Rabbi Hofrichter’s article exalts the idea of military service for Charedim, due to its being the secure road to citizenship. His argument makes the case that a civic mindset is an unquestionably good thing, and the only thing that could make us refuse it is the spiritual price we might pay under present conditions of employment. Below, I will seek to dispute his argument, questioning the benefit of that desired citizenship. I believe the Charedi approach of mutual solidarity, which Rabbi Hofrichter rightly distinguishes from the mindset of citizenship of the country, has significant advantages over the Western concept of citizenship he so lauds.
I believe this to be a zero-sum game: civic-mindedness comes at the expense of mutual solidarity. You cannot have both. The more we cultivate a civic mentality among Charedim, the more we will lose the power of mutual solidarity we now adhere to
Moreover, I believe this to be a zero-sum game: civic-mindedness comes at the expense of mutual solidarity. You cannot have both. The more we cultivate a civic mentality among Charedim, the more we will lose the power of mutual solidarity we now adhere to. My argument is that the latter is infinitely preferable to the former and that the army would do better to learn from Charedim in this regard, not vice versa.
“Klal Yisrael” vs. “Israeli Citizenship”
There are presently two parallel systems operating in Israel: The civilian-state system and Charedi communalism, based on a mindset of “Klal Yisrael” (the Jewish People).
“Klal Yisrael” was formed with the exodus from Egypt and at Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago. These historic events defined us as a nation for the first time, bringing us from a collection of individuals to a collective obligated to a system of laws under divine leadership. This system cuts across continents and streams and is independent of geographic location; the existence and definition of the Jewish People were maintained notwithstanding long dispersion in exile, in a way unparalleled among other nations. The words of Rabbi Hirsch, cited by Rabbi Hofrichter, align with this. This framework is a commitment to follow one path, to follow the laws and the highest authority, the Creator of the world, and the sages who study His Torah and knows its interpretation.
By contrast, the civilian, state system also defines a collection of individuals as a collective, with its own laws and leadership. Every citizen in the State of Israel is part of this system, and whether they want it or not, they are subject to its laws and influenced by the decisions of its leaders. The army, as Rabbi Hofrichter writes, is the primary tool for embedding a civic mindset into people; it is where they internalize the sense that they are part of the “state.” This mindset leads them to comply with the laws of the state and know how to navigate its institutions and advance within its ranks.
Rabbi Hofrichter distinguishes between the Charedi approach of mutual solidarity, born out of a sense of belonging to Klal Yisrael, and the service mindset born of a systemic understanding of citizenship. In this spirit, he writes that while Charedi society develops the value of mutual solidarity, a citizenship approach cultivates the concern not for neighbors or community members but rather for the administration, the city, the state, the army, and so on, as systemic bodies rather than a collection of individuals.
The distinction is correct to a degree, but I think it is imprecise. The mutual solidarity the Torah calls us to leads to systemic thinking at a high level. The approach that our every action affects Klal Yisrael everywhere, and even the generations past and future, turns the connection between the Jews and the Jewish People into something far deeper and more comprehensive than a personal relationship, and much stronger than the connection between a soldier and the army or a citizen and the state. The Torah connects the Jew to an eternal system, which cuts across time and space. Every Jew is deeply tied to the fathers of the nation and the whole eternity of Israel. The Jewish system is thus much stronger than any passing human system.
Rabbi Hofrichter is correct in noting that mutual solidarity focuses on the individual, rather than the system per se. The individual is not swallowed up by the system, despite its enormous power
That being said, Rabbi Hofrichter is correct in noting that mutual solidarity focuses on the individual, rather than the system per se. The individual is not swallowed up by the system, despite its enormous power. We see this in the approach taken by charitable organizations, most of them Charedi in origin and management, which provide a response to the entire population at the national and sometimes even global level (for instance the work of Chabad). These organizations differ from government systems in that they consider the needs of the individual, seeing him as he is rather than as a number, a small cog in a great machine. When the small person needs something for his simple life, it is far easier for him to make use of Charedi organizations than to try and break through the blind bureaucracy of the state. Similarly, these charitable organizations succeed in thinking outside the box and complement what’s missing in the system. If a hospital knows how to provide food for its patients, charitable organizations think about feeding those who pay him visits. This is not classical systemic thinking, of a giant system that considers individuals as small cogs, but rather a type of thinking typical of mutual solidarity, considering the need of the individual next to the sickbed who lacks the time to provide food and drink for himself.
