Those who have read my column even infrequently know that I am a baal teshuvah (BT). I have been part of and continue to be part of both sides of the secular/religious equation. Let me be clear, as a BT and as an observant Jew, my commitment is to Torah, but being a BT makes the language of both sides of the divide between the secular and the religious familiar and compelling. The price for this capacity however is dear: empathizing with each side causes a constant and unremitting torment when Klal Yisrael is at odds and concerning the issue of chareidi conscription, Israel and the Jewish people are camps at odds.
It might surprise many Jews who were born religious how many “non-observant” Jews are truly connected to Judaism, fully recognize if not fully adhering to Torah, and to Jewish unity. Daily, a significant portion of the population puts their lives at stake to protect these values. Please do not misinterpret my words as advocating “Judaism-lite,” merely as recognizing the centrality of Judaism to fellow Jews.
In fact every poll taken in Israel indicates that the vast majority of Jews here are, at the very least, traditional, believe in Hashem, and have reverence for the Torah, despite, as yet, not rigorously maintaining the commandments. They are inclined to respect those who represent Torah and religion and feel anguish when Jews are in conflict. I don’t claim to have the solution for the ongoing problem of whether or not or how to integrate chareidi Jews into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) but indulge me and let me share a seminal event which helped transform me from a Jew of this traditional mindset, with my somewhat nebulous commitment, into a committed Jew observing mitzvos, and how this experience bears on my opinion concerning the issue of chareidi conscription.
It was the winter of 1984, and my beloved grandmother, a”h, was very ill and, not long after, would leave this world. She was in a hospital not far from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. As I was on winter holiday from college and staying with my parents in Flatbush, a subway ride and a brief walk later I was at her side not knowing this would be her last Chanukah. During our visit, a group of young Lubavitchers came and it was my first exposure to the power of Bikur Cholim. It was also my first encounter with observant Jews of my own age, which is to say military age. The Lubavitchers lit the Chanukiyah, sang and made freilich for all the people in my grandmother’s ward. To watch the young men be mevaker cholim was to witness a transcendent power, a power to influence for the good, a power that contained the spark of techiyas hameisim — the revival of the souls — for the sick, both Jew and gentile. It was revelatory.
My grandmother’s smile that night was my Chanukah present; a gift created by those religious young men fulfilling mitzvos. The gratitude I bear towards Lubavitch continues to this day and will to my last, despite my not participating in their derech of Torah. Witnessing their performing of several Torah principles that night indelibly impressed me, influencing my decision four years later to observe Torah, and to change my life.
The significant chareidi contributions benefiting day-to-day life in Israel (i.e., Hatzolah, Zaka and numerous other organizations extending beyond the parochial) have been grossly underappreciated by the nation. There is no excuse for this. Nor can there ever be enough kavod shown for those participating in Torah learning. Certainly, the nation must address these deficiencies. If, in fact, a draft or a national community service comes into effect, Israel must protect the chareidim just as it expects the soldiers of the IDF to protect the citizens of the nation. As much as I sense that the chareidim of Israel, like all citizens of the state, need the state of Israel for numerous services, I suspect the nation of Israel needs the chareidim more. Israel desperately needs what I witnessed that night in the hospital, young Orthodox men of army age caring and engaging fellow Jews, inspiring other Jews as they inspired me by embodying the great virtues of Torah. Only Torah Jews will perform this particular mitzvah of kiddush Hashem and only Torah Jews will understand the power of this gift. Think of the revolution this could create! And in so doing, through ahavas chinam — unconditional love — accelerate the coming of Moshiach and the manifestation of Isaiah’s prophecy: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Yeshayah 2:3–4).
And with these words comes the solution to the equation of the divide within Israel referred to above: If there is no need to learn war any more then there will be no need for drafts or soldiers; needing neither drafts nor soldiers, all of Israel can then attend to the true calling of a Jew, learning Torah together as brothers.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in AlonShvut, Israel with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org