This past Sunday, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel were protesting in Jerusalem about members of their community being required to be drafted in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, there has been an exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews serving in the military so they can pursue their religious studies. Many of these ultra-Orthodox Jews receive welfare checks from the Israeli government so that they can continue with their religious studies. Apparently, the rest of Israeli society is getting fed up with this special treatment, and I hardly can blame them. I would like to divide the remainder of this blog entry into two sections: 1) a brief look behind the secular argument behind compulsory military service, and 2) dispelling the notion that "G-d wants us to study Torah all day," and 3) a conclusion around the topic of economics.
I. National Military Service
As a libertarian, it should be no surprise that I shudder at the thought of the government forcing individuals to compulsively serve in the military. In a free society, if a threat is existential enough and the fervor of patriotism is strong enough, there should be no need to conscript anyone because citizens will want to serve their country. That is why it seemed so paradoxical for the United States fighting for freedom in WWII while conscripting soldiers. This, of course, is a deontological argument against conscription. Amongst other things, a society is a reflection of its values, culture, political climate, and the external and internal threats it faces. It would be preferable if we can co-exist my trading freely with one another instead of going to war. Not all countries have the luxury of that option, and given its surrounding hostile countries, Israel is one of those countries. Israel has a cold peace with Egypt, which is contingent upon Egypt's stability. Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, amongst other countries, maintain their animus and hostility towards the Jewish state. Until neighboring countries can get along with Israel, the Israeli government will continue to maintain its high demand of soldiers via conscription. It's nowhere ideal, but given the circumstances, it's the best the Israeli government can do.
II. Judaism and Torah Study
According to Pirke Avot (1:2), the Torah is one of the three pillars upon which the world stands. This is not to diminish the importance of Torah or Torah study, but to remind ourselves that Torah study is to be combined with an occupation (דרך ארץ) because without both, one is prone to sin (P.A. 2:2). The great Sages realized this point, which is why so many of the famous Torah scholars had jobs in addition to their scholarly work so they can maintain their economic self-sufficiency. Hillel was a woodcutter. Maimonides and Nachmanides were physicians. Rashi owned a vineyard. The Rashbam tended livestock and the Ramchal was a diamond cutter. Historically speaking, the few who studied Torah all the time were well-to-do families who had the means to finance that lifestyle. It was not a lifestyle meant for the masses. Rabbi Shimon taught that the essential thing is not study, but deed (P.A. 1:17). Torah study is important because we need a general understanding of the parameters of Jewish law. However, we also need to act on it and do as many mitzvahs and good deeds as possible, which means getting your nose out of your books to perform those deeds. There needs to be a balance between study and deeds, as well as one between study and work.
III. Economics and Conclusion
There is also a question of economics to consider. In economic terms, the Haredim and the Israeli government have saturated the labor market with an artificially high demand of Torah scholars. As previously mentioned, not everyone is meant to be a Torah scholar by profession, and not everyone needs to be a Torah scholar. Even if some were meant to be, some of the greatest rabbis supplemented their Torah study with another occupation. If the ultra-Orthodox population is growing at a faster rate than the rest of Israel, shouldn't we question whether Israel can handle a demographic that is so heavily dependent on the government's welfare, especially when they are not providing anything of significant economic worth in return? Also, doesn't the Grace After Meals (ברכת המזון) say that one should not be dependent on the gifts of man? Instead of being scornful for the "decadent, secular Israeli government," shouldn't these individuals be thankful for the sustenance to be able to sit around and study Torah all day without making at least proportional contributions to the Israeli economy? This is not a self-sustaining model, and the fact that the ultra-Orthodox have been able to get away with mooching off the Israeli government for over sixty years is astounding. It's a shandeh that their self-righteousness would sap an economy and a nation of greater potential. If the ultra-Orthodox want to perpetuate poverty, fine, but they should not do it on the state's dime (or in this case, shekel). Considering "Jewish values," why would someone want to live a lifestyle that intentionally puts them in a state of poverty? Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 31:14) states that if you put fifty plagues on one side and poverty on the other, poverty outweighs them all. There is a reason why Jewish law puts a cap on giving tzedakah: to make sure one in not in such dire straits to receive tzedakah themselves. Judaism does not believe in a vow of poverty, and to perpetuate this inaccuracy in G-d's name is the real audacity.
As I pointed out a few weeks ago when analyzing Israel's economy, integrating the Haredim into the greater society is a challenge to economic progress. At the very least, if the Israeli government is going to maintain conscription, the ultra-Orthodox should not get a pass. If we want to get Haredim integrated into society, the Israeli government should go beyond conscription for these individuals. The Israeli government should stop treating the Haredim like they're G-d's gift to the world and treat them just like any other Israeli citizen instead of coddling them with welfare and conscription exemptions. Only then will they be contributing members to society.