Supreme Court Delays Decision on Bnei Yeshivos
This week, before I begin my report on political news and the ongoing fight against coronavirus, I must deal with an issue that is even more important: the future of Israel’s yeshiva world.
In the turmoil of the past year, this issue has gone somewhat unnoticed. Nevertheless, there is still an existential threat hovering over the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel. The enemies of Yiddishkeit are making the claim that the draft exemption for yeshiva bochurim is discriminatory against secular Israelis of the same age, who are required to enlist in the army.
This conflict has been raging for many years. Several years ago, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, accepted the claim of discrimination and ruled that the draft exemption violates Israeli law. The government reacted by agreeing to encourage the enlistment of bochurim who had dropped out of yeshivos. This, apparently, was not enough, as the new arrangement was challenged in court again. Several years later, the Supreme Court decided that the government’s efforts to draft chareidim were purely a pretense, and that the chareidi draft wasn’t sufficient to satisfy its concept of equality. The petitioners argued—and the Supreme Court accepted their claims—that the youths who were entering the army weren’t actually yeshiva bochurim, and the demand for a draft within the yeshivos had not been met. After its most recent hearing, the court decided that in the absence of a clear law and mass conscription (or, at the very least, an earnest effort to draft some chareidim), all the eligible yeshiva bochurim in the country would be inducted into the army.
The government hastened to respond to the court that it is impossible to pass a new law during the election period, and that the expiration of the draft law must be delayed until at least three months into the term of the next Knesset. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was more specific: “Since the election for the 24th Knesset will be held on March 23, 2021, the first sitting of the incoming Knesset can be expected to take place on April 6, 2021. The first three months of the 24th Knesset’s term are therefore expected to end on July 6, 2021.” The Supreme Court officially accepted the attorney general’s position and announced that the current draft law will remain in force until July 6. Once that deadline arrives, however, it will officially expire.
That should give you an idea of where this country is headed—and of the fragility of life in Israel as we know it.
Election 2021: Voting Against the Other Guy
The upcoming election is more about the question of who will not form the next government rather than who will establish it. Most of the parties are basing their campaigns not on their own qualifications but on the voters’ dislike for their opponents. This is quite abnormal—but then again, the recent election in America followed the same pattern. Weren’t there millions of people who voted for Biden simply because they didn’t want Trump to be reelected? Those votes for Biden cannot be construed as an endorsement of the man himself. But the entire phenomenon is irrational. Since when is it sensible to vote for a candidate simply out of distaste for his opponent?
Well, let me give you a glimpse into what is happening here in Israel.
The “anyone but Bibi” camp includes tens of thousands of Israeli citizens who will choose to vote for specific parties solely to oust Netanyahu from office. Personally, I do not understand what bothers them about Netanyahu. These people are not leftists; they identify with the right, but their objections to Netanyahu seem to take precedence over their ideology. And that is only the beginning of the story; stormy protests against Netanyahu are constantly being staged, and entire political parties—Yesh Atid, Yisroel Beiteinu, Blue and White, and New Hope—seem to have made it their main purpose in the election to depose the prime minister.
It is amazing to observe how this election has become personal. The Labor party has already announced that it rejects Netanyahu, Gantz, and Lieberman. Blue and White (which consists of Benny Gantz and his remaining allies) has repeated its commitment not to sit in a government with Bibi. Meretz has also guaranteed that they will not join Bibi in the government (that is, provided that they cross the electoral threshold). They have also rejected Smotrich, on the grounds that he is running with the “Kahanist” Itamar Ben-Gvir. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, who for their part, announced that they will categorically refuse to sit in a government with Yair Lapid, on account of his anti-religious stances. Gideon Saar has repeatedly declared that he will not join Netanyahu in the government. In fact, Saar recently published a campaign advertisement in religious Zionist newspapers warning the readers that “a vote for Bennett is a vote for Netanyahu.” In other words, if they want to be sure that their votes will not assist Bibi, then they should vote for Saar.
