In the early 1950s David Ben Gurion offered an exemption from military service to some 400 scholars learning full-time in Yeshivah. Today around 60,000, or 15% of those eligible for Army service, avail themselves of this exemption and remain in life-long full-time study, unable to enter the work-place. No-one imagined either the increase in those seeking an exemption or the impact this increase would have on relationships between one type of Israeli and another. Ben Gurion’s assumption that such an exemption was his personal gift has been found illegal but the scheme put in its place, designed to encourage more ultra-orthodox into limited army service before entering the work-place, has failed and is being dismantled. The current system by which ultra-orthodox Jews can be exempted military service will be gone by September and a major row is brewing.
Another result of negotiations sixty years ago between the early Zionist leaders and the ultra-orthodox is the system of State funded Rabbis. Until earlier this month hundreds of municipal councils would fund Rabbis – but only orthodox Rabbis - for their communal services. As of the end of May the Attorney General has committed the State to pay wages of non-orthodox Rabbis in certain communities also. The announcement is seen to herald greater inclusion of progressive Jewish voices in Israeli society – a society which, currently, only accepts orthodox marriages, pays for orthodox Mikvaot and systematically funds orthodox Jewish education. Trenches are being dug and both sides are preparing for a fight.
These new and not so new battlegrounds are forcing Israel to confront its Jewish and democratic nature. Does being a Jewish State mean supporting only one form of Judaism? Does being democratic mean that elected members of the Knesset should pursue narrow self-interest or attempt to govern on behalf of those whose perspectives and commitments they do not share? As a lover of Israel and as a Masorti Rabbi this is what I do, and don’t, want to see.
I have no interest in a singular form of Judaism being imposed by any organisation which holds power. Even typing that sentence sends shudders through me; it evokes national memories of non-Jews imposing restrictions of one kind or other on the fullest range of Jewish practice and God-forbid Jews should do that to each other. Of course ultra-orthodoxy inspires many to do God’s will as best as they understand it. Other streams of Judaism also aspire to fulfil a will beyond human knowledge. I believe God, and the Torah, are sufficiently manifold to contain many visions of a good Jewish life. ‘All its paths are of peace,’ we sing as the Torah is returned to the ark. The key word ‘paths’ is in the plural. If the Israeli government is to support religious services – and I am delighted that it does – it must support a wide enough range of Jewish practices to inspire towards holiness as many Jewish Israeli citizens as possible.
I believe in the value of serious dedicated religious study, but study is important, according to the Talmud, because it leads to action. When Moses turned to God on the banks of the sea with Egypt’s massed ranks charging down on the people, God did nothing, as the Midrash teaches, until someone stepped into waters. Study as a life-time’s sole occupation is desperately limiting, certainly for the non-elite scholars, and certainly for those with large families to support. It might even be contrary to the spirit and letter of Jewish law. I have no visions of ultra-orthodox Yeshivah students being forced into the front-line of the Israel Defence Force. That isn’t going to happen. But I do feel more ultra-orthodox Jews need to be supported in finding a way to serve the country which provides them with financial and physical support. Modern-orthodox Israeli girls who don’t want to serve in the army can undertake non-military national service and modern-orthodox boys who want to combine military service with Yeshivah study are supported in doing this. These models must be the basis on which the future of the current exemption from military service is worked out.
At stake is an Israel in which Jews of every kind, secular, progressive and ultra-orthodox alike, can pursue their Jewish lives alongside one another, making compromise, and co-operating. If we can learn to live peacefully alongside Jews with whom we disagree we might even be able to build a peace with non-Jews in our midst and beyond our borders also. The vision is the vision of Zechariah, ‘on that day a person will call out to their neighbour, one from beneath the vine, one from beneath the fig tree… beautiful, beautiful it will be.’