I think the commitment to the Torah system of “Klal Yisrael,” which is built into the Charedi education system, can strengthen the commitment of the Charedi Jew to the other systems he finds himself in. The examples noted by Rabbi Hofrichter, of Charedi soldiers characterized by thinking outside the box and demonstrating the extent of their care, are in my view a consequence of Jewish education and not military training. I would not tie these traits to the influence of the atmosphere in the IDF, but rather to the educational atmosphere in which they were raised before they enlisted.
The Deficiencies of a “Civic Mindset”
Rabbi Hofrichter’s primary argument is that the army succeeds in training people to be good citizens, while the general education system fails to do so. But what is this exalted “civic education”? Rabbi Hofrichter lists three virtues: proactiveness, dedication to the system, and diligence. I think this a very rosy understanding of the military system, which does train its members for state life, but does so via discipline and obedience, suppressing critical thought and impressing soldiers that the interests of the system are above all. Is this education? For some, this will lead to greater responsibility and dedication, but many will “keep their heads down” precisely because of military education. This is not a bug in the military system but a feature of the systemic atmosphere. When a person becomes used to being a cog in a machine that worships efficiency he doesn’t feel all that important. He gets used to performing his duty and nothing more. The last thing he’s interested in doing is going beyond the call of directly ordered instructions.
In other words, the soldier, who becomes used to seeing himself as part of the system, adopts a pattern of thinking along the lines of “What do I get out of this?” For him, the entire system is directed towards its own benefit, and he is but a small tool to make it a little more efficient, for which he expects to be personally rewarded. This, to be frank, is not an approach of “contributing to the system” but rather of mutual exploitation. The system uses you as much as it can, and you do the same to the system. This approach befits Western thinking and its focus on rationalism, results, and external achievements. We want our people obedient, efficient, and “contributing to the system.”
Does “educating” imply making people obey and turning off their critical senses? Even if we wish to strengthen our sense of responsibility towards civic systems in the Charedi community, which Rabbi Hofrichter calls for, it is not clear that it is worthy and proper to cultivate the modern sense of “service to the system.”
Is this a good trend? Does “educating” imply making people obey and turning off their critical senses? Even if we wish to strengthen our sense of responsibility towards civic systems in the Charedi community, which Rabbi Hofrichter calls for, it is not clear that it is worthy and proper to cultivate the modern sense of “service to the system.”
How many people were hurt or lost their skills and were pushed out of the military system because they were “unproductive”? Does the system know how to show gratitude in this or that way, or did the very fact of its being a system lead it to focus on “what do I get out it” and simply vomited them out? The systemic thinking that Rabbi Hofrichter praises is what leads to the erasure of the little guy, to the ignoring of failings, to cutting corners in paperwork, and other related phenomena. It is only dealing with a small cog, after all.
In Charedi education, by contrast, the authority we appeal to indirectly and directly is God. Man’s duty is not about benefit alone, neither his own nor that of the system. The thinking is of an entirely different order, meant to teach students and shape their personalities in accordance with God’s will. Jewish education requires man to be internally God-fearing, a moral core unrelated to his place in the system. Commandments such as “Love your fellow as yourself,” “Unburden with him,” “Should your brother go poor,” and many besides, obligate a person to come out of his shell and give to others, not because of the benefit of the system or the giver, but based on real attention to the needs of the other.