Yvette Lieberman has been even more extreme than anyone else. For one thing, he has been proclaiming ceaselessly that the time has come to liberate the State of Israel from the chareidim. (He actually said it in a much coarser and more brutal fashion, but I have no interest in repeating his contemptible words.) His attitude toward the Arabs is also well known; Lieberman insists that they should not be given the right to vote. And now his blacklist has expanded to include Smotrich and Ben Gvir as well, whom he has accused of living in a fantasy world.
With only about a month remaining until the election, tensions have been rising. I discussed this at length in a separate article, but I would like to add a few words here about Lieberman.
Avigdor Lieberman represents a voter base of about one million immigrants, some of whom are not even Jewish, and many of whom came to Israel from backward villages in the former Soviet Union in order to take advantage of the country’s economic offerings. Many of these immigrants are unemployed and live off government stipends. Yet Lieberman conveniently ignores that fact in his attacks on the chareidi community for relying on government support. In his latest campaign video, the demagogue has stooped to an appalling new low.
The video begins with images of a bais medrash filled with people learning Torah, with the words “NOT WORKING” appearing in bright red letters in the center of the screen. Lieberman then intones, “The State of Israel doesn’t need and cannot afford to support 140,000 yungeleit and talmidei yeshivos. We will never get out of this economic crisis until they realize that they must share the burden.”
Perhaps Lieberman should check the records of the National Insurance Institute to determine which groups are actually a “burden” on the Israeli economy.
By now, it has become clear that Yvette Lieberman should be studied by psychologists. If there were such a thing as a psycho-political evaluation, Lieberman would be a prime candidate.
I am sure you remember my fondness for poring over old newspapers. Lieberman founded his party, Yisroel Beiteinu, in early 1999, when the first hints of an election for the 15th Knesset were in the air. (The party won four seats in the 15th Knesset, which were occupied by Lieberman himself along with “Cheetah” Cohen, Michael Nudelman, and Yuri Stern). The chareidi politicians at the time were deeply concerned that some of their voters might support Lieberman; Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz even warned the community that Lieberman wouldn’t fight for their interests. Here are a few choice quotes from Avigdor Lieberman at the time, which demonstrate how radically he has changed: “Every capricious judge today seems to harass chareidim for no good reason.” “I advocated for Rabbi Porush to become the Minister of Housing; we need to make it clear that the chareidim are also part of the game.” “The court’s assault on Jewish values has crossed every possible red line.” “I am constantly appalled by the stigmas that are applied to chareidim and immigrants.” Amazingly, when he was asked if he favored drafting yeshiva bochurim, Lieberman replied, “Chas v’chollilah. I do not believe in coercion. After fifty years, the time has come for chareidim and immigrants alike to feel that this country is theirs. I believe that even if chareidim do not serve in the army, they can still be involved in important national issues without being portrayed as enemies of the people.”
Today, Lieberman has made a complete about-face. We can never be sure if his feelings toward the chareidim have actually changed or if he has simply decided to boost his electoral prospects at their expense. But one thing is certain: His incitement has made a powerful impact!
We have always known that every vote can make a difference. This time around, it is even more apparent. All we need to do is read the advertisements of the “other side” in order to understand the critical need for strong chareidi representation in the government. There are plenty of issues at stake in the public sphere (such as chometz in the hospitals and supermarkets operating on Shabbos), and formidable forces are working hard to undermine some of the fundamental values of Yiddishkeit, by promoting things such as mixed tefillah at the Kosel, compromises on giyur, and civil marriage. But there is another major issue that needs to be highlighted during this election season: the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. Which of this country’s political parties will look out for their best interests?
