The Haredi community has begun responding in the wake of Tuesday’s overturning of the Tal Law, thus raising the spector of mandatory national service for all Haredim. On Thursday morning, a leading Haredi rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach issued a statement telling Haredim that manadory army and national service would amount to an uprooting of Torah and should be resisted at all costs, even to the point of Kiddush HaShem. (full Hebrew text here)
Fiery words aside, students at Jerusalem’s Hebron Yeshiva said they simply couldn’t believe they would ever serve. They pointed out the challenges of simultaneously imprisoning 60,000-plus citizens. In reality the worse case scenario would be the withdrawal of government funds from yeshivas. The Yeshivas would be forced to look elsewhere for funds and worse come to worse, the students would just eat less. However, if it were to come to the extreme one of the students said serving in the army is so against Haredi identity that people would indeed die rather than serve.
All this sounds like firm intractable opposition from the Haredi community. However, if one looks a little deeper, all might not be as it seems.
Even if the IDF doesn’t arrest Haredi draft dodgers, yeshivas would no longer be able to claim then as legitimate funded students. It is doubtful that funds from abroad could make up for a significant reduction in yeshiva funding. As fewer and fewer Haredim work and as more and more take low paying jobs that are compatible with full time Torah study, the amount of money available for each generation to help out the next is shrinking. Inherited money can only go so far before a generation must work to refill the family coffers. The ultra-orthodox educational system has been financially struggling since at least 2002. There were a spate of school closings in fall of 2010 (here, here, and here ), Though fall, 2011 had no significant closings, the perception of tight funds remains, with adult full-time students struggling to make ends meet due to reduced charitable assistance and yeshiva scholarship funds.
There are also signs that the power of the rabbis over the rank and file may be waning. In recent days rabbis have made loud pronouncements against the internet, higher education, or professional work that takes away from Torah study time. Yet insiders and outsiders alike have suggested that the strong rabbinic pronouncements are in fact signs of a dissolving consensus about a life of pure Torah study.
Many of the leading authorities are in their 90’s or 100’s. Several of them have been very ill in the last few weeks (Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Rav Yisroel Belsky). There is no clear line of succession . That means that Haredim will have to choose which leaders to follow in the coming years. With chose comes the potential for responsibility and independent thinking.
There cetainly are some encouraging facts. Over 6000 Haredim are studying for advanced degrees. According to a 2010 Prime Ministers report employment rates have risen since 2002. Although he offered no specific figures, Prof. Yedidia Stern, IDI vice president for research, told the Jerusalem Post a few weeks ago that there is increasing evidence of a Haredi middle class.. Around the same time Haviv Retig Gur wrote an op-ed in the Times of Israel stressing rising employment rates and interest in employment. Both articles also highlighted the increasing numbers of Haredim interested in higher education and increasing exposure to non-Haredi culture through the internet.
There are also signs that the Haredi community’s hold on young people is weakening. Last week several rabbis in both Israel and the USA published proclamations encouraging very early marriage (age 20 or younger according to Arutz Sheva) The motive: too many people were leaving. The hope was that obligations to a partner and children would bind people to the community and keep them from leaving.
But in reality the data is mixed.
The Haredi community does not do formal studies on the numbers leaving their communities, so one must presume that pronouncements calling for early marriage are a response to annecdotal evidence, not statistical trends. In this case the announcement just coincidentally occurred at the same time as the pre-launch publicity for Deborah Feldman’s book Unorthodox was heating up. Deborah Feldman left the Satmar community after a failing marriage and exposure to academic studies at Sarah Lawrence University opened up opportunities for her outside of the Satmar community. It could be argued that weak communal ties due to her personal circumstances rather than any fundamental failure in the Satmar community were a major factor in her decision to leave.
The number of Haredim seeking higher education is on the rise, but so are birth rates. In terms of social impact the crucial issue is the percentage of the adult population, not raw numbers. None of the well publicized surveys sepeak in terms of percentages. But given that there are 68,000 haredim of draft age and between 500,000 and 800,000 Haredim in total, 6000 is not much at all.
Bias against core subjects in high schools still remains strong. The Taub center reports that 78% of Haredim are against core subjects. Even the Haredi middle class of which Stern speaks, is still loyal to the Charedi school system. Though they may send their children to Religious Zionist elementary schools, but come high school the pattern is to place their children in Haredi schools.
Even as employment rates have risen, the number of hours employed per week has fallen. According to the Taub Center 2010 State of the Nation Report, from 1998 to 2009 the number of hours worked per week by employed Haredi men dropped from 42.5 per week in 1998 to 37.5hours per week in 2009. By comparison, non-Haredi Jewish men work on average 47.6 hours per week in 2009.
Despite Auerbach’s pronouncement, it is difficult to know how the Haredi public would respond to enforced mandatory national service. Will the practical need to care for family members win out? Or will idealism and obedience? Will the result be culture war? Or considerable noise followed by gradual acquiesce?