is particularly pained by the assertion of haredi parasitism.
“The haredi population is composed of good, high-quality people who live their whole lives for others. Where else will you find a man who on a Friday evening, when he’s with his wife and seven children, will drop everything and run to pick up a body from the highway? Don’t you ever wonder why you see haredi people near the cars whenever there’s an accident? My son hasn’t spent three years in the army yet, but he’s been a volunteer for 15 years. Those are amazing statistics.
“All these volunteers who devote their lives to other people – where do you think they come from? Sayeret Matkal [the IDF’s elite commando unit]? Intelligence? No. That’s where everybody is mistaken. The people whom they call parasites and lazy are the same ones who grew up in the Hebron and Mir yeshivas.”
All that notwithstanding, what do you think is the major problem in the balance of power between the haredim and the non-observant population?
“In my opinion, the biggest and most urgent problem at the moment is the lack of understanding and the non-observant population’s distance from Jewish tradition. It was known that [Israel’s first Prime Minister, David] Ben-Gurion wasn’t always fond of the haredim or of Judaism, but even he understood that if he wanted the state to remain Jewish, he had to grant exemptions to yeshiva students.”
Rabbi Pinto is more specific about this point. “Today, it’s not just the non-observant young people who don’t understand that,” he says. “The politicians don’t understand it either. Once, every non-observant person could say, ‘My grandfather was a rabbi,’ and he had some spark of Jewish tradition. It’s not like that today, so go try to explain the gap.”
‘Just don’t use coercion’
In talks that haredi MKs had with officials in charge of the draft over the past several weeks, everybody reiterated the usual message about the change that has been taking place in the haredi sector over the past several years. This change includes more ultra-Orthodox men going out into the job market and the academic world, as well as their integration into the army in the Shahar program and national civil service. Despite the small number of haredim who are willing to be drafted, the haredi MKs actually claim the opposite. Shas party chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai claims that within a few years, the percentage of haredim who serve in the IDF and do national-civil service will become equal to the percentage of non-observant draftees.
One of the things that the haredim claim could stop this process is the attempt at coercion – the desire that all the haredim bear the burden in exactly the same way, without differentiation. For this reason, several yeshiva students who are already doing national service organized this week and wrote a letter to the government asking it not to force the draft on the haredim, but rather to allow the process to grow organically.
The group comprises about 20 yeshiva students who could not be described in any way as being on the fringes of haredi society or as “blue shirts” (a new term used to describe modern haredim who are open to the communal Israeli ethos). They wear black skullcaps and white shirts and keep their ritual fringes visible. They come from well-known yeshivas and still devote a great deal of time to Torah study.
These students stated openly what the institutional haredi press still refuses to say aloud – that the haredi community is undergoing a revolution.
“In this recent period, voices have been heard calling for a forcible draft of the haredim. We, a group of haredi volunteers in the national-civil service, wish to prevent that intention from becoming realized,” their letter says. “National service is an additional stage in the profound change that haredi society has been undergoing over the past few years, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the service is voluntary, not obligatory. We believe that it is impossible to assist the elderly, children and the needy out of compulsion. This is an action that must come from understanding and free will ... A process of coercion could lead to the opposite result. Even those who wish to contribute could be put off and align themselves with radical elements who oppose contributing in any way.”
The group claims that the process is a long one that will continue for several years. “We understand that becoming integrated into the service will make it easier for us to acquire an education in the future,” they say. “But it must be done gradually and without threatening continued Torah study, God forbid.”
Sar-Shalom Jerbi, the director-general of the National-Civil Service, agrees. “We have reached a situation in which the haredim are coming out and saying openly that change is occurring. It is something that at one time could never have happened,” he says.
Like the group of yeshiva students, Jerbi is optimistic: “If the process of integration keeps on as it is today, then in 2015, 4,800 people will be drafted. Of them, 2,400 will do national-civil service, 2,400 will serve in the army, and another 2,400 will remain in yeshiva.”