Unfortunately, poverty is on the rise. A local newspaper in Yerushalayim recently reported that the economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus has led people to steal bread. I presume that some of those people will return to the stores one day to pay for the food they felt compelled to purloin. But this is a commentary on the times in which we are living. A cashier in one supermarket commented sadly, “There was a time when people used to steal vodka. Today they steal bread and milk instead.” Perhaps we can put it differently: There was a time when shoplifters did not hail from the religious community, but many religious Jews today have been driven by desperation to theft. Another cashier observed that it has become very common for customers to stand at the checkout counter and struggle to decide which items to forgo. People are buying only the most basic necessities, but they often find themselves unable to afford even those products. It is a sad situation.
Last week, the National Insurance Institute released its report on poverty in Israel, revealing that 1,980,000 Israelis live below the poverty line, including almost one million children. Overall, poverty affects 23 percent of the Israeli public as a whole. The poverty rate among Jews is 17.7 percent, while 35.8 percent of the Arab populace lives below the poverty line. In the chareidi community, the poverty rate is a staggering 49 percent. To the credit of the chareidim, though, many people live in dire financial straits because they have chosen to minimize their involvement in material matters and to devote their lives to Torah.
Who Will Help the Poor?
These statistics highlight the heartlessness of the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend the distribution of food vouchers to the poor—a program that would have brought a modicum of light and hope into the lives of numerous struggling families, including many kollel families and residents of the periphery. The judges of the Supreme Court, in their ivory tower, are far too disconnected from the realities of the society that their rulings affect.
And they are not the only ones. When I listened to Yaron Zelikha (whose party was polling only slightly below the electoral threshold, meaning that he could have made it into the Knesset if he had joined forces with another candidate), I was appalled. Zelikha promised his voters that he would slash the government’s child stipends, in a show of absolute contempt for the financial needs of families with children. Avigdor Lieberman, with his complete disdain for anyone involved in Torah learning, is equally agonizing to hear. I also remember how Yair Lapid, during his tenure as finance minister, wanted to cut the government’s child stipends and to discriminate against chareidim, and I daven that he will remain completely powerless. (Lapid tried to design criteria for the “Mechir Lamishtaken” housing benefits program that would make it impossible for chareidim to participate, but he was rebuffed by the Finance Committee, whose members unanimously refused to cooperate with his blatant discrimination.)
I have a large collection of amusing and ironic newspaper clippings on the bulletin board in my office. One of those items is a long article that appeared in Yediot Acharonot in January 2014, announcing a “nutritional security network.” The accompanying article includes a picture of the four government ministers from Yesh Atid at the time: Shai Piron, the Minister of Education; Meir Cohen, the Minister of Welfare; Yair Lapid himself, who held the post of finance minister, and Yael German, who served as Minister of Health. “We will see to it that there are no starving children in Israel,” the foursome proclaimed haughtily. “The new program that will be introduced tomorrow will guarantee them hot meals.” Need I remind you that absolutely nothing came of these promises?
I doubt that any of those politicians had an inkling of what it really means for a child to be hungry. They are champion expert talkers, but their actions leave much to be desired. It is frightening to imagine what might happen to the poor and to the chareidim if they return to power—or if the chareidi parties do not have clout in the government.
Sparks Fly in the Coronavirus Cabinet
Boruch Hashem, the coronavirus numbers have begun to fall, especially in the chareidi community. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that we have been freed from tragedies; there have been reports of new deaths every day. The death toll in Israel has climbed almost to 5400. But the decline in infections, at least, is good news.
Meanwhile, the government has been inconsistent and ambiguous in its instructions for Purim. There is a general impression that the Health Ministry doesn’t know exactly what it wants. That may be the reason that the secular community has begun ignoring the rules altogether; they have dropped their masks and have begun assembling in large groups again. There were a few days of pleasant weather, and the public began flocking to parks, promenades, and beaches. The issue of reopening the economy has also become the subject of a pitched battle in the Coronavirus Cabinet. The Israeli public is no longer willing to accept the ban on opening stores.
