Once, during the tenure of President George W. Bush, the president invited a group of distinguished Jewish educators to the White House for a Chanukah gathering.
Declaring his respect for the Jewish people’s historic devotion to scholarship, President Bush remarked, admiringly, “For Jews, learning has always been a way of life.”
One of the participants in the gathering was Harav Aaron Feldman, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Yisrael. When the president concluded his remarks, Rabbi Feldman thanked him for his warm words, and then said, “I must offer just one slight amendment to your statement, Mr. President. For the Jewish people, learning is not just a way of life. It is life itself.”
Amidst the ongoing battle in recent weeks over the drastic new measures being taken in Israel aimed at forcibly changing the chareidi lifestyle and severely curtailing the number of long-term and full-time lomdei Torah, it is important to recognize what is at stake: not just a way of life, but ki heim chayeinu, life itself.
Our generation has been privileged to witness an explosion of Torah learning at the highest levels, all across the globe but especially in Eretz Yisrael. The predictions of all the post-Holocaust professional prognosticators that the Torah community would slowly but surely assimilate into the broader society and eventually disappear have been thoroughly confounded. To the contrary, b’chasdei Hashem, the olam haTorah continues to grow exponentially, b’kamus uv’eichus, both in quantity and in quality.
The renaissance of Torah learning after the terrible churban is one of the great miracles of modern Jewish history. It is also one of the great blessings of modern Jewish history. The building of new chadarim, yeshivos and kollelim is cause for joyous celebration — for the entire Jewish community, but especially for Jews in Israel who benefit from the special protective powers that Torah provides.
It is puzzling, therefore, to observe so much ambivalence in many circles — even “our own” circles — to the steps being taken in Israel to reverse this, chas v’shalom.
Let’s take the issue of the military draft. Since the founding of the state, it has been the policy that yeshivah students are exempt from military service. Now, for the first time, all yeshivah students 21 years old and up will be subject to the draft. The only exception will be 1,800 “metzuyanim,” who will continue to be exempt from service.
Put aside the question of who will choose the 1,800 “metzuyanim” and how they will be chosen. Let’s pretend that a system is in place that is able to fairly determine rankings of yeshivah students, and correctly identify the top 1,800. The bottom line remains, nonetheless, that thousands of other students who want to grow in full-time Torah learning will be legally precluded from doing so.
So it would seem like a no-brainer that Torah communities across the globe would cry out in anguish and dismay at the prospect of so many budding talmidei chachamim being forced to walk away from their yeshivah shtenders in the prime of their Torah-learning lives.
Yet somehow, despite the exhortations of many Gedolei Yisrael, and the best efforts of Hamodia and others to bring the issue to the attention of the broad Torah community, one senses a certain ho-hum attitude among many of our people.
Indeed, beyond ho-hum, one even hears disparaging comments along the lines of, “Why do we need so many full-time learners? Most of these yeshivah guys aren’t really serious about their learning, anyway.”
It is time to stir ourselves from our complacency. The new policies being pursued in Israel will inevitably result in a considerable diminution of high-level learning of Torah. All of us — baalei batim no less than yeshivaleit — need to see that for the tragedy that it is.
Because learning Torah is not just a way of life. For Klal Yisrael, it is life itself.
Rabbi Zwiebel is executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.