The Need for Equal Sharing of the Burden and Strengthening of Torah Study

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The need for the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel to share the burden of military service with the rest of Israeli society and to participate equally in the Israeli economy became a central issue in the 2013 elections. IDI researcher Dr. Benny Porat shares his thoughts on the recommended way of bringing about this change in the Haredi community.

The parties running in the Israeli Knesset elections of 2013 turned "equal sharing of the burden" into the issue of the hour. Everyone understood that this demand was directed primarily toward the Haredi community and referred to equal sharing of the burden of military service and, more importantly, equal sharing of the burden of Israel's economy—that is, integration into the workforce.

But how can this just demand be channeled constructively, so that it contributes to unifying Israeli society—including its ultra-Orthodox population—so that it increases solidarity, and so that it creates trust between Israel's different social groups? How can we avoid a descent into deep polarization, alienation, and threats of civil war? In this context, I would like to share several insights, some of which have not been dealt with fully in public discourse.

My starting point, which I hope goes without saying, is that there is no point in imposing legal measures that would force certain groups to engage in activities that are against their beliefs. Attempts to draft the ultra-Orthodox by means of legislation, threatening to send military police to their yeshivot, or forcing the study of the core curriculum through court orders, will simply achieve the opposite results: further Haredi introversion, protests under the banner of "whoever is for God, follow me," and threats of self-sacrifice to protect the holy Torah. Using financial incentives, which can help quell the flames and reduce the heroic symbolism of the fight, would be much preferable. This method would enable Haredi citizens to choose how to act, and would preserve their dignity as autonomous individuals.

The use of financial incentives, however, is also complicated. The simple part of this equation is the negative dimension: the economic tap that has been supporting the majority of the yeshiva students who have been growing old in the kollels over the years—both in the form of direct payments and in the form of indirect exemptions—must be turned off, slowly and gradually (cutting off funding at one go is not an option). Haredim who are interested in studying Torah without working for the rest of their lives but are not gifted Talmudic prodigies, are welcome to follow this path, but at their own expense. It is probably safe to assume that most of them will be reluctant to do so, and will decide that the option of combining work and Torah study is preferable for them than continuing their exclusive study of Torah in its pure and pristine form.

The positive dimension of the necessary intervention, however, is more complex. What will the Treasury do with the money that it will be saving once it has slowly stopped supporting the kollels that have multiplied like the sand of the sea? Rather than channeling those funds into other important national needs, at that stage it would be worth considering the possibility of leaving those funds as designated funds for the ultra-Orthodox sector. This time, however, the funds would be dedicated to different purposes than those that have been funded to date.

Needless to say, it is important to invest significant amounts of this funding in incentivizing Haredim who choose to integrate into the workforce. Israeli society should be providing financial support to the Haredi community for goals such as completing matriculation exams, scholarships for higher education, and assistance in job placement. This is already being done to some extent now, and diverting the funds saved will enable increased investment in this area. One can only imagine the benefits that this measure will have for the general population.

At this point, I would like to point out another important purpose, which is not obvious: Some of the funds that become available should actually be invested in strengthening the study of Torah. But in contrast to the current situation, in which the State funds Torah study for all with no age limits or quality control, it would be appropriate for the State to invest greater resources in supporting Torah study for a select group of Talmud prodigies. These prodigies would receive financial support that would be sufficient to enable them to engage in Torah study for years. The State of Israel should undertake the cultivation of an elite group of Torah scholars, much as it cultivates (or at least is supposed to cultivate) intellectuals in Israeli society in general.

In this manner, Israeli society will convey the following important messages to members of its ultra-Orthodox society:

  • The situation at hand is not a case of stealing the poor man's lamb—whether real or imagined—since funds that had been allocated to the ultra-Orthodox community will continue to be allocated to the ultra-Orthodox community, albeit in different ways.
  • Israeli society does not eat Haredim for breakfast and is not trying to convert them from their beliefs; rather, it recognizes the value of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and for precisely that reason seeks to integrate them appropriately in Israeli society—for the benefit of all.
  • Torah scholars are valued by Israeli society, which is prepared to invest financial resources in them as long as this support does not become a millstone around the Israeli economy's neck.
  • Israeli society is proud of its Torah scholars, but is interested in premium quality Torah study, as was the case in generations past.

It is hoped that in this manner, it will be possible to allay fears, to restore eroded confidence, and to resolve through dialogue the complex situation that has been created. 

Dr. Benny Porat is a researcher in IDI's Religion and State program and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is also the director of the Matz Institute for Jewish law.