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Ultra-Orthodox Legislators Are Weaponizing Torah Study

A version of this story first appeared in +61J, an Australian Jewish publication.

How ironic would it be if Netanyahu’s government came to an end not due to his investigations, but as a result of the messy politics of religion and state?

This week, representatives of the ultra-Orthodox sector in Knesset staged a coalition crisis over government’s dallying in promoting a law exempting Torah students from military service. Last September, the Israeli Supreme Court repealed a law extending the draft deferral for Haredi men, deeming it discriminatory and unconstitutional. Now, representatives of the United Torah Judaism faction seek to introduce a new basic law (with constitutional weight) placing the value of Torah study above the value of equality.

While the noxious mixture of religion and state has long tarnished the image of Judaism among average Israelis, this move is a new low, a chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) on a grand scale. By introducing this bill, the ultra-Orthodox legislators have turned the precious mitzvah of Torah study from a religious obligation placed on all Jews to a sectoral privilege granting army exemption to some.

Chilul Hashem is one of the most severe transgressions in Judaism. It happens when a person publicly associated with Judaism acts in ways that cause the public to despise Torah and disparage its giver. According to Maimonides, the misdeed of Chillul Hashem is so grave that both repentance and Yom Kippur do not atone for it; only death erases its blemish.

At a recent Knesset hearing, veteran MK Moshe Gafni said his party had habitually voted with Netanyahu’s coalition on “preposterous” laws but would no longer do so. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman threatened to vote against the 2019 state budget if the military draft bill does not pass.

Habitual members of almost every government since the inception of the State, the ultra-Orthodox now seem emboldened by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s weakness. Bogged down by a series of corruption investigations and the looming threat of indictment, the last thing Netanyahu needs is elections. As they are well accustomed, the Haredim smell blood and act decisively.

But the victim of their boldness is Judaism itself. The “status quo document” reached with Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1947 gave Orthodoxy a monopoly in shaping Israeli law on personal status issues, and autonomy in education. What at first was a small price to pay for ultra-Orthodox support for the Zionist project, has become today a financial and moral burden on society with the exponential growth of the Haredi sector.

Sadly, Torah itself is now a card in the messy game of political wrangling. Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy has long broken with Jewish history by creating a society of male learners dedicated solely to the study of Talmud, in breach of the Rabbi Gamliel’s proclamation in the Mishnah: “Excellent is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation; for the exertion [expended] in both causes sin to be forgotten. And all study of Torah in the absence of a worldly occupation comes to nothing in the end and leads to sin.” (Pirkei Avot 2:2)

I am deeply saddened by the hatred and anger Israelis feel towards Judaism due to the recklessness and hubris of its representatives in government. Religious monopolies must be taken apart and the corrupting power of religious politics curtailed. We haven’t a moment to lose.

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