In sum, a Torah education that turns our youth into part of “Klal Yisrael” embeds a much deeper sense of service than military civics education. It seems to me far better to embed Charedi values in Israeli society rather than to embed civic blind obedience among Charedim
Bureaucracy, we all know well, breeds a sense of “what do I get out of it.” It does not motivate. Military thinking has indeed penetrated many of our state systems, which are characterized by obedience, small-mindedness, adherence to the formal rules, and the lack of desire to help real people. By contrast, in many Charedi frameworks I encounter a higher level of human relations and a willingness to help. It seems that the mindset of “charity” and mutual solidarity has proven itself. Founders of Charedi charity organizations, and volunteers therein, act proactively, energetically, and with a dedication to the Jewish People, without first running through the IDF. By contrast, many of those who passed through the IDF adopt a cold systemic mindset, somnolent and apathetic.
In sum, a Torah education that turns our youth into part of “Klal Yisrael” embeds a much deeper sense of service than military civics education. It seems to me far better to embed Charedi values in Israeli society rather than to embed civic blind obedience among Charedim. Israeli society has what to learn from Charedim in this context much more than what we have to learn from them. If the value of mutual solidarity, which the Torah teaches, aimed itself at Israel’s bureaucrats, the state would be in much better shape.
How to integrate into civilian life?
It is absurd (at least in my opinion) that in the State of Israel today those who fear God’s word are a minority in a Jewish State. Charedim, however, are a minority not merely because of their numbers; they are a minority by definition and have not even attempted to formulate a model that can function for a majority. I agree with the argument of Rabbi Hofrichter that Charedim need to accept deeper responsibility for civilian life in Israel: this is essential for moving from minority from majority, from the sidelines to the center. But does this integration have run through the IDF? Is this the institution that will bridge the gaps between Charedim and the rest of Israeli society?
The IDF, based as it is on the civilian system, is far from being adapted for Charedim. There is a technical willingness and openness to make adjustments for Charedim, and this is worthy of respect; but it is far from being a sufficient response to the reasons underlying opposition to the draft. The military system adheres to an ideology that considers the IDF and the state as a whole to be a supreme, almost omnipotent power. The claim Rabbi Hofrichter makes that “Israel’s success is not thanks to Jewish genes but the IDF” is indeed the agenda and the ideology the IDF teaches. In order to motivate, shape, and lead the public, the army creates “faith in the system.” The word “faith” is not coincidental here. The army requires a degree of self-cancellation in the face of the system, similar to that found in religious systems. This belief helps it create a uniform spirit and achieve collective goals but runs the risk of falling into the trap of “my might and the strength of my hands”—not the might of individual human beings, but of a system created by them.
I agree with the argument of Rabbi Hofrichter that Charedim need to accept deeper responsibility for civilian life in Israel: this is the only way to move from minority from majority, from the sidelines to the center. But does this integration have run through the IDF? Is this the institution that will bridge the gaps between Charedim and the rest of Israeli society?
Falling into this trap undermines the core values for which the Jewish People exist and denies the secret of their miraculous historical survival over generations of persecution. The claim that “The State of Israel’s secret of success lies in the IDF” thus contradicts Torah Judaism and strengthens the refusal of Charedi Jews to send their sons to the IDF.
Instead of asking what the IDF contributes to integration into the workforce and the state, I would ask what faith, humility, and connection to God are left after military service. The basis for Jewish existence, including at the state level, is not merely technical. It requires that we first and foremost have a deep sense of humility before God, which is precisely what creates the Jew’s fear of Heaven and his deep commitment to his people. Embedding the systemic view dominant in the IDF within Charedi education means losing faith and cultivating an ethos of “my might and the strength of my hand.” And if that happens, God forbid, we will perhaps integrate the Charedi individual into civilian life, but we will also uproot him from the most fundamental system on which Jewish existence depends—the Jewish system that sustained us throughout the generations, army or not.
As such, in the present Israeli reality, Charedi avoidance of military service is understandable, natural, and legitimate.