A friend who once worked at a Jerusalem bank branch recounted a random encounter between two bank employees, one a national-religious Jew and the other a fervent Chassid – the kind who comes to work dressed in full Chassidic garb. Their conversation spread to children and their educational upbringing. At some point, it reached the topic of military service.
“Will you send your son to the army?” asked the Chassid from his national-religious colleague.
“Certainly,” replied the latter, “we all serve proudly in the IDF.”
“But I don’t get it,” the Chassid insisted. “Surely it’s a matter of pikuach nefesh (life-threatening)!”
This is where the conversation ended. The argument of army service being life-threatening might sound bizarre, but the notion is less uncommon than we might wish to think. In another instance, a woman (hailing from the Charedi-Litvish community) told an acquaintance that military service was out of the question for her sons since “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night without knowing where my son is.”
What should our response be to the Chassid who refrains from military service (for himself and his sons) due to considerations of life preservation or the Litvish mother who won’t be able to sleep at night? And what do we tell ourselves concerning the broader issue of military service, which makes us feel uneasy in peacetime, let alone in wartime?
“Yated Ne’eman” (the official Degel Hatorah organ) published a recent editorial opposing the unofficial slogan of the Simchat Torah War, “together we win!” (beyachad nenateyach, a Hebrew version of “United we stand”). According to the author, the slogan is “one big lie, a sophisticated ruse that conceals its true intentions.” And what is the hidden agenda? Of course, the desire to secularize Charedim:
Where will this unity take place? Are you willing to sit and learn? Are you willing to come and pray? You are warmly invited! Come to yeshiva. Let’s learn together, daven together, believe together. That doesn’t suit you, huh? You want me to come to you, leave the study hall and join you, adopt your way of life. “Together we will win,” but only if I volunteer where you want and wear what you want. No thanks. Don’t do us any favors. It simply won’t work (Yated Hashavua, November 10, 2023).
The editorial assumes something sinister hides behind the innocent-looking slogan. Yet, even after reading the piece, one is left wondering what underlies the objection. True, the slogan does not require yeshiva studies for everyone, but neither does it require attending football games or nightclubs. At first glance, it makes no demand to change dress codes or shift values – it simply asserts that we will triumph when we are united. Why does the author consider this unity so threatening?
The answer is that beyachad (“together”), per se, is a perceived threat. The author understands that Charedi life is predicated on an isolationist and segragationist approach that is not limited to values and culture but extends even to core identity. In his view, we have to see the world in terms of “them” and “us” or “them versus us.” Any attempt to narrow the gap is perilous and might, down the line, undermine our faith, prayer, and Torah study.
This is the foundation for the vehement opposition to “together we win.” As the editorial concludes, “It isn’t together, and this is not how we will win.”
The idea of establishing distinct identities cannot be summarily dismissed. As a small and vulnerable community facing the profound challenge of rebuilding a Torah world devastated during the Holocaust, in an environment steeped in militant secularism, there may not have been room for a joint beyachad.
Today, however, this approach is hardly appropriate. It doesn’t suit a powerful Charedi society comprising nearly fifteen percent of Israel’s population. And it is certainly unbefitting for times of war, when unity, as Chazal note of Achav’s generation, is integral to victory. Indeed, “together we win.”
During wartime, it is imperative that citizens contribute to the national effort. To the extent that individuals focus on themselves (or their communities) alone, as the question posed in the opening anecdote demonstrates, why would one be willing to sacrifice their life in a war context? War, indeed, is a dangerous situation. It demands that we set aside considerations of personal risk for the sake of national good (on this matter, see Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 7:6; Responsa Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat Siman 44; Responsa Shem Aryeh, Yoreh De’ah 17; Netziv, commentary on Sifrei, Ki Tetze; and more).
Without the “together” – absent a deep national sense of belonging – it is impossible to win a war. Yet, this is precisely what the editorial argues against. Its core assumption is that we continue to live in exile – an exile among Jews. “They shall be brought to Babylon, and there shall they remain” (Yirmiahu 27:22). There is thus no place for unity and no place for “national belonging.” The “together” espoused by the war slogan is “theirs” alone. It has nothing to do with “us.”
During this critical period for the Jewish nation, this state of mind has significant ramifications.
Should we make efforts to attend soldiers’ funerals? Will we visit the wounded and the grieving families? Will we recite special prayers for the safety of IDF soldiers? Will we encourage our children to tie tzitzis strings on their behalf to meet enormous demand from bases? Will we organize and volunteer for the sake of soldiers, providing food and supplies and participating in various events? Should we care for reservist soldiers’ families needy of physical and emotional support? Will we join a personal prayer program in which yeshiva students adopt soldiers? Will we volunteer to relieve the agricultural crisis? And, of course, will we enlist in the army – even as individuals over the age of twenty-six and exempt from army service – for a short regular military service and potentially meaningful reserve duty?