The government’s decision to shut down the airport also triggered furious reactions. Many Israelis who had traveled overseas, including dozens of shochtim who found themselves stuck in Europe, were outraged at being barred from returning home. There were some humanitarian cases that were approved by the Exceptions Committee. On Sunday, the Coronavirus Cabinet met to discuss the next steps in the exit from the lockdown but failed to make any decisions about reopening commerce. On the other hand, the committee unanimously accepted a plan to reopen Ben Gurion Airport. According to this plan, the airport will receive up to 2000 arriving passengers per day, and the Transportation Ministry will authorize certain foreign airlines to land in Israel. (The United States demanded permission for its airlines to land in Israel, and the Israeli government immediately gave in.) All the arriving passengers, however, must be approved by the Exceptions Committee.
Professor Nachman Ash, the current coronavirus manager, revealed to the committee that the British mutation of the virus has proven 50 percent more contagious than the original strain. Consequently, Ash announced that the Ministry of Health is considering imposing draconian restrictions on Purim in order to prevent mass infections. “We are very concerned about the holiday of Purim,” he said. “We are mulling a nighttime curfew or a complete lockdown in order to prevent a recurrence of our traumatic experiences of last year.” The debate included a vigorous argument between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Attorney General Mandelblit; the latter claimed that some of the government’s measures are forbidden by Israeli law, and Netanyahu reacted with fury.
Dovid Hamelech Chose a Plague
In these trying times, we must aspire to attain the proper perspective in order to understand what is being demanded of us. It will be a tragedy if the pandemic fails to make any impression on us. We are living in a time of hester ponim; we do not understand what is happening, but at least we recognize our lack of understanding.
Last Shabbos, I commented to a particular talmid chochom that it is difficult to reach the quota of 100 brachos on Shabbos, but it is even more of a challenge during the pandemic, especially for those who are compelled to daven alone. “Actually,” he said, “the daily obligation of reciting 100 brachos was enacted in response to a plague. The Tur states (Orach Chaim sec. 46) that Dovid Hamelech ordained the recitation of meah brachos in response to an epidemic in Yerushalayim that was killing one hundred people every day. No one understood the reason for the plague, but Dovid Hamelech, with his ruach hakodesh, foresaw that the plague would end if the people would recite 100 brachos every day.”
Every passing day has brought us more fear, more sorrow, and more deaths. The anguish and pain throughout our community are almost unbearable, but we must all share in that pain. Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, who excelled at sharing the burdens of others, always pointed out that the brocha of shehasimcha b’meono is not recited at a bris because the baby suffers pain; Hashem Himself is pained, so to speak, by the suffering inflicted on the child. In light of the grief and anguish that have spread through so many homes, the minimum that is expected of us is to empathize with whose who have been shaken by their losses.
This week, I listened to a drosha in which the speaker quoted a posuk that we recite in Tachanun: “Let us fall into the hand of Hashem, for His mercy is great.” Dovid Hamelech, he explained, was offered a choice of calamities: war, famine, or a plague. He chose the plague because it is considered “the hand of Hashem,” and Hashem’s mercy is great. At that time, 70,000 people succumbed to the ensuing plague. The coronavirus has likewise come to us through the “hand of Hashem,” and we must remember that we are in His hands—and His mercy is great.
Bedouin Thief Infiltrates Air Force Base
Last weekend, the IDF was forced to shamefacedly admit to a security lapse on one of the most sensitive bases of the air force.
The incident began with a report of a car theft in Dimona last Tuesday. This was fairly routine; the south is plagued by crime, which is especially prevalent in the vicinity of Dimona, Yerucham, and Arad. I hate to say it, but for the Bedouins who live in tents in the area, theft is a way of life.
The stolen car was tracked by Ituran, a company that specializes in using GPS devices to trace the locations of stolen vehicles. The thief drove up to the entrance to an air force base and then proceeded to enter the base itself. According to the IDF, the car drove into the base at rapid speed and drove over a set of spikes, which brought the vehicle to a quick halt. The suspect escaped on foot, and the guards posted at the gate did not succeed in capturing him.
