The Politics of Prayer

David Lazarus, Abba Lazarus Blog

The current debate over who can be exempted from military service is once again threatening to bring down Israel’s three-month-old unity government. The question as to whether or not Haredi Jewish men should serve in the military which first came up during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence has never been resolved. Avoiding the issue all these years has not helped. It’s only getting worse.

It all began when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion allowed 400 Haredi Jews a special exemption from military service “so that they could give themselves to study Torah and prayer.” The ruling was called “Torato Omanuto” from a Talmudic phrase meaning “Torah study is their occupation.” It allowed some Haradi to commit to prayer while most Jews would go out to the battle. The concept even launched the popular “Tehilim neged Tellim” (Psalms against rockets) campaign.

As innocent as it appeared, Ben Gurion’s ruling was not all about religion. As so often happens in modern democracies political realities often take precedent over moral convictions. Ben Gurion was struggling to hold onto his divided coalition of secular and religious parties in a nation that was at war. He also needed a unified front to plead for statehood before the fateful 1948 UN vote. Exempting a few yeshiva students from military service was a small price to pay for a coalition.

The exemption created more than a prayer. It laid down an entire new paradigm for political jockeying — the 11th commandment of Israel’s social consciousness — the “status quo.” The decision to adapt a political compromise instead of address the underlying conflict has left the issue of military exemptions unresolved for over 60 years. Until 2012 when 15% of Israeli youth became eligible for “Torah occupation.”

Large segments of Israeli society are now boiling over with anger that so many Haredi Jews do not contribute to the military. They claim that these large numbers of exemptions was never the intention of the original ruling. Haredi are threatening to split the government claiming that they have every right to preserve the “status quo.” The underground fuels feeding this conflict for decades have now reached a boiling point threatening more than just the new unity government. They are tearing at the very fabric of Israeli society.

National unity is not easy. In biblical times Israel’s leaders struggled to keep the nation together in times of war and crisis. Like Ben Gurion Moses long ago allowed exemptions for men going out to war. Moses understood well the need to recognize extenuating circumstances. Deuteronomy chapter 20 reads, “A man who has just built a house…, planted a field…, or engaged a bride…, should not go out to battle.” By showing compassion for his men Moses leads the whole nation to fight together to protect their “home, family and field.”

Moses takes it even further. “What man is there fearful and fainthearted… let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart.” There is a point at which it is no longer beneficial to keep someone in the army. Bad apples can spoil the whole bunch.

Moses understood the need to preserve national unity in the face of mortal enemies by appealing to the peoples sense of common interests and mutual respect. Modern Israel has gotten itself trapped in a political maze of common self interests and mutual contempt.

Clearly there is no simple answer. Maybe it’s time we look beyond pragmatic political expediency and find a way forward by learning from the past. Perhaps it’s time we all became a little more Torah occupied?

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