The answer to these and similar questions is contingent on the simple, piercing question: Are we beyachad? Are we one nation? According to the author of the above editorial, the answer is a resounding “no.” It is thus unsurprising that “Yated Ne’eman” has adopted a position strongly opposing such initiatives. On the other hand, many believe we should answer these questions with a resounding “yes” and act accordingly. Anyone who joins the war effort in whatever way – army service, auxiliary support, or even recitation of Tehillim on behalf of soldiers – does so because we are one people. All of us need to contribute our share.
This point is worth emphasizing. We are witnessing a significant spike in Charedi enlistment in the IDF (again, of older men exempt from army service), including many who hail from conservative, mainstream Charedi backgrounds. In the past, the effort to engage Charedim in army service centered around a demand for equality: we all need to share the burden. However, the current spike in enlistment demonstrates that the demand for an elusive equality will not win the day. Rather, Charedi participation in Israel will draw from the sense of national belonging and solidarity that distinguishes those who engage in the activities listed above from those who do not. I believe this sense of belonging, rather than the demand for an abstract and elusive equality, is also the core expectation of the rest of Israel from the Charedim.
Whether in times of war or for the country’s future in general, only united can we prevail.
As many examples illustrate, extremes tend to intersect – an idea popularized as the “horseshoe theory” and expounded on by Jean-Pierred Faye in his 2002 book Le Siècle des idéologies (“The Century of Ideologies”). It appears this is true even of opposition to the current spirit of unity, which brings together the Charedi extreme of “Yated Ne’eman” and the secular extreme of Haaretz.
Among the articles highlighting this opposition is a piece by B. Michael from November 7, 2023, entitled “Neither ‘together’ nor ‘we will win.'”
“I am being called to ‘together,'” he writes, “but with whom exactly?”:
With police and prosecutors who eagerly and diligently participate in the witch-hunt against online whistleblowers? […] With a defense minister who shuts off water to children and infants in Gaza? […] With three broadcast channels that have become propaganda channels, walking on eggs for fear of upsetting their herd of viewers? […] With the ambassador to the UN who, in a tasteless gesture of a Holocaust survivor, pinned a yellow patch to the lapel of his jacket?
Parallel to the extreme position of “Yated Ne’eman,” Haaretz authors are likewise unwilling to embrace the new “together.” The rationales may be different, diametrically opposed, in fact: Michael is unwilling to be “together” because it is too Jewish, while the Yated editorial opposes the same unity because it isn’t Jewish enough. The common denominator, however, is the rejection of a national spirit integral to fighting a war. This is where the extremes meet.
Michael concludes by asserting that he is not “together,” and therefore, “you will have to manage without me.” I do not doubt that we will, indeed, manage without him. In contrast, Israel cannot manage without the Charedim. It needs our involvement, and we need it, too. This is our moment to rise to greatness by taking a significant part in reshaping the State of Israel, a task that will be imposed on the dwellers of Zion as the battles subside. We want to be a part of it.
What does that mean for army service? The trend of older Charedi individuals entering IDF service does not necessarily imply that we will see a corresponding spike among younger men, whose regular service lasts for close to three years rather than just a few weeks. Facilitating this would require extensive work on the part of the army, alongside significant adjustments on the Charedi side. It won’t happen on the fly. However, the key to navigating this and other crucial areas of Haredi participation is the appreciation of beyachad. “Together we win” is true for wartime. It is true for peacetime, too.
Some speak of the opportunity to forge a new social contract between Charedi society and the State of Israel. This terminology reminds me of the demand leveled at Charedim for equality in sharing the army burden. The terms of our contract need to be updated: Charedim will participate more and bear a greater share of the burden. October 7 does not urge us to revise our social contract. Rather, it demands we embrace a paradigm shift.
It is time to move from a contract between distinct parties vying for position to a embracing covenant: from “them and us” to a collective “we” able to contain significant differences in values, dispositions, and lifestyles.
In the context of a contract, the consideration of pikuach nefesh, personal danger, retains its relevancy. Each man fights for himself. In the framing of a covenant, however, it has no place. We all fight for the entire collective. Such is the way of a covenant of brothers. A covenant of ‘together.’
Photo: Netzach Yehuda soldiers with Rabbi Yitzchak Bar-Chaim