“Tal Law Brouhaha No Need to Panic” read the front-page headline in one of the major chareidi journals two weeks ago. That piece, by a veteran and very astute analyst, reflected the widespread consensus in the chareidi world: The threats of Israeli politicians to draft yeshivah students would come to nothing. We’ve heard the threats before, and nothing ever came of them.
The former Soviet Union could fall; the European Union could teeter on the brink of collapse; General Motors, of which it was once said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” could require a massive government bailout to survive; the United States could lose its Triple-A rating; companies that once dominated their respective industries could simply disappear when the products they manufactured for decades became obsolete — anyone remember typewriters? But one thing would remain constant in this fast-changing world, we assured ourselves: Israeli coalition governments would always require the chareidi parties to remain in power.
Never would the largest Israeli parties succeed in forming a coalition to trim the sails of the multiplicity of smaller parties, which are the bane of every prime minister’s existence. Even when little divides the major parties ideologically, personal animosity would save the day. Isn’t that what has always happened in the past, as when Kadima’s Tzippi Livni refused to join a Likud-led coalition after the last elections unless Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to a rotation of the prime ministership?
One who did not fall prey to the illusion that nothing would ever change was Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, who early last week called upon the entire chareidi world to shed its complacency and to increase its tefillos on behalf of the bnei yeshivah.
On Tuesday morning, all the comforting words we had been telling one another since the Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law suddenly rang hollow, with the announcement that in the wee hours of the morning, Prime Minister Netanyahu had lured Kadima into an expanded coalition, in which the two largest parties constitute a near majority of the Knesset by themselves. Currently the coalition includes nearly five-sixths of the Knesset members.
When we went to bed, the discussion was all of coming elections. When we woke up, we learned that the Knesset vote for new elections had been part of a brilliant stratagem by Netanyahu to force Kadima to join the coalition. Polls showed Kadima being reduced from its current status as the largest party in the Knesset to between six to eight seats, if elections were held today. In those circumstances, it did not take much to convince new Kadima chief Shaul Mofaz that he would be far happier as deputy prime minister for the next year and a half than being rendered a nonentity by elections in September.
Netanyahu’s motives for bringing Kadima into his government were not exclusively, or even primarily, about the chareidim. He left his current and prospective political rivals to twiddle their thumbs for the next year and a half. And he now possesses a super-majority with which to push through legislation to deprive his main competitors of their major issues prior to the next elections.
Perhaps most important from his point of view, the large coalition allows him to devote his attention to Iran and the renewed Egyptian threat, without being distracted by constant threats from coalition partners to leave the government. That can only strengthen Israel vis-à-vis her enemies, but also in dealing with her primary ally, the United States.
But if the new coalition was not primarily about the chareidim, it is nevertheless of great relevance to our community. The two most specific planks in the new coalition agreement called for reform of the electoral system — most likely to a system in which at least half the MKs are selected from single-member districts and only half-based on proportional representation of the different parties — and for new arrangements to ensure greater “equality” in bearing societal burdens. No one understood the latter plank to refer to requiring the secular public to engage in more Torah study. Mofaz has been urging that out of every draft cohort, all but 1,000 yeshivah students of exceptional promise should be drafted into the IDF or undertake some form of national service.
Electoral reform would almost certainly dramatically reduce chareidi representation in the Knesset. And the new draft arrangements would strike at the very heart of chareidi society — its commitment to Torah study as the highest societal value.
After the tumultuous week, which not one single pundit saw coming, no one is inclined to take on the mantle of prophecy and predict what the future will bring. Still, no one thinks Netanyahu will be eager to throw tens of thousands of yeshivah students into jail. The government will be far more likely to use economic sanctions and cut yeshivah budgets.
But one thing is clear: We are entering a new political period, in which the modus operandi that has served our politicians so well in the past may no longer apply. Netanyahu hopes to keep the chareidim in his coalition, but on his terms. He no longer needs the chareidi parties. We can no longer count on the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee to protect yeshivah budgets or the dependence of every coalition on chareidi parties to maintain the status quo on the draft or the continuation of the current electoral system.
Political skills that have been allowed to atrophy will have to be developed anew. No longer will it be sufficient to just state our red lines and threaten to leave the coalition. Rather, our political leaders will have to formulate arguments to demonstrate that the interests of the chareidi community are fully congruent with the interests of the Jewish People and the State of Israel.
Persuasion will have to replace, or at least supplement, power politics. Not an easy task.
Children as an Act of Faith
Children as an Act of Faith
Last week, my colleague Eytan Kobre wrote a heartwarming piece on George Will’s ruminations upon the 40th birthday of his oldest son, Jon, who was born with Down syndrome. In the hospital after Jon’s birth, the Wills were asked whether they wanted to take him home. They had assumed that was what parents did with their children, and judging by this piece and a number of others Will has written over the years about raising a Down syndrome son, they have never regretted that decision.
At the time of Jon’s birth, it was common for parents to leave Down syndrome children in the hospital to be raised in institutions. Nowadays, prenatal testing results in 90 percent of Down Syndrome pregnancies being terminated, which George Will considers a reflection of the “baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses entitlement to an exemption from nature’s mishaps and to a perfect baby.”
In stark contrast, Torah Jews view procreation as an act of faith that binds husband and wife together and to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. It reflects a decision, in philosopher Leon Kass’s words, “not just to having a child, but also to having whatever this child turns out to be.”
For Torah Jews, a child is not an artifact or commodity for their benefit, and we do not assume the role of G-d in determining the nature of that child. Rather, each child remains a gift from Him, and a responsibility entrusted to us.
On a recent Shabbos in Montreal, I had the pleasure of sharing a Shabbos meal with the chazzan of the shul in which I was speaking and his brother, who is also a chazzan. After the meal, I commented, rather thoughtlessly, that it must be nice to be in a profession in which there are no overwhelming pressures because you have done everything so many times before.
The two chazzanim just stared at me slack-jawed. No pressure? Was I crazy? Every morning upon awakening, one has to worry about a sore-throat, not being in good voice, a bad mood, and countless other details large and small. Actually, they told me, they always thought that it would great to be a speaker, and just get up and deliver drashos one has probably given dozens of time in the past.
That exchange reflects a common human tendency to judge ourselves by one standard and others by a completely different one. We tend to fargin the fellow in the mirror much that we would find intolerable in others. Each of us is acutely conscious of every challenge we face, but most of us tend to downplay those others face.
If we only judged others as generously and with as much sensitivity as we judge ourselves, we would be much more pleasant company and better able to fulfill the commandment to judge others favorably.