Religion

Israel’s High Court rules Haredi men no longer exempt from mandatory military service

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JERUSALEM (RNS) — Within hours of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, three of Rebecca Kowalsky’s sons and two of her sons-in-law were called up for emergency military reserve duty. Released after a few months, two of the five have been called up again. 

Not so Kowalsky’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, relatives, who are under a law — recently expired — that exempts army-age Haredi men engaged in full-time Torah study from Israel’s mandatory military service.

Kowalsky and much of the Israeli public want these exemptions to end, especially now that Israel is at war with Hamas and could soon be at war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“I don’t know how they live with themselves,” Kowalsky said of the vast majority of Haredi men who continue to study in yeshivas amid the war. “I am an Orthodox Jew. I believe in the power of Torah and in the Torah. Why shouldn’t they share in the burden of protecting Israel?” Kowalsky said.

The country’s High Court agrees.

In a historic decision, the judges ruled unanimously Tuesday (June 25) that draft-age Haredi men are not exempt from the country’s mandatory military service, even if they are studying in a yeshiva. The ruling also obligates the state to cease funding yeshivas that fail to comply.

The ruling sent shockwaves through the 120-seat parliament, which was already mulling a Haredi conscription law that — in its current form — would draft just a small fraction of the 66,000 Haredi men who qualify for conscription.

Haredi lawmakers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 64-seat governing coalition previously said they would withdraw from the coalition, necessitating new elections, if the Knesset passed a law mandating widespread Haredi conscription.

While the blanket exemption of Haredi yeshiva students has been an issue of contention for decades, it has taken on new urgency since the Hamas massacre and Hezbollah’s escalating aggression. In addition to relying on its regular soldiers, the IDF has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists, many of them married and with families.

Although roughly 4,000 post-yeshiva-age Haredi men offered to volunteer for a few weeks of non-combat IDF duty following Oct. 7, the army rejected all but a few hundred.

“This isn’t what the army needs,” said Gilad Malach, an expert on the Haredi community at the Israel Democracy Institute. “There is a manpower shortage, and reservists are being called up again and again. The army needs actual soldiers.”

Whether the army will ultimately draft large numbers of Haredi men is an open question. To maintain a strict ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, Haredi soldiers require the highest standard of kosher food and the ability to pray daily, regardless of conditions on the ground. The Haredi men who currently serve do so on male-only military bases.

No one appears more pleased by the court’s ruling than leaders in the so-called Religious Zionist (Dati Leumi) community, where more than 10,000 young Orthodox men study Torah in a “hesder” yeshiva prior to and following their mandatory military service. A disproportionately high number of IDF soldiers who have been killed or wounded in combat during this war have been hesder yeshiva students engaged in high-risk missions.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president of the Ohr Torah Stone educational network, which has 2 hesder yeshivas for men and four pre-army seminary programs for women, called the court’s ruling “an important step in the long-term security and viability” of Israel. “The thousands of alumni, students, rabbinical students, parent body, and faculty of Ohr Torah Stone prove that being equally committed to serving the Jewish people through Torah learning as well as serving in the IDF is possible.”

At the same time, Brander urged the IDF to do everything possible to ensure Haredi soldiers can maintain their uniquely religious lifestyle, “so we can defend the country and contribute fully together.

Rabbi Yaaqov Madan, rabbinical head of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva, rejected claims by some Haredi leaders that Torah study and prayer for the safety of IDF soldiers is equivalent to military service.

“I don’t see how people can say they serve God if they don’t do their part to protect our country the same way the IDF does. Prayer and Torah study are not enough. “

In the Book of Numbers (7:9), Madan said, Moses instructed the Kehat family to transport the Tabernacle and its sacred vessels on their shoulders, and not with a wagon.

“Army service is a sacred duty, and haredim need to shoulder that as well,” Madan said.

Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the Tzohar Religious Zionist rabbinical organization, insists that military service and Torah study are not incompatible.

“We have to stop pretending that this is a debate between the Torah world and the secular world. All of my sons served in the army. I served in the army. My second eldest is a rabbi and completing 180 days of reserve duty. I don’t see why he should do 180 days and others should do nothing.”

While acknowledging Haredi concerns that serving in the IDF will expose insular young men to the influences of secular society, expecting non-Haredi men and women to take on all the responsibility for Israel’s protection “is not moral, not fair, and not according to Jewish law,” Stav said.

Rochel, a Haredi mother whose Haredi son served in the IDF, believes the IDF isn’t equipped to draft more ultra-Orthodox soldiers. She declined to share her last name for reasons of religious modesty.

“The rabbis in the army are amazing, but they can’t always ensure a minyan,” the quorum required for Jewish men to pray communally.

From what her son told her, Rochel said, and what she said she has seen in other families, “many of the boys currently going into Haredi units aren’t mainstream Haredi boys, and many don’t stay religious. They stop keeping Shabbat and kashrut. My son is the exception.”

Rather than draft Haredi men, Rochel, would like young men in her community to do National Service, a one-to-two-year commitment usually undertaken by religious young women, both Jewish and Arab.

“There are many, many young men in our community who would like to give back to the country through National Service. They would jump at the opportunity,” Rochel said.



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