The army’s version of the incident points to a series of lapses. How was it that the car was stopped only by the spikes at the entrance to the base? Why didn’t the guards stop it, and how did the suspect manage to elude them? Interestingly, none of the official statements mention that the thief was a Bedouin, although that is already known to the public.
The Nevatim base occupies a fairly large area and contains the advanced F-35 fighter jets, along with some other state-of-the-art aircraft. The IDF views the infiltration of the base as a particularly severe incident, which it plans to investigate during the coming days, according to its spokesman. Meanwhile, the base has already been thoroughly searched by police officers and military personnel, with the aid of a helicopter. At first, it was feared that the intruder had planned to damage the planes or some other sensitive equipment; however, the IDF later assured the public that the equipment on the base is guarded and that neither the personnel nor the equipment on the base were ever in danger. At the end of the week, the IDF acknowledged that the intruder appeared to have escaped from the base by climbing over two barbed wire fences and another fence that was about five meters tall. In addition to the security breach itself, the entire incident was a major embarrassment to the vaunted Israeli military and police force. That embarrassment was heightened when a similar incident followed immediately on the heels of this episode, and it was also revealed that other items, including weapons, had been stolen from army bases in the Negev in the past.
Stolen Sifrei Torah Recovered
A very different kind of theft, also in the south, was resolved this week, resulting in a joyous celebration. Last Friday, the gabboim of the Dakar shul in Sderot (which is named for the famous Israeli submarine that sank, taking the lives of numerous soldiers) discovered that seven sifrei Torah had been stolen from the shul. The residents of the city were shocked by the brazen theft, perhaps even more than by the rocket fire that regularly threatens their city. This week, following a clandestine investigation, the sifrei Torah were finally retrieved. The police raided a storeroom in Moshav Noga, where they discovered the scrolls and returned them to the shul.
The officers of the police station in Sderot deserve to be praised for understanding the significance of the theft and the importance of the sifrei Torah to the local residents. The police used every resource at their disposal, including military intelligence and advanced technological means, in order to locate the sifrei Torah, in an operation that involved the collaboration of other units as well. The seforim were retrieved intact and were brought to the police station, where the commander of the precinct, Chief Superintendent Meir Chachmon, called the gabboim of the shul and excitedly informed them that the sifrei Torah had been recovered. The gabboim were invited to the police station to identify the seforim, and as soon as the confirmation was received, the police officers transported the seforim back to their secure place in the aron kodesh of the shul.
“We are very excited and happy to inform you that we managed to locate your Torah scrolls tonight,” the police commander informed the gabboim on that phone call. “All of the personnel at this station were recruited for this investigation, in which we invested our hearts and souls. We knew that we had to do everything possible in order to return these sifrei Torah to the residents of Sderot.” The sifrei Torah were escorted back to the shul by a festive procession, and the police officers were given the honor of returning them to the aron kodesh. In the midst of the darkness that has filled our lives in recent weeks, this small victory was a ray of light.
A Week of Many Yahrtzeits
This has been a week of many yahrtzeits. This Sunday marked the yahrtzeit of Rav Boruch Rosenberg, the rosh yeshiva of Slabodka. Monday was the yahrtzeit of several others: Rav Yaakov Yechezkiya ben Rav Moshe of Pupa, who passed away 80 years ago; Rav Avrohom Kalmanowitz, who passed away in the year 1964; the Bais Yisroel of Ger, and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik, the son of the Brisker Rov, who passed away forty years ago. Later in the week, are the yahrtzeits of Rav Mordechai Mann, rosh yeshivas Bais Hillel, and Rav Dovid Povarsky, rosh yeshivas Ponovezh. But I would like to focus on one of the gedolim of America, whose fiftieth yahrtzeit fell this week: Rav Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, the Boyaner Rebbe of New York.
