Several days ago, as we often do, my colleague Dov and I sat together for lunch in the kitchen of our editorial offices. He always quickly “occupies” (yes, we like that word here) the best table by laying out his cellphone and cutlery.
Our conversations often deal with the unfortunate divide between religious and non-religious Jews in Israel. Dov expressed his frustration that while his son served in the army and received no pay for risking his life, religious boys his same age are actually paid by the state to skip military service and go learn in yeshiva (Jewish seminary).
I felt the need to correct him.
What Dov describes was indeed the situation some 20 years ago, when child benefits in Israel were four times what they are today, and married yeshiva students received stipends from the state. But this has not been the case for a while now, and most religious Jewish men can no longer afford to “only” study. Today, I have to pay 1,000 shekels a month for my 14-year-old son to attend a religious school. In the army, you at least get some pocket money.
This focus by religious Jews on biblical studies isn’t something new, it is firmly anchored in the Torah. Take for instance Deuteronomy 6:7, which says of reading and studying Scripture:
“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
That doesn’t sound to me like something you just do in your free time.
Consider, too, that already in the times of Moses and David half of the nation would go out to war, while the other half would stay behind and pray. There was a firm conviction that strength of arms was not enough, and that victory could not be had without God.
When you take such things into consideration, you begin to look at the Orthodox Jews a little differently.
Nor are they indifferent to the practical needs of the nation. On a Shabbat I once witnessed a religious man bolt out of the synagogue, throwing his tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) to his wife before jumping in a waiting ambulance to do his duty as a medic. After all, God has commanded that human life take precedence over all, even the Shabbat. Who knows that better than those who have studied Bible their entire lives?