The Politics of Prayer

Tuesday, March 04, 2014 |  David Lazarus

The Orthodox Jewish protest over who should be exempted from military service tears at the very fabric of Israeli society. The question as to whether or not Haredi Jewish men should serve in the military first came up during the Israel's War of Independence in 1948, and has never been resolved. Avoiding the issue all these years has not helped. Now it is only getting worse.

It began when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion allowed 400 Haredi Jews a special exemption from military service "so that they could give themselves to study Torah and prayer." The ruling was called "Torato Omanuto" from a Talmudic phrase meaning "Torah study is their occupation." It allowed for some Haredim to commit to prayer, while most Jews went out to battle. The concept even launched the popular "Tehilim Neged Tellim" (Psalms Against Rockets) campaign.

As innocent as it appeared, Ben Gurion's ruling was not only about prayer. The prime minister was struggling to hold onto his divided coalition of secular and religious parties in a nation that was at war. He also needed a unified front to plead for statehood before the fateful 1948 UN vote. Exempting a few yeshiva students from military service was a small price to pay for a coalition. As so often happens in modern democracies, political realities took precedent over moral convictions.

The exemption for Orthodox Jews created more than a prayer. It laid down an entire new paradigm for political jockeying -- the 11th commandment of Israel's social consciousness -- the "status quo." The decision to adapt a political compromise instead of address the underlying conflict has left the issue of military exemptions unresolved for over 60 years. Until 2012, when a staggering 15 percent of Israeli youth became eligible for "Torah occupation."

Large segments of Israeli society boiled over with anger that so many Haredi Jews do not contribute to the military. They claim that this large number of exemptions was never the intention of the original ruling. Haredi Jews are claiming that they have every right to preserve the "status quo." A new law passed this year requiring the recruitment of limited numbers of Orthodox has fueled the conflict, which has now reached a boiling point with this week's huge Orthodox demonstration in Jerusalem.

Even in biblical times, Israel's leaders struggled to keep the nation together in times of war and crisis. Like Ben Gurion, Moses long ago allowed exemptions for men going out to war. Moses understood well the need to recognize extenuating circumstances to keep the men motivated. Deuteronomy chapter 20 reads, "A man who has just built a house…, planted a field…, or engaged a bride…, should not go out to battle." By showing compassion for his men, Moses inspired the whole nation to fight together to protect their "home, family and field."

Moses took it even further. "What man is there fearful and fainthearted… let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart." There is a point at which it is no longer beneficial to keep someone in the army. Poor combatants can spoil a whole battalion.

Moses understood the need to preserve national unity in the face of mortal enemies by appealing to the people's sense of common interests and mutual respect. It is not too late for Israel to look beyond pragmatic political expediency and find a way forward by learning from the past.

The new law allowing for legitimate "Torah Occupation" shows respect for those in the Orthodox community who are unwilling or unable to fight. Those in the religious community protesting because they are unwilling to serve alongside the brave men and women of the IDF find themselves trapped in their own political maze of self interest. While Israeli soldiers are fighting to protect the borders of our nation, the Orthodox have stirred up a contemptible battle on the streets of Jerusalem that only serves to further their isolation from the rest of Israeli society.

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