“Only the best should be set apart to study Torah”

The present war is highlighting Israel’s need for ultra-Orthodox men to share in the burden of IDF service.

By Anat Schneider | | Topics: Gaza, Orthodox Jews
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at a yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at a yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

The media is abuzz. Everywhere I look, everyone is talking about the unfortunate remarks of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, son of the late well-known Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

He declared: “If they force Torah students to go to the army, we will all go abroad.”

I don’t remember ever seeing so many responses to any article, and such a clear consensus that certainly represents a vast majority of Israelis. I will present you here a handful of the comments:

“I wish” [that the ultra-orthodox would leave]

“Goodbye and may we not see each other again”

“I wish they would go abroad and thus we would get rid of the ‘freeloaders.’”

“You cannot be Chief Rabbi of Israel”

“May they already fly away today”

“Where exactly will they go? To Morocco?”

“Scary… we would be left without rabbis”

“Have a good journey”

“We are ready to finance your trip”

“2,000 years of exile and they learned nothing”

And believe me, there were even comments that I am ashamed to write here. I read the comments and I don’t know how it will be possible to bridge the gap that has opened in Israel between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox. I went through several articles and maybe 1,000 comments to find an opposing view for balance, and I could hardly find anything. Here, I found one: “Without the ultra-Orthodox, you don’t have a Zionist state.”

But this voice was really a drop in the sea of what I read today. Rabbi Yosef went on to liken today’s yeshiva students to the biblical Tribe of Levi, which, according to him, was likewise exempt from military duty. Where did he come up with the idea that today’s ultra-Orthodox community is the Tribe of Levi? Only God knows. He simply proclaimed it, and thereby granted the ultra-Orthodox a perpetual exemption from the heavy burden of IDF service. This was just more fuel to a fire that may no longer be extinguishable.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

I believe that the main issue that should be on the Israeli agenda today, and should concern everyone equally and for which all should take immediate responsibility… is the fact that we don’t have another country. Not for me, not for the ultra-Orthodox, and not for the secular.

If the rabbi and his group’s reading of the Torah leads them to think emigration from Israel is a proper solution, then maybe they are not studying Torah correctly.

Threatening to leave Israel over an obligation to take a fair part in the defense of the nation is a moral distortion and contrary to the principles of the Torah. It is expected that Israel’s Chief Rabbi advocate for service in the Israel Defense Forces, rather than encourage desertion and abandonment.

I personally am in favor of a “Torah recon unit” just as David Ben-Gurion foresaw. That is, those granted an exemption from army service to study Torah should be the chosen few, the elite, those who really know how to study Torah, and what part it plays in leading Israel down the right path. Only those men should be exempted from military conscription. In this way, it would be akin to a special forces unit in the army, where only the best of the best can serve.

The Air Force has a saying. “The best are set apart to fly.”

Maybe it’s time to also say: “Only the best are set apart to study Torah.”

And may all the rest be drafted immediately. Otherwise Israel will continue to slide down a slippery, dangerous slope.

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