Controversy over haredi military service roils Israeli society, but respect for each side’s concerns and values can help resolve it.
Haredim believe Jews of all backgrounds are equally commanded to learn Torah. So Israel could diffuse Torah study by allowing nonreligious, nonessential soldiers to choose among several serious beit midrash programs for beginners with different traditional, noncoercive approaches to learning. Topics covered could include military ethics and the holiness of protecting the Jewish people and its land.
For every hour a soldier learns, a yeshiva student would lend his abilities to the Israel Defense Forces for an hour – checking an eruv, say, or helping with kashrut and holiday observance. Some haredi volunteers may prefer to relieve soldiers by repairing equipment, cleaning barracks, preparing meals and performing clerical tasks. Haredi managers would supervise yeshiva students in all-male settings, with other accommodations when necessary.
The program could coincide with bein hazmanim, when yeshivas are on break anyway.
The plan is a win-win.
Yeshiva students will help spread Torah learning and promote halachic observance on military bases. They will also gain useful experience for entering the work force and have a ready answer for accusations of refusing to help protect the country.
Nonreligious soldiers will get time off after intensive training and duty, and some might find meaning and even inspiration in classical Jewish texts, especially those related to the military. Their morale will improve as responsibility for national defense becomes more equally distributed.
IDF service and Jewish learning will be maintained or grow, and a wrenching national debate will begin to subside as very different Israelis gain exposure to other lifestyles without compromising their values. Because of mutual wariness, neither community is likely to embrace the proposal right away, but a pilot program involving those most open to adjusting could help work out the details and build trust.
Accusing haredim of being lazy, unpatriotic ingrates has not facilitated solutions. But reminding haredim that their learning is no more meritorious than that of their less-educated brethren may actually gain their attention.
The Torah praises the arrangement of two Israelite tribes: Issachar, who learned; and Zebulun, who provided for their needs. Halachically, an Issachar-Zebulun partnership offers each side the same heavenly reward. So far, only haredim have been Issachar. If Israelis switched roles on occasion, the entire nation would benefit from the twin virtues of duty and Torah.
David Benkof is a St. Louis-area freelance writer.