In marmur

By Rabbi Dow Marmur.

A sage cited in the Ethics of the Fathers taught that the world is founded on three things: Torah (sacred study), Avodah (worship, which is also the word for “work”) and G’millut Chassadim (acts of loving-kindness). Law professor Aviad Hacohen, writing in the daily Yisrael Hayom, offers a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) tongue-in-cheek interpretation: study – by the husband; work – by the wife; acts of loving-kindness – by the state.

Hacohen, who himself studied in yeshivot and served in the army, was commenting on the decision by Israel’s Supreme Court that haredi establishments with students of conscription age who haven’t reported for army service shouldn’t get state support. It’s estimated that this will affect some 10 000 young men who currently cost the state about 25 million shekels (over US$7 million) a year.

Though the law that demands conscription of the ultra-Orthodox was passed some two years ago, nothing has yet been done to enforce it. The military say they’re ready to receive haredi conscripts, despite their special religious needs, but the minister of defense has chosen not to pursue the matter, probably for political reasons.

Several human rights organizations – including Hiddush, led by the past president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism Rabbi Uri Regev – petitioned the Supreme Court. The court has now come down with its decision. Though in most cases only three judges sit on a case, this was a court of nine and only one of them dissented. The court order was accompanied by a deadline (March 31) and an indication that, in case of non-compliance by the government, the court may take further action.

Needless to say, the ultra-Orthodox are in turmoil. Their leaders are accusing the Supreme Court of having joined the witch hunt against “the world of Torah.” As haredi political parties aren’t members of the current government, the risk of their holding the country to ransom may seem limited, but it’s by no means eliminated.

The haredim see the secular state that expects all its citizens to take responsibility for security as their enemy. The court may seek to prevent the abuse of funds for what many Israelis regard as unpatriotic behaviour in the guise of piety and fidelity to God, but in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox, their way – and their way only – is authentic Judaism. They maintain that it’s study of Torah, not military defense, which will secure the land for future generations.

Therefore, unfortunately it’s not likely that the court decision will change much. In fact – and here’s my pessimism again – the government will probably cave in to the ultra-Orthodox both for reasons of expediency and because deep down most Israelis believe that Orthodoxy is the most authentic manifestation of Judaism, whether or not they themselves want anything to do with it.

The oft-cited, almost classical, haredi line is that on a narrow bridge where there’s room for only one cart, but two – one empty and one full – are facing each other, the one full of Torah (haredi style) must have the right of way. If the other cannot retreat, it must fall into the abyss. This is Israel’s Kulturkampf in a nutshell.

Whether the government will now dare challenge this model and obey its own laws remains to be seen. The Supreme Court has lost patience with the delays and compelled the politicians to act and act they should.

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