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When Worldviews Collide
Eytan Kobre

When Worldviews Collide

Eytan Kobre

Conservative Rabbi Reuven Hammer penned an opinion piece recently in The Jerusalem Post decrying the exemption of Torah scholars from Israeli army service.  Such offerings seem to be something of a springtime ritual for him. Last April, he published an article in the same paper on the very same topic with the very same arguments.

In last year's version, for example, he asked: "What self-respecting society would legally perpetuate a situation in which one sector is required literally to put its life on the line to defend the state and its citizens while another is permitted to sit and study satellite photos of enemy troop movements, sheltered in safety, and - to add insult to injury - is paid . . . to do so?"

If it seems unbelievable to the reader that Hammer would attack army intelligence experts in that way, that's because, in all honesty, he didn't write exactly those words. The sentence that actually appeared in his column was identical to that quoted above except for the words "satellite photos of enemy troop movements," which I inserted - and there's the rub.

The reason it's ludicrous to think that Hammer would assail intelligence experts for sitting safely in a "war room" in Tel Aviv while their army peers brave enemy fire in Gaza is that everyone - from chareidim all the way across to the folks from Meretz - agrees that national security is a complex undertaking requiring that different people serve different, specialized functions. All further agree that there is no correlation between one's level of insulation from mortal danger and the degree of one's dedication to nation.

The real point of contention, then, separating the disputants on the draft issue is only the issue of precisely which individuals and actions serve a vital national security function. And, indeed, on that point, Rabbi Hammer's position is fully understandable. Coming as he does from a religious orientation that gives great credence to the secular world view that interprets history in largely materialistic terms devoid of Divine governance and spiritual context, it's not surprising that he would deride the protective value of the Torah study these scholars engage in.

It just so happens, however, that there are hundreds of thousands of Jews today who believe, as their millions of forebears believed and taught for countless generations before them, that the events of nations and individuals alike are guided by God on the basis of, and in response to, underlying spiritual causes, not unlike the system of cause-and-effect that holds true in the physical world. These communities of Jews further possess the deep conviction that within that system of spiritual cause and physical effect, it is, in particular, intensive and unceasing Torah study - the exploration of G-d's will for humanity - which provides meaning to the world's ongoing existence and wields immense protective power not only for those who study but for their communities and nation, and, indeed the world as a whole.

Indeed, thousands of single and married-with-children young Torah scholars today in America, where conscription does not await them outside the yeshiva's walls, act on those beliefs by opting for full-time, graduate-level Torah study, thereby deferring or entirely forgoing the opportunity for lucrative business and professional careers in favor of the markedly more modest lifestyle of the yeshiva community.

One cannot ask of Rabbi Hammer that he suddenly adopt these beliefs regarding the centrality and potency of Torah study as his own. But one can reasonably request that he concede the manifest truth that many of his Jewish brethren do, in fact, profess such beliefs, which were part of classical Jewish tradition long, long before the advent of the State of Israel and its draft system. And, if he is prepared to concede that truth, how, then, can he justifiably characterize as immoral those who sincerely have the wellbeing of their people and country at heart - non-Zionists in the political sense though they may be - but are simply acting upon their honestly arrived at, and deeply held, belief that their way of life is crucial to that wellbeing?

Indeed, given the realities of Israeli history, one need not be particularly devout to believe that only Divine intervention has ensured the state's most improbable survival.

Israelis have, after all, experienced a string of victories snatched from the jaws of calamity - beginning with the state's very founding and the war that followed and on to '56, '67 and '73, as well as more "minor" episodes like the virtually harmless SCUD missile attacks of '90 - that are utterly unexplainable in probabilistic terms and make this little country's brief history strikingly unique in the annals of nations.

The citizens of Israel - whose day-to-day security is never less than precarious, but whose continued existence is nothing short of miraculous - have needed only to contemplate the events they have personally lived through to declare with the Psalmist that "the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers." Perhaps that, too, is why, irrespective of what they personally do on Saturdays, the Israeli electorate has, for fifty years now, been more willing than Rabbi Hammer to support the choices of those who pass up the "good life" with its high-paying jobs and material comforts in favor of earnest, years-long dedication to studying and embodying that Guardian's Torah.


[Eytan Kobre is a New York attorney active in Jewish communal affairs. This article, in slightly different form, first appeared in the Long Island Jewish World.]

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