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In early June, in my synagogue, before evening prayers, the rabbi spoke before the congregation: “The secular think the army protects the People of Israel, when we know, of course,” — he interjected a knowing laugh — “that it is the study of Torah.” But even those who appreciate the role of faith in insuring the Israeli army’s success acknowledge that the relationship between divine and human endeavors is intricate. Torah study does not create a magical force field around the borders of the state. Further, there is a difference between sitting in a house of study in Mea She’arim and running a mission in southern Lebanon, with rifles, and who knows what else, aimed at your head. Those who study the Torah should know better than anyone that these endeavors, both crucial to Israel’s survival — should be shared. More than that, many within the ultra-Orthodox community acknowledge, away from public performances and headlines, that belief in the centrality of Torah study does not justify the perpetuation of the status quo.
There are other parents like me who see that the ideology that nurtured Torah study after the catastrophe of the Holocaust — when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, agreed to exempt yeshiva students from national service (there were 400 such students then; nearly 60,000 now) — is no longer responsive to many contemporary concerns within the community. Indeed, the ultra-Orthodox community is large and vibrant and diverse. Some of our children do have laptops and cell phones and they have seen movies; indeed they may be modern in ways that many do not want to acknowledge. Some also have aspirations to continue a committed Jewish life, while incorporating secular education and plans for a working future, and they want to do so as part of a nation they acknowledge as their own.
For this younger generation, the State of Israel is not the center of a contentious theological debate about God’s role in history, but an existential fact of their life, a place where they live. Far from the image of Israel projected in the polemical diatribes that they may have heard in school, Israel is home. And many of our children, aside from wanting the social mobility and economic security for which national service is a prerequisite, feel that paying a debt of gratitude — not as a religious act, but as an act of citizenship — would be a natural extension of their personal commitments.
In the meantime, the ultra-Orthodox leadership remains on the defensive, fighting a war that has already been won. Torah study survived the Holocaust and the founding of the secular state. Today, behind the assertion that Torah scholars should be left to “learn undisturbed” lies the economic motive to maintain the infrastructure of the ultra-Orthodox world, including the livelihoods — no small thing — of many thousands of teachers, students and administrators. One ultra-Orthodox commentator remarked that it is up to secular leaders to find a solution to the current crisis — but he did not add that proactive secular leaders require Orthodox counterparts who embrace pragmatism, not a recalcitrant and outdated party line. Such counterparts would not only provide private approbation for initiatives such as the Nahal Haredi, the ultra-Orthodox corps of soldiers in existence for over a decade, but would also take an active role in publicly changing the culture and configuration of the ultra-Orthodox world. Then service and work would become acceptable again — as indeed they always have been in the Jewish world.
In doing so, they would allow national service to become a vehicle for social mobility, but also a positive value in itself, allowing young men like my son to do what they know to be in the interest of the State, as well as in their own best interest. But even more than that, to do what in their hearts, they know to be right.
William Kolbrener, professor of English literature at Bar-Ilan University, is the author most recently of “Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love” (Continuum, 2011).