At the time of the birth of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion decreed that students studying full-time in yeshivot would be exempt from military service. Ben Gurion felt that full-time yeshiva studies did much to advance the religious and cultural values of the Jewish people.
At that time, exemptions numbered in the hundreds. Today, continuing this policy of exemptions exempts tens of thousands of individuals.
Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that this policy of exempting yeshiva students from service, while demanding adherence to the draft laws by all others, represents an inequity in the system. The Court has ordered the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to come up with a more equitable solution to this problem.
Yeshiva students were never permanently exempted from military service. While enrolled in a yeshiva, a student gets a temporary exemption. They just stay enrolled until reaching the age of permanent exemption from service.
The Israeli army is a main acculturation instrument. Unlike the American military, recruits into the army study the biblical and modern history of their people. They climb Masada together. They tour other holy sites together. They pray at the Kotel together. They develop a common identity. As military service follows high school, they even enter the work force together. Yeshiva students aren’t part of this process. In a very real sense, they are left behind within their society. That is a main source of distaste for the current system.
As they continue to study, year after year, in yeshivot, they are subsidized by the government. Without the experience and training of the military, most are unemployable. The ranks of the yeshiva students continue to grow as new students come into the system and no older students leave.
We have to ask the traditional question, is this arrangement “good for the Jews”?
The answer to this question is difficult. It is good for Jewish students to engage in Torah Lishmah, the study of Torah for its own sake. It is good for Jewish students to seriously study the classic works of our people. But for how long?
We have far different models for study which have emerged throughout our history. In the generation of Rabbi Akiba, each rabbi had a career. One was a carpenter, one made shoes, one was a farmer. The generation of the Rabbis of the Mishnah had unique insights into the law as practitioners of that law. They didn’t just study the law, they lived the cases they ruled on. For them, the cases of injuring the animals of others, for example, were actual cases from their lives, not abstract cases for the study of legal theory.
We have the case of the Rambam, Maimonides. The Rambam wrote extensively on Jewish law, yet held occupations. He was financial advisor to major world leaders. He was a physician. He also did not study in the abstract. He lived the law.
Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Torah, was a French vintner.
Abravanel, the author of another key commentary on the Torah, was so powerful as an advisor to kings that it is said that he was actually exempted from the edict of Expulsion that applied to all Jews from Spain, but yet not to him or his family because he was so valued.
This is one historical model for students of the Torah. Study the text intensely, while engaged in real world occupations.
We have a differing model which shapes the study of Torah. We have a more modern model which shapes Torah studies. This is the model of studying under great Rabbis in a yeshiva. We know about this model from the 1700’s, if not before. Followers of great Rabbis flocked to study of Torah under their leaders. Yeshivot were formed. This system was followed by Chassidim and Mitnagdim alike. It was followed in both Ashkenazi communities and Sephardic communities. Studies often resulted in S’michah, the ordination of the young Rabbis. Even more recently has come the custom of devoting study in a Kollel-style environment in the year or two following marriage. Freeing young husbands for the intellectual pursuit of Torah is now a custom in many communities.
But how long do these studies continue? Until a male is 20…24…26? Or longer?
What is going on within Israel is relatively a new phenomenon. There does not appear to be a lifelong tradition of yeshiva enrollment. Being paid to study seems a relatively new thing. Being exempt from other work while being paid to study is an Israeli phenomenon.
Wives supporting their husbands, is this the Jewish way? Wealthy businessmen supporting their sons in study may be honorable, but what will happen when these yeshiva students get older? Will they have the funds to support their own sons in study?
The Knesset is faced with a dilemma. Should they pass a new law which orders these yeshiva bochrim into the military at the same time as their mostly non-religious counterparts, around 18 or 19? Should they pass a law which postpones for several years the entry into military service of these yeshiva students? If by the Torah (as indicated in the Gemara), a male is to marry by age 24, should military service be postponed until 26, allowing these religious students to remain in study for two years after their marriage?
There are various options which place value on Torah studies while still not totally exempting yeshiva students from military service. Other options exist. Maybe one option is having students by day commit to some sort of mandatory service, while by night permitting them to still study in yeshivot.
The Supreme Court decision requires action. Who is to say what action may be taken?
The religious bloc within Israel is quite powerful. The side they take most often emerges as the party with the largest coalition and elects the prime minister. When they choose to become involved, they can stage protest rallies attended by hundreds of thousands. For this current issue, they have even mobilized religious women to stage parallel protests. They stop traffic and most business within Jerusalem when they protest. The religious parties do not want to end the status quo. They do not want yeshiva students to serve in the military at all.
There is a need for compromise. However, the sides are becoming more entrenched. The secular wish to end the exemptions for yeshiva students immediately. The religious vow they will never permit their men to serve.
The Solomonic leader who figures out the solution of this issue will truly deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
By Robert J. Rome, Ph.D.
Robert J. Rome, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Encino, California. He can be reached at RJRome@aol.com.