It’s Time for Haredi Jews to Become Part of Israel’s Story

March 29, 2024 | Yehoshua Pfeffer
About the author: Yehoshua Pfeffer, a rabbi and rabbinical judge, holds a law degree from the Hebrew University and clerked at the Israel Supreme Court. He has taught at a number of yeshivas, published widely on Jewish law and thought, and is currently directing programs for the haredi community in Israel for the Tikvah Fund.

Unless the Supreme Court grants an extension from a recent ruling, on Monday the Israeli government will be required to withhold state funds from all yeshivas whose students don’t enlist in the IDF. The issue of draft exemptions for Haredim was already becoming more contentious than ever last year; it grew even more urgent after the beginning of the war, as the army for the first time in decades found itself suffering from a manpower crunch. Yehoshua Pfeffer, a haredi rabbi and writer, argues that haredi opposition to army service has become entirely disconnected from its original rationale:

The old imperative of “those outside of full-time Torah study must go to the army” was all but forgotten. . . . The fact that we do not enlist, all of us, regardless of how deeply we might be immersed in the sea of Torah, brings the wrath of Israeli society upon us, gives a bad name to all of haredi society, and desecrates the Name of Heaven. It might still bring harsh decrees upon the yeshiva world. It is time for us to engage in damage limitation.

In Pfeffer’s analysis, today’s haredi leaders, by declaring that they will fight the draft tooth and nail, are violating the explicit teachings of the very rabbis who created and supported the exemptions. He finds the current attempts by haredi publications to justify the status quo not only unconvincing but insincere. At the heart of the matter, according to Pfeffer, is a lack of haredi identification with Israel as a whole, a lack of feeling that the Israeli story is also the haredi story:

Today, it is high time we changed our tune. The new response to the demand for enlistment needs to state, first and foremost to ourselves, that this is our story. On the one hand, it is crucial to maintain and even strengthen our isolation from secular values and culture. . . . On the other hand, this cultural isolationism must not create alienation from our shared story with our fellow brethren living in the Holy Land. Participation in the army is one crucial element of this belonging.

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