Haredi Enlistment for the Current War with Hamas is a Sign of a New Model of Rabbinic Leadership

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The heads of the established traditional Haredi yeshivot have instructed their institutions to continue studies as normal during the current state of emergency, in accordance with the belief in the power of Torah study to protect the people of Israel, whether in times of strife or in everyday life. By contrast, the messages heard from various other rabbis have reflected an understanding of changing needs and offer a blueprint for a new leadership vision—the development of a Haredi community with civic awareness that is actively involved in Israeli society.

Ultra-Orthodox conscripts. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90

Since the beginning of the war with Hamas, we have witnessed a new phenomenon in which many Haredi men have requested to enlist in the IDF, based on a sense of shared fate. This number has reached some 3,000 Haredim, all of whom previously took the standard Haredi path of deferral or exemption from the military draft. There has been strong opposition to this phenomenon from within the Haredi community, but there have also been voices of support. While this is happening during a state of emergency, and so therefore might be seen as an entirely unrepresentative event, this is very much a new phenomenon within the Haredi community, and calls for closer examination.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the issue of the military draft for Haredim has been at the heart of an ongoing argument between Haredi society and mainstream Israeli society, as the Haredi community is vehemently opposed to the drafting of yeshiva students to the IDF.

Opposition to the military draft has been consistent and stubborn, because military service is a crucial issue for the Haredi community, touching on several of the community’s fundamental principles: separation from secularism and self-isolation against the effects of the outside world; anti-Zionism, and the idea that the Jewish people is still in exile; the principle of the “society of learners,” which holds Torah study as the supreme value of the community, such that men are supposed to devote their entire lives to the study of Torah; and the principle of obedience to da’at Torah, the rulings of the senior rabbinical leadership.

Despite this, there have been various initiatives over the years to encourage and enable military service for Haredim, such as the establishment of the Netzah Yehuda battalion, which offers several IDF service tracks for Haredim, including in special combat units. These initiatives have drawn harsh criticism from the Haredi community, which has been largely opposed to the idea.

In this article, I will examine the enlistment of Haredi men to the IDF in the context of the current Haredi rabbinical leadership.

Traditional Haredi Society and its Rabbinical Leadership

The end of the 18th century in Europe saw the emergence of the Jewish Haskalah (“enlightenment”) movement, in response to various political and social trends sweeping the continent. Orthodox Judaism responded to this movement in two main ways: One was the response most closely associated with the Hatam Sofer, which was dominant in Hungary and Galicia and which called for separation, self-isolation, conservatism, and resistance to change, characterized by the saying "Chadash Asor Min Hatorah" (“the new is forbidden by the Torah”). The second response, associated with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and found mainly in Western and Central Europe, took the approach of "Torah Im Derech Eretz" (“Torah alongside the way of the land") which gave rise to the neo-Orthodox stream of Judaism.

Haredi society in Israel has traditionally taken the Hatam Sofer’s approach, and thus it functions as an isolationist conservative religious community.  Ultra-Orthodoxy initially developed and gained strength in response to the Haskalah, as noted, but it also later became a counter-movement to secularism and subsequently to Zionism. The most conservative Haredi streams reject Zionism outright, while the more moderate elements take a pragmatic approach that allows them to function within the Zionist state while remaining ideologically opposed to it. In his book Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky describes the attitude of Haredi theology toward the establishment of the state as it being a “non-event,” that is, that the Jewish exile continues to this day even here in the Land of Israel.

Haredi society is hierarchical and authoritarian. It is led by the “Gdolim" ("great sages of the generation”) the most senior and revered rabbinical leaders whose rulings are followed by all members of the community. The image of the "Gadol" (great sage) as a figure of complete authority was at its peak during the leadership of Rabbi Schach (1898–2001) and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920–2013), from the 1970s until their passing—the golden age of Haredi society in Israel. Since then, the power of the rabbinical leadership has been in decline. The rapid turnover in generations of Haredi leadership have also played a role in this, leading to instability. This situation has conversely led to a flourishing of municipal and civilian leadership, and the beginning of the development of new religious-spiritual structures, on both the more conservative and the more moderate sides of the community.

