Sharing the Burden in Learning, Too

Torah study has effectively defined the generations of the Jewish people. The fact that the secular public has forsaken its part in the Jewish sources is an unjustified and disastrous missed opportunity.

Yael Bogen

A little more than a month has gone by since hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis demonstrated at the entrance to Jerusalem. Beyond the political efforts entailed in a demonstration of this scale, the event pointed to the existence of a very large public that does not define its point of reference in terms of the army and the Zionist ethos, but rather in terms of the ancient Jewish ethos of Torah study.

Confronted by this ethos, the majority of the public says, with drawing room politeness, “I’m fed up with playing the patsy.” This public sets forth a demand, which for some reason sounds quite tired: “Sharing the burden equally.”

But the standoff of the public standing for Torah against those who stand for sharing the military burden, does an injustice to the latter.

Torah study has effectively defined the generations of the Jewish people. The fact that the secular public has, from the outset, forsaken its part in the Jewish sources is an unjustified and disastrous missed opportunity; worse, it causes the Torah itself to become stagnant and fossilized.

If I were to allow myself to get carried away, I would say unreservedly that, in fact, the ultra-Orthodox, in their demonstration, were only begging the secular population to study Torah, too – because without their learning the Torah itself loses out. Let me explain.

Torah study is not only a cognitive occupation – though it certainly is that, too – but an effusive and passionate falling in love that takes place in Hebrew and whirls the participant – in a kind of meta-generational and meta-territorial discourse – into the textual ember that turns out to be the Jewish colloquy down through the generations. Consider, for example, its description in the Talmud: “Why were the words of the Torah compared to a ‘hind’? To tell you that as the hind has a narrow womb and is loved by its mate at all times as at the first hour of their meeting, so it is with the words of the Torah – they are loved by those who study them at all times as at the hour when they first made their acquaintance” (Eruvin 54b).

Why, then, should this erotic learning belong to a particular population segment instead of returning to the fold of Israeliness as such?

Accordingly, I am making a double proposal: Equal sharing of the burden, of both the book and the sword. Every citizen will devote two years of his early life to something that departs from his private here-and-now. Those two years will consist of a year of in-depth, dedicated Torah study in a place congenial to the individual – be it a secular yeshiva, a hesder yeshiva or a Haredi yeshiva – and then one year of army service, aimed at preparing him for war. Thus, this nation in all its factions will be a partner in the act of injecting contemporary meaning into our millennia-long national and cultural genealogy.

This will also dispel the idea that the Haredim study while the secular population is drafted; instead, everyone will study for a year and everyone will serve for a year. Someone wants to devote his life to the army? He is welcome to do so. Another wants to devote his life to Torah? He is welcome to do so. The underlying identity foundation will be shared by all.

Over the past 300 years, this nation has disintegrated into crumbs of identity and a range of subgroups. Amid this, two heroic religious attempts emerged to forge solidarity among all the segments of this nation. The first was Hasidism, which aspired to create equality between the high and low in society, through attachment to the Jewish people; the second was the mystical effort of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to find a common platform in the building of both the land and Zionism.

Today, though, it seems that neither the nation nor the land is enabling the creation of this attachment, so all that remains is to seek in the Torah what exists in common.

The return of the secular public to the Torah could also have the effect of extricating religious learning from the stagnation it has adopted, from the insincerity that often attends it – if only because of the fact that it has become local, niche learning. It is precisely the secular point of departure, which does not derive from within the traditional beit midrash – take, for example, the great challenge that feminism poses to religiosity – that will reveal to the religiously observant student a point of view he never previously encountered. This will enrich, vitalize and inspire his study, and have the effect of bringing about a welcome change in religious consciousness itself.

Elhanan Nir is the rabbi of Siach Yitzhak Yeshiva in Efrat.