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March 26, 2024- 16 Adar II

03/26/2024 02:49:14 PM


More than 170 days into the Gaza War, as internal panic in Israel begins to recede, other news trends in the Jewish State begin to emerge. A highly significant one is the required military service that has formed part of the national ethos since independence. Recent headlines have again called attention to the exemptions granted to students at Yeshivot, particularly among the Haredim—the ultra-orthodox minority.

Israel has long been governed by coalition governments that include ministers whose party affiliation is within the most religious part of the society. In part, that links to the choices by the founding leadership to maintain the status quo, particularly in matters of personal status. That preset position utilizes a mixture of Ottoman (Turkish), British Mandatory—and for each religious community—religious law to determine some issues. Hence, Israel has no civil marriage or divorce laws; the highest religious authority of the many religious subsets is in control.

Jewish law regarding military service has roots in Torah, with some given leave not to serve mentioned in Deuteronomy:

כִּֽי־יִקַּ֥ח אִישׁ֙ אִשָּׁ֣ה חֲדָשָׁ֔ה לֹ֤א יֵצֵא֙ בַּצָּבָ֔א וְלֹא־יַעֲבֹ֥ר עָלָ֖יו לְכׇל־דָּבָ֑ר נָקִ֞י יִהְיֶ֤ה לְבֵיתוֹ֙ שָׁנָ֣ה אֶחָ֔ת וְשִׂמַּ֖ח אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֥וֹ אֲשֶׁר־לָקָֽח׃ 

When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married. (Deuteronomy 24:5)

Over the many centuries, questions of military service have found their way into the tradition. Multiple references could be brought, though this summarizes the ideas:

These are the men who do not even move from their places because they do not even report to the camp: One who built a house and dedicated it within the year; one who planted a vineyard and used its fruit for less than a year; one who marries his betrothed and one who marries his yevama, his brother’s widow who must enter into a levirate marriage or perform ḥalitza, as it is stated: “When a man takes a new wife, he shall not go out with the army…he shall be free for his house one year, and shall cheer his wife whom he has taken” (Deuteronomy 24:5). The mishna interprets the verse as follows: “For his house”; this means his house that he built. “He shall be”; this term includes his vineyard. “And shall cheer his wife”; this is his wife. “Whom he has taken”; this phrase comes to include his yevama, who is considered his wife with respect to this halakha although he has not yet married her. Those who are exempt for these reasons do not even provide water and food to the soldiers, and they do not repair the roads. (Sotah 43a)

While in general Reform Judaism does not apply halachah in matters of civil or criminal law—or for that matter—only as guidance even in religious law—in the State of Israel, the status quo position makes all Jews subject to religious law in many areas of life. Over the decades, Knesset has passed some laws loosening restrictions, over the strenuous objections of religious parties. Nonetheless, Israel’s secular society is strong; the liberal Jewish communities of Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews have grown.* 

In past years, a law that granted military service exemption to 100,000 Yeshivah students was among the cases decided by the Beit Din Gvo-hah—Supreme Court. They found the law discriminatory based on civil rights in 2017; implementation of that decision has been deferred by successive governments (see: Hiddush - Draft Them Now!). It is easy to think that decisions of this kind feed the desire of the current, very strongly influenced by ultra-orthodox positions, to reduce the status of that court.

The six months of Gaza War have seen a substantial growth in applications for exemption. Even as the streets remain filled with regular demonstrations calling for redemption of the kidnapped hostages, and members of the IDF (Israel Defense Force) fight, perish and are instruments of death to Gaza citizens, groups which rely upon expectations of a restoration of the order before the Romans destroyed the Temple are less committed to the present state of which they are citizens, and from which they derive substantial benefit.

This is a deep problem that Israel must face. Most American Jews, and in  particular among the Reform community, affirm democracy, civil rights and the value of loyalty to the state we live in. Israel faces the necessity of finding its own path in the years ahead.

Postscript: While I wrote these lines, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza during Ramadan, which ends April 9; may it come into force and calm the atmosphere.


*The American Movements use these names:

Reform + Reconstructionist,  Yehadut Mitkademet, Progressive Judaism

Conservative, Yehadut Masorti, Traditional Judaism

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784