No one has a monopoly on transgressing the Torah. Think of the draft-dodging ultra-orthodox in Israel. They read Numbers 1: 2-3 along with the rest of us don’t they?
Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls.
from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: ye shall number them by their hosts, even thou and Aaron.
שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם–בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם
מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, כָּל-יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל–תִּפְקְדוּ אֹתָם לְצִבְאֹתָם, אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן
In a way reminiscent of the classic Reformists, the Haredim absolve themselves of military conscription and wish to read these verses, and others that mandate military service, as not applying to them, not applying in our times, not being literal or no longer relevant.
It’s not as though the Hebrew Bible does not offer exemptions from military service. It exempts the Levites; the Priests (see Numbers 1: 45 and 47) and builders of new houses, planters of new vineyards, newly-weds and the faint hearted (Deuteronomy 20: 4-8)
But nowhere does the biblical text provide an academic deferment.
According to The Israeli Supreme Court Decision Invalidating the Law on Haredi Military Draft Postponement, the original rational for the deferment for Yeshiva students was of a historical nature:
The original reason for the arrangement was the destruction of the yeshivas in Europe during the Holocaust and the wish to prevent the closing of yeshivas in Israel due to their students being drafted to the army. Today this objective no longer exists. The yeshivas are flourishing in Israel, and there is no serious worry that the draft of yeshiva students, according to any arrangement, would bring about the disappearance of this [yeshiva] institution.
But this temporary accommodation became permanent. As any reformer will tell you, you make an exception and soon the exception becomes the rule.
The other justifications given by the heredim for draft avoidance are clear rationalizations (namely that modern-day yeshiva students take the place of the Levites and/or that the yeshiva students, by the merit of their Torah Study, are in fact contributing to the security of State. see Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s critique of these arguments here).
The parallels between the rationalizations of reformists and fundamentalists is intriguing and is also an area of research by scholars.
In a fascinating book edited by jack Wertheimer, scholars review how in the 19th century the Ultra-orthodox engaged, consciously or not in the invention of a tradition. (The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era)
Just like the reformers, the ultra-orthodox believed that there were times where it was permissible, nay, incumbent to abrogate the Torah in order to preserve it. They quoted the Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 90b and the verse in Psalms 119: 126
It is time for the LORD to work; they have made void Thy law
עֵת, לַעֲשׂוֹת לַיהוָה– הֵפֵרוּ, תּוֹרָתֶךָ
Most of the time the ultra-orthodox response to modernism took the form of added prohibitions. Here too, they like the reformers, liked to blur the difference between Biblical law, Rabbinic decrees and customary practice. Argued the ultra-orthodox leaders that since all elements of the tradition were equally sacred, there was no point in distinguishing between laws found explicitly in the Torah, Rabbinic additions and common custom. “It is good to elevate prohibition” said the Hatam Sofer. (ibid page 48). To the reformers, this worked in the opposite direction, in terms of all laws being man made customs…. The outcome was similar in terms of reinventing a tradition.
One of the most fascinating and, for an ex Yeshiva student, entertaining monographs in the book is one entitled The Lost Kiddush Cup in which Menachem Friedman documents how the Hazon Ish, the great Rabbinic leader and legislator (posek) determined the required amount of wine to be held in the Kiddush cup for the Sabbath meals. This is the same Hazon Ish, i might add, who negotiated the army deferment with Ben Gurion. The Hazon Ish was so respected that the size of the Kiddush cup that he required was called “shiur Hazon Ish”. Most of the Kiddush cups from the old country in Europe had disappeared along with European Jewry, but a few had survived and when the students of the Hazon Ish came home from the Yeshivah with their new, and I should add generous required pour they were surprised to find that the old cups saved by their parents were not adequately sized to hold the new wine of the re-invented Judaism of the Hazon Ish.
Recently my friend Frederic Brenner shared with me his newly published book An Archeology of Fear and Desire which has in it an image of an ultra-orthodox men wearing a black burqaesque veil to protect them from the immodest dress of fellow travelers at the airport. Haredi women were starting to wear burquas, he also informed me. I thought he was making it up until I saw an ultra-orthodox man walking down Madison Avenue with his wife in a black burqa.
Clearly we are observing the re-invention of Judaism before our eyes. For some it is the re-invention of traditions that never existed and for some of us, it is the reinvention of a Judaism that is yet to be. It’s all part of serving in God’s army, I suppose.