Netanyahu’s new super-sized unity coalition was forged upon the agreement that by August 1, a new law would be drafted concerning ultra-Orthodox participation in National Service. The Likud party suggests setting a minimum number of ultra-Orthodox recruits and increasing that number each year. The Atzmaut party would have the Israel Defense Forces decide which 18 year olds (ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arabs included) should serve in the army, and which 18 year olds should serve a year of civilian service. Kadima suggests phasing in national service (army or civilian) for all ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens within five years, whilst allowing 1000 yeshiva students an exemption each year. Yisrael Beiteinu’s suggestion is very similar to Kadima’s. They would require all citizens to enlist in the IDF or civilian service, and would allow 1000 yeshiva students, along with 1000 artists and athletes, an exemption each year. Their plan has no five year period of phasing in.
Any one of those plans could be truly revolutionary for this country. The skills and life experiences that Arab and ultra-Orthodox recruits would gain in mandatory national service would better prepare them for the job market and for interacting beyond the iron curtains of Israeli social divides. It would help to create the sense that all Israelis are sharing in the national burden, and striving toward civic virtues. It may also play a role in revolutionizing the economy in both the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors.
But, let’s return to the magic number: 1000. Yisrael Beiteinu and Kadima both suggest that 1000 Yeshiva students should be exempted annually. But if the current state of affairs, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens get off the conscription hook each year is unfair, then why, in the new law, should there be any exceptions whatsoever?
I think that I can answer that question from personal experience. Since leaving school, I have spent almost 12 years in full time education. Six of those years have been in university, where I managed to get a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy, whilst somehow skipping over the need for a master’s degree. Six of those years I have spent in yeshivot. In those years, one difference between studying Talmud and academic philosophy struck me as particularly stark.
When I decided to specialise in the early metaphysics of Bertrand Russell, I found that within two years of reading up every major article and book on the topic, I was qualified to hold my own in conversations with world-leading scholars in the field. I remember addressing an international conference of Russell scholars, many of whom appeared as authors on my book shelf, and being able to make real contributions to their understanding, despite the fact that I still, obviously, had a great deal to learn from them, and still do.
Six years of intensive Talmud study on the other hand, hasn’t left me with the feeling that I’m equipped to hold my own in conversation with the world’s best scholars. Why?
Great philosophy certainly demands an acquaintance with the historical literature. Without it, you’d lack intellectual inspiration; you might simply repeat what’s already been said; you might fail to recognise how troubling the philosophical question at hand really is, overlooking the fact that its contours have already been diagnosed by past generations. Alternatively, you might blindly fall into difficulties that had others had already fallen into. All of that notwithstanding, acquaintance with past literature isn’t the key to great philosophy. The job of the philosopher is merely to understand an abstract question and to offer insightful approaches toward its solution. Theoretically, great philosophy can be done in a bubble.
Talmud scholarship is totally different. The great sage isn’t merely required to understand problems and to be creative in solving them. The great sage also has to marshal a huge amount of data. To make a convincing halakhic ruling, for example, no Biblical verse, no Talmudic saying, no medieval responsa, and no modern-day opinion can be overlooked. The Talmud was written in such a way that any one page of it assumes that you already know what’s written on all of the other pages. It feels as if there’s no way in. It’s a formidable work. Jewish law constitutes an enormous web of literature that stretches over centuries and refers at each point to every other corner of the web. It simply isn’t possible to make a legal ruling without intimate knowledge of the entire history of the subject.
I believe that a Jewish state should be a place that encourages profound engagement with Jewish culture and Jewish literature, and thus, should be a place that values and encourages, among other things, Talmud scholarship. Of course, this doesn’t rule out yeshiva students serving in the IDF. I’m proud of our Hesder Yeshivot that combine studying Talmud with serving in the army. The two are not incompatible. Yet, none of the Hesder Yeshivot have ever produced a giant in Talmudic dialectics and halakhic argumentation; a person whose writings will be pored over for hundreds of years to come. The ultra-Orthodox who don’t go to the army seem to have more success in producing that sort of scholar.
The founding leaders of Modern-Orthodoxy, whose work really will be studied for centuries, Rabbis Kook and Soloveitchik (and even my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Lichtenstein) were educated in the ultra-Orthodox world before moving toward modernity. We have to admit that the Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva system, despite all of its faults, has something going for it. As a Modern-Orthodox Jew, I think that our exposure to secular sources and to the modern world make us more intellectually creative and socially sensitive than many of our ultra-Orthodox counterparts, and yet, where is that Modern-Orthodox produced giant that I’ve been looking for?
Creativity and sensitivity are not enough to make a world-class Torah sage because Talmud scholarship isn’t just about intellectual creation; it is also about marshalling a huge amount of data. If you don’t know the data almost by rote, then you can’t do the job. Ultra-Orthodox dedication to intensive and uninterrupted Talmud study from a young age is what creates so many CD-Rom-like minds. They might not all have the brains to marshal that data creatively, but at least they have the data. And, some of them do have the brains to match it.
A country that values the Talmud, even as only a cultural heirloom, has to encourage its most gifted students to sit with it from a young age in a dedicated and uninterrupted fashion. To think that everyone can be a Talmud sage is ridiculous. People should be going to the army, or to civilian service. But, if a number of athletes and artists can be exempted on the basis that their talent needs to be nurtured from a young age, without interruption, then the same argument can be made for the most gifted of our young Talmud scholars.
How will the 1000 be selected? Will they all be Ultra-Orthodox? Will they all be Orthodox? I don’t think it should be for for the state to decide whose religious interpretation of the Talmud is most valid. Will they all be male? Or, will it be decided, as I hope it will be, on the basis of a totally anonymous central examination? It saddens me to think that special interest groups will probably be in charge of hand picking the male ultra-Orthodox exemptions.
Only when creative minds are equipped with the massive amount of data that constitutes Yeshivish literature can there be any hope of real progress on issues like agunot (chained women), conversion, and more. That sort of progress would certainly be worth 1000 exemptions.
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.
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