Modern Haredi Society and its Rabbinical Leadership

The last two decades have seen cracks forming in the walls of separation and isolation surrounding the Haredi “ghetto,” and major change processes have affected the community (particularly its margins) in relation to integration into modern life and Israeli culture. Subsequently, the community’s margins have expanded—those segments encompassing ways of life that deviate somewhat from classical Haredi tradition. These phenomena, of broadening margins and Haredim adopting a more modern lifestyle, were described in Zicherman and Cahaner’s groundbreaking 2012 study as “modern ultra-Orthodoxy” society.

Due to the numerical growth and unique character of modern Haredi society, it is now in need of its own rabbinical and spiritual leadership, able to meet its particular needs. Thus, even as the power of the traditional haredi leadership has declined slightly, buds of a new rabbinical-spiritual leadership for modern Haredim have begun to appear. These leaders include pioneering figures, various jurists in Jewish religious law (halakha), community rabbis, intellectuals, and educators. They do not all share the same outlook, and sometimes hold opposing views. But they are consciously active within the modern Haredi community, providing a model of alternative Haredi leadership, and can be seen as the future leaders of modern Haredi Judaism. These rabbis, some of whom have a broad general education, including in some cases advanced academic studies and extensive knowledge in philosophy and general thought, hold diverse views on issues that divide the Haredi public and Israeli society, and are often the target of criticism from the traditional Haredi mainstream.

Old and New Leadership and the Military Draft

The stance of the traditional Haredi rabbinical leadership regarding the military drafting of yeshiva students remains one of fierce opposition, taking the line of "Chadash Asor Min Hatorah"  (“the new is forbidden by the Torah”). Even during the current state of emergency, the heads of the traditional Haredi yeshivot have given instructions for studies to continue as usual. This is not about completely ignoring the war, but rather is based on a longstanding belief that “Torah protects and saves,” that is, in the power of Torah study to defend the people of Israel both in times of trouble and in normal times. Thus, the traditional Haredi leadership has instructed yeshiva students to study even harder, so as to garner greater Divine credit for the people of Israel during the current crisis, and it has striven to give the students the sense that they are protecting Israel—the land and its people—via their Torah study. This has given rise to various initiatives to deliver treats to yeshiva students in appreciation for their devotion, boosting their sense of being alternative “fighters” in the war, aping the widespread civilian initiatives in Israel to send care packages to soldiers at the front.

The new Haredi leadership, meanwhile, can be characterized as an attempt to return to the system of "Torah Im Derech Eretz" (“Torah alongside the way of the land”). In contrast with the isolationist movement, it seeks to combine a commitment to halakha and a traditional Jewish lifestyle with participation in the general culture. The innovations of the new Haredi leadership include ideological developments, among them a shift away from the rejection of the State of Israel, to be replaced by an ideal of participation in Israeli society and taking on the burdens of citizenship. The actions of this leadership, as evidenced over the last month, include issuing positive instructions in the civic arena as well, and not just in the religious-spiritual arena.

A salient example has been provided by Rabbi David Leibel, who was born in France and lives in Jerusalem, and is the founder and head of the Torah VeDa’at yeshiva and the Achvat Torah network for working Haredim and their families. Motza"ei Shabbat on October 7, when observant Jewish Israelis first learned of Hamas’s murderous attack, Rabbi Leibel published a letter in which he called on the Haredi public to volunteer and devote itself to the national effort, based on a sense of civic responsibility. The letter was shared widely in the Haredi community, going viral on social media. During the first week of the war, Rabbi Leibel delivered two lectures in which he issued a positive call for Haredim to contribute to the national effort on the home front as much as possible, both women and men, as a religious and moral duty: “The masses need to volunteer in any way that is needed right now. This is our calling, according to Jewish law, according to moral law, and according to plain logic.”

Rabbi Leibel has not only called for volunteering on the home front, but has also publicly expressed his views on enlistment to the military effort: “All the talk about the draft and quotas, that is for peacetime. In a war of necessity, no-one is exempt and everyone must enlist. This is written in several tracts of the Talmud.” At the same time, he notes: “We have not been trained and do not know how to use weapons, so we must enlist in a different fashion.”

Here, Rabbi Leibel—like the traditional Haredi rabbis—compares Torah study in the yeshivot with military service, but his comparison relates directly to military action: “Everyone must play their part and return to the yeshiva and the kollel. And just as soldiers do not eat and do not sleep, this is what our study must be like. They are giving everything they have, and we must give everything we have … It needs to be comparable to the soldiers themselves. After all, this is what we say all the time—the soldiers do their service, and we serve by studying Torah. So please, these must not be empty words. Those who are engaged in study must study 18 hours a day without sleep.”