At the end of World War I, when Jews began returning to the town of Boyan, they discovered that it had been completely destroyed. The first Boyaner Rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Friedman, brought his family to Vienna. After his death, three of his four sons became chassidish leaders, while the fourth son, Rav Mordechai Shlomo, opted to remain in Vienna with his mother and to refrain from accepting a position as a rebbe. The rebbetzin passed away in 1921, and her son traveled to the United States to visit the Ruzhiner chassidim there, who invited him to serve as the rebbe of their community. Rav Mordechai Shlomo remained there until his passing on the fifth of Adar in the year 5731/1971, when he was buried on Har Hazeisim.
Rav Mordechai Shlomo quickly became a renowned and highly influential figure. It was often said that he arrived in the right time and at the right place to take a stand against the influence of American materialism. He was a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America and joined the gedolim of America in their battles to uphold the foundations of Yiddishkeit.
Rav Mordechai Shlomo was also deeply respected in Eretz Yisroel, which he visited four times over the course of his life. During his visits to Eretz Yisroel, he participated in special meetings of Chinuch Atzmai, Agudas Yisroel, and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. In the year 1953, he visited the Chazon Ish in his home. When he departed, the Chazon Ish escorted him to his waiting car, a gesture that was made only to a few select individuals. It is reported that the Boyaner Rebbe shared a chiddush with the Chazon Ish on the halachos of mikvaos, which the Chazon Ish later included in his sefer. The Chazon Ish also sent a copy of his sefer to the rebbe, whom he described in his inscription as “hadras gaono shlita,” a highly unusual accolade. Years later, the sefer was found in the Boyaner Rebbe’s library, but the page with the inscription had been torn out. The current Boyaner Rebbe, the grandson of Rav Mordechai Shlomo, is confident that it was his own grandfather, in his profound humility, who removed the page from the sefer.
Alone at the Train Station
A Boyaner chosid once spotted Rav Mordechai Shlomo at a train station in New York, waiting to board a train. The chosid hurried over to the Rebbe, who was traveling alone, and inquired about his destination, hoping that he could arrange some more respectable transportation. The Rebbe assured him that he would manage the trip on his own; he explained that his family had gone to the mountains a few weeks earlier, and since they had been there for thirty days, it was urgent for him to travel there in order to install mezuzos in the house where they were staying.
Here is another interesting story: The Skverer Rebbe’s bais medrash was once destroyed in a fire. The Boyaner Rebbe, who was a close friend of the Skverer Rebbe, called him to lift his spirits after the disaster. After they had spoken for a while, the Boyaner Rebbe asked, “Tell me, did the fire destroy the davening room as well?”
“No,” the Skverer Rebbe replied, “the davening room was not affected.”
The Skverer Rebbe later commented, “The Boyaner Rebbe knew exactly what to ask. He knew that the fire couldn’t possibly affect the room where we davened, since we do not talk during davening.”
Our final story was told by Rabbi Moshe Sherer: “The last time that we had the privilege of hosting the Boyaner Rebbe in the offices of Agudas Yisroel was at a meeting of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah shortly before the Six Day War. A few days earlier, the Rebbe told us that he was too weak to attend the gathering. Several of the gedolim suggested that it should be held in his home in order to allow him to attend, but they were told that his doctors had advised him to avoid contact with other people due to his illness. We were overjoyed when the door opened a few minutes before the end of the meeting, and the majestic figure of the Boyaner Rebbe appeared in the room. He walked with enormous difficulty, and several rabbonim who hadn’t seen him in a long time were both thrilled by his arrival and alarmed by his weakness and pallor. ‘It was hard for me to come here,’ the Rebbe said, speaking in his usual soft tone, ‘but it was even harder for me to remain at home when I knew that there were Jews in danger who are in need of salvation.’ After the meeting ended, when it had become clear that the Rebbe was suffering from severe pain, someone asked him why he hadn’t allowed the other rabbonim to come to his home in order to spare himself the effort of attending the gathering. ‘When Jews are in danger,’ he replied, ‘it is permissible to experience some suffering for their benefit.’”