Rabbi Leibel’s call to participate and share in the national effort has been clear and consistent over the last few weeks. He is instructing his listeners to be active in the civic arena as well as the religious realm. Consequently, his yeshiva students have volunteered in various settings since the first days of the war, and have attended funerals and houses of mourning to comfort bereaved families. The Achvat Torah network, of which he is president, has set up a “war room” to coordinate volunteering and aid at the military front and on the home front. Rabbi Leibel himself has set a strong personal example by making a high number of visits to military bases, hospitals, and houses of mourning.

In the declaration of intentions drafted for the Achvat Torah war room, Leibel reveals his leadership vision for the development of an involved and active Haredi community with a strong civic consciousness: “The establishment of the war room and the dedication to the cause shown by the Haredi public are decisive proof that Haredi society is an inseparable part of the people … Our vision is to be Haredi citizens who are loyal to the values of the Torah and to strict observance of all its commandments, while also being one of the tribes of Israel and bearing the obligations, as well as the rights, of all citizens. We shall continue to work tirelessly to strengthen Israel’s home front.”

Rabbi Raphael Kreuzer, head of the Lema’an Da’at beit midrash, which works to develop modern Haredi communities and enjoys broad support from the modern Haredi sector, gave an even clearer and sharper message on the evening after the October 7 attacks, encouraging yeshiva students to act:

“On the day of Simchat Torah a new reality fell upon Israel, and anyone with a heart cannot just stand idly by. The contrast between those who were dancing and singing with all their might in houses of study and those who were giving their lives in battle and to save others is unbearable … The thousands of yeshiva students who turn out in their masses for Naftali Kempeh concerts or for political rallies during local elections, simply must, must—morally, ethically, spiritually, and from a Torah perspective—show up for our people’s sake and take on our people’s burden … The tens of thousands of yeshiva students need to demand of their leadership, rabbis and heads of yeshivot, that they want and desire to share the burden of our people, and be among those who defend their country and their homeland against the evildoers who are seeking to destroy us. We have been commanded: ‘You shall not stand by while your fellow’s life is in danger.’”

He said similar things the following day in a radio broadcast.

The Current Crisis as a Window of Opportunity for Change

Crises are often opportunities to create substantial change in society. Leaders blessed with decisiveness, cool-headedness, emotional stability, and dedication to their goals can often advance long-term societal solutions, even as they deal with immediate problems. They can channel events to accelerate changes that it would be more complex to pursue in normal times.

It would seem that the new Haredi rabbinical leadership has identified the potential of the current emergency, and is using it to promote the spirit of change that it is committed to. As Rabbi Leibel explained to his students: “We need a slightly broader view. There is a changing of the generations. The situation is shifting, and we need to respond to that. Even those who don’t want to, who think that this is not the way to go—well, this is the way things are, and they have to think about it. Now, despite everything, is the time for us to talk about this. Now is the time for self-reflection.”

Similarly, Rabbi Kreuzer, who is greatly concerned about the issue of military service, has chosen to transmit his message even at this time of crisis, saying: “Despite the fact that we are at war, yet precisely because we are at war, the time has come to tell the truth.”

The divisions between the old and new leaderships are substantial and ideological. Not for nothing does traditional Haredi society view its new counterpart as a threat and goes to the trouble to denounce it. The emergence of this new leadership indicates another stratum in the construction of modern Haredi Judaism.

The gap between the two forms of leadership, as expressed on the issue of the draft, reflects not only a pragmatic change but a substantive change. The new Haredi leadership offers a new model for Haredi Judaism itself. It considers the threat that was felt by the Haredi community in Europe and during its first years in the Land of Israel to no longer be a concern, and thus sees no reason to hold on to the extreme isolationism and ideologies that were suitable back then. Now, according to these leaders, the time is ripe for coexistence: no more entrenchment in the Haredi ghetto, but instead partnership and involvement with the entire Israeli people.

It would seem, then, that the voluntary enlistment of Haredim to the IDF is part of a system of interaction between the modern Haredi public and its new leadership. This is a leadership that has identified the changing needs and has the courage to voice its opinions out loud, even if these are not aligned with those of the traditional rabbinical leaders. Still, this is a new phenomenon, and only time will tell how it develops and what its consequences will be.


A longer version of this article was originally published in Hebrew in De’ot (106), a journal published by Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah.