Haredim stage a protest against compulsory military service at the highway in Bnei Brak, Israel, on June 27, 2024

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The Sephardic Rabbis’ Letter

Decoding a rabbinical broadside against drafting Torah scholars into the IDF

Nissim Leon
Menachem Butler
June 28, 2024
Haredim stage a protest against compulsory military service at the highway in Bnei Brak, Israel, on June 27, 2024

Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images

In the midst of the war in Gaza, a number of Sephardic rabbis in Israel signed a lengthy letter on April 7 calling for opposition to the drafting of yeshiva students into the army. In the past, such letters were primarily presented to the public by the Ashkenazi side of the Haredi community. In cases where letters emerged from the Sephardic Haredi community, they were usually signed by figures distant from the leading rabbinic elite. Neither was the case here.

This letter was signed by prominent heads of Sephardic yeshivas, well-known halachic authorities in the religious community in Israel. Attesting to its significance, the letter included the signatures of members of the Council of Torah Sages of Shas, the Sephardic Haredi party that is part of Israel’s government coalition. This is not the place to address the paradox between opposition to the draft and support for the war. We will only note that from the signatories’ perspective, yeshiva students are also drafted, in this case, for the spiritual protection of the soldiers. Our focus here is on what the signatories of the letter have in common, and what the letter might tell us about what is happening inside one of the most stable parties in Israel—the Shas party.

Shas was established in 1984 to serve as a political home for yeshiva students of Sephardic descent, meaning those whose families originated from Jewish communities in Arab countries and North Africa. The connection between the world of Haredi yeshivas and these Jewish communities has a long history. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, there was a relationship between emissaries from Haredi yeshivas in Eastern Europe and Jews in Morocco. After World War II and the Holocaust, this connection became an important channel for the rehabilitation of the yeshiva world, especially for yeshivas originating in Lithuania.

In the young State of Israel, the connection between the shattered remnants of Ashkenazi yeshiva life in Europe and Sephardic refugees created a very complex reality of diversity within the Haredi yeshiva world. On the one hand, the Haredi yeshivas wanted to include students of Sephardic descent; this significantly helped in obtaining budgets and, of course, in what was seen as the spiritual rescue of these students, many of whom came from low-income families. On the other hand, the students’ ethnic origin was emphasized in a way that differentiated them from their Ashkenazi peers in the yeshiva. The Lithuanian yeshiva, which for many years prided itself on being an ideological melting pot, thereby became a site of ethnic segregation.

Cultural segregation in the yeshiva world based on countries of origin reflected the broader reality in Israel, where the divide between Israelis of Ashkenazi and Sephardic origins found expression in the new class structure that developed in the country. However, while in the society at large there was some chance for mobility, in Haredi society, this mobility was almost entirely blocked. Ethnic distance was attributed to deep mental and cultural differences. Thus, a constant ethnic-class tension emerged in Haredi society between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

For many years, Shas seemed like a party united around a clear, well-known, and authoritative spiritual leadership. The letter undermines this assumption.

What bridged this divide was the commitment to Haredi ideology, at least as expressed by the leadership of those referred to as Gedoylim (Torah giants)—leading heads of yeshivas, halachic authorities, and leaders of central Hasidic communities. At the core of this ideology was the belief that the Haredim, primarily the Torah scholars among them, were the last Jews, whose religious path must be guarded at all costs, whether through separate organization, turning Torah study into a way of life (mainly in the fields of Talmud and Halacha), or through maintaining distance, or at least managing relationships with anything suspected of deviating from that way of life—including Zionism and the State of Israel.

Yet ideology and reality are often worlds apart. Haredi society, encompassing both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, split between those who engage with the State of Israel and those who reject it. On one side stood the mainstream faction, organized in Haredi parties such as Agudat Yisrael, and on the other, the extremist factions that distanced themselves from Zionism and the State of Israel.

The mainstream Haredi faction was long willing to cooperate politically with the Zionist state. Historian Hillel Cohen argues that events like the 1929 massacre in Jewish communities in Mandatory Palestine, including Haredi communities like Hebron, significantly contributed to the willingness of mainstream Haredim, those identified with Agudat Yisrael, to show solidarity with Zionist forces. The establishment of the State of Israel and its emergence as a sovereign entity led the mainstream Haredi society to institutionalize early agreements with Zionist organizations regarding religion and arrangements with the state. However, one major obstacle was the issue of conscription.

When it came to the conscription of women, there seemed to be an initial agreement between Haredi factions and the state about an organized exemption. The question of practical procedures lingered, but was gradually resolved over time. Today, the matter is almost taboo in Haredi society. However, the conscription of men into the army remained a relatively open question, subject to political agreements that over time required legal resolution.

A significant turning point in these agreements was marked by the rise of Israel’s right-wing political parties to power in 1977. As part of the agreements between representatives of the mainstream Haredi faction and the new government headed by Menachem Begin, the agreement to have learning quotas was replaced with an arrangement whereby any young man in the Haredi community studying in an organized framework would have his military service deferred until the end of his studies. Thus, a new and significant pattern was created almost overnight, as Haredi society transitioned from a society with a growing sector of learners to a society of learners, where the measure of good Haredi practice became Torah study for as long as possible.

This arrangement generated intense opposition from non-Haredi Jews in Israeli society. However, ruling parties, both on the right and left, greatly benefited from their partnerships with the Haredi parties. These partnerships were relatively transactional, separate from principled stances on core policy issues that tore Israeli society apart, and they mainly ensured coalition stability as long as the issue of military conscription did not come to the fore.

But the conscription issue managed to impose itself on the political agenda. A series of civilian petitions to the Supreme Court, requesting the termination of the arrangement with the Haredim and the court’s demand for the political system to legislate the matter properly, fueled a series of political crises and reignited the secular agenda. Alongside questions about the public status of the Sabbath, the issue of conscription took on special significance. Parties from the right, left, and especially the center, which sought a secular and national character, positioned the conscription of Haredim as a fundamental issue—one that was even said to be key to the survival of the state.

However, Israel’s coalition system, and, in particular, the right-wing parties that saw their relationship with the Haredim as a commitment to religious sentiment, did not allow for the advancement of legislation to conscript Haredim. The motives for this blocking maneuver no doubt ranged from sincere (the importance of Torah study, the marginal usefulness of Haredi military recruits as front-line troops, and the fact that similar exemptions were given to Muslim and Christian Arabs) to the purely selfish. Thus, despite the Supreme Court’s demands, the conscription issue was deferred from one government to the next until this past March, when the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling stating that yeshivas whose students are not conscripted cannot receive state funding.

It was this ruling—or the anticipation thereof—that gave birth to the Sephardic rabbis’ letter.

The Sephardic rabbis’ letter expressed opposition to a new reality that was born overnight, whereby the “society of learners,” transitioned from reliance on an orderly political arrangement for deferring the military service of young Haredim, to the brink of criminality. What makes the letter potentially so significant in the Israeli political and social context, though, is that it also seems to challenge many common views about Sephardic Haredism and the politics of Shas.

Firstly, Sephardic Haredism, particularly that associated with Shas, is generally thought to have a positive stance toward military service members even as it opposes, much like Ashkenazi Haredim, conscription from the Haredi yeshiva world. The Sephardic rabbis’ letter, issued in the midst of a war in which many traditional and Shas-supporting citizens have been drafted, takes a clear-cut position that could be interpreted as unpatriotic.

Secondly, for many years, Shas seemed like a party united around a clear, well-known, and authoritative spiritual leadership. The letter undermines this assumption as some of the signatories are members of the party’s Council of Torah Sages. The letter is also not addressed to any authority—not to the Supreme Court, nor to any political entity. On the one hand, this can be seen as a “pure,” principled stance. On the other hand, the ambiguity of the letter’s intended addressee strengthens the possibility that it could be more than a critique of the Supreme Court ruling, potentially indicating a growing rift within Shas. We will now detail these points, starting from the political level and moving to the ideological and social levels.

Some of the signatories are closely tied to the longstanding and evolving spiritual leadership of the Shas party, which is involved in managing the war: Its political leader, Aryeh Deri, serves as an observer in the war cabinet, a privilege granted to a very limited number of politicians in Israel. Consequently, the letter may reflect a crack in the spiritual leadership of the party, which has been one of the most stable entities in Israel’s political system for nearly 40 years. The rift may be ideological, indicating genuine concern about the Supreme Court’s decision. Still, it reveals unrest within Shas’ spiritual leadership. Since the passing of Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s de facto leadership has shifted to its political leadership under Aryeh Deri, who has served as the political regent of the party for over a decade. The rabbis’ letter may be an attempt to delineate the boundaries of this political leadership, addressing an internal rather than an external audience.

One of the signatories, Rabbi Moshe Maya, presented as the elder of the party’s Council of Torah Sages, the sovereign body in Shas, already hinted at his discontent regarding the absence of a spiritual leader in the party. In a rare interview in August 2022 with a Haredi media outlet, he said: “We need to find a leader. Today, our generation needs a leader to guide everything […] Shas was calm, everything went smoothly because we had Haham Shalom [Cohen (1930-2022)] and everyone listened to Haham Shalom […] There’s a problem, who will be the leader […] Israel is not left a widow. The Holy One, Blessed be He, will provide the leader, even those you didn’t think of.” Thus, the letter initiative could be a continuation of this critique but in the form of policymaking.

The rabbis’ letter may be an attempt to delineate the boundaries of Shas’ political leadership, addressing an internal audience.

This raises another question: In a party where the political leadership in recent years has held a dominant position, how did a number of rabbis, important as they are, dare to challenge the experienced politicians who in theory control their purse strings? It could be that grassroots activists were dissatisfied with a particular party decision. To voice his grievance, one of these activists may have turned to the ideological side of the party and figured how to mobilize it against the political leadership on the sensitive issue of conscription.

Another possibility has to do with the change in the party’s power dynamics that has taken place in the last two election cycles. For many years, Shas knew how to bridge the gap between Haredi leadership and a traditional but non-Haredi Sephardic public. It did this through the promise of a social revolution and a powerful grassroots movement of religious revival that essentially established its local power base.

However, it is no secret that for over a decade, and indeed since the late leadership of Rabbi Ovadia, Shas has been losing electoral power. The institutionalization of the party and the erosion of its revolutionary message threaten the charisma of its leaders. The rise of the Likud party under Benjamin Netanyahu and its nationalist message, alongside the emergence of the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit, have also eroded Shas’ strength, portraying it as a compromising party more concerned with religious and rabbinic matters than national security. Another significant factor has been the rise of a Mizrahi middle class, educated, semisecular, and seeking to continue its upward mobility, away from Shas’ Haredi line. All this has led Shas’ political leadership to seek new sources of electoral support. Recruiting them is essential to the party’s electoral stability within a political system that has been in an ongoing crisis since the 2019 general elections.

On the one hand, Shas aligned itself with Netanyahu’s leadership, respecting the traditional Mizrahi public that sees Netanyahu as a strong leader. On the other hand, it sought to secure its own position by recruiting Sephardic communities and rabbis who, for many years, especially under Rabbi Ovadia’s leadership, distanced themselves from Shas. These are very large communities located in Haredi cities like Modiin Illit and Elad that Deri succeeded in recruiting over the past decade, but that do not lend their support to the party without compensation—as became evident last year with the renewal of the party’s Council of Torah Sages with figures from this particular Haredi echelon.

The Sephardic rabbis’ letter was the realization of this change, transforming the renewal of the council into a renewal of Shas’ ideological line. The letter featured names like Rabbi Yehuda Cohen and Rabbi Shlomo Yedidya Zafrani, which may not mean much to the average Israeli citizen, let alone to people outside of Israel, but they do mean a lot to a broad public of Sephardic Haredi yeshiva students and their families.

But what so deeply troubles these Sephardic rabbis? Certainly, the fundamental question of conscription into the army is distressing. However, the rabbis’ stance is no different than that of Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis. This issue could have been resolved through a joint letter from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic rabbis, yet that is not the case.

One likely reason for the stand-alone letter therefore is these rabbis’ desire to set a boundary on what can be termed the function of Sephardim in Haredi society—namely, the use of the Sephardic Haredi community as a kind of safety net for the Ashkenazi Haredi society of learners. The Sephardic society of learners includes a very broad margin of what can be called “soft Haredism,” which means a public of baalei teshuva (returnees to the faith) and those who are in the process of increasing their commitment to religious practices and beliefs, whose children do not always attend yeshivas and often deviate from the Haredi path. Given this fact, there is a significant fear that the Sephardic Haredim will become targets for fulfilling the army’s quotas and recruitment goals. This is what the Sephardic rabbis are looking to prevent.

In conclusion, the Sephardic rabbis’ letter is not just another letter. It is an event of significance in the Haredi society in Israel, or at least in the society that Shas has been courting for many years. In soccer terms, the signatories have issued a “yellow card”—a warning—to the political leadership of Shas. The letter reminds them that the new spiritual leadership of Shas seeks to influence the agenda and wants to sharpen the ideological line of the Haredi party. At the same time, the letter is a “yellow card” to the Ashkenazi Haredi leadership, to dissuade them from continuing to envision the Sephardic public within Haredi society as a sort of insurance policy for their arrangements. The rabbis’ letter clarifies that there is a strong Sephardic Haredi yeshiva world, and it will protect its own interests in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Finally, there is of course also an ideological element. No longer trailing behind the Ashkenazim, the Sephardic rabbis have now placed themselves at the forefront of the historic struggle between Haredism and Zionism. In the past, this struggle was against the “new Jew,” whose influence the Sephardic preachers saw in the secular “kibbutz.” Now, the adversary is Israel’s activist Supreme Court.

Appendix: The Letter

28 Adar II 5784 [7 April 2024]

Clear Instructions in the Face of the Conscription Decree

In these days, when the people of Israel need supreme protection, we must strengthen ourselves with complete faith that only the Torah protects the people of Israel and is the secret of our existence throughout the generations. As we have already seen at the beginning of the year [in the war that broke out on the Sabbath of Simchat Torah], “Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain,” and all reliance on “my strength and the might of my hand” has proven to be a broken reed, while all protection and miracles are only due to the study and observance of the Torah. We pray every day that the Lord will protect all Jews who are in danger and in enemy territory, and that they will return safely to their homes to serve the Almighty.

And behold, to our deep sorrow, precisely in these difficult days, the state authorities have decided to ignite strife and discord and wage war against the Lord and His Torah with various decrees, with the deliberate intention of assimilating and integrating the Haredi community into secular culture, heaven forbid. Therefore, we hereby clarify the view of the Holy Torah:

A) Anyone with a modicum of sense knows that their ultimate intention is to secure agreement on various compromises—by creating tracks and civil service programs “adapted for Haredim.” This insidious plan aims to infiltrate through a process and stages of targets and quotas and increasing tracks, gradually acclimating the Haredi community to it, with the goal of bringing the Haredi community under their control and reducing the number of Torah observers, as they themselves have stated.

B) The greatest sages of the Torah, led by Maran Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l (in a letter from Tishrei 5761 [October 2000]), have already instructed that even a young man not in a framework of studies is forbidden to go to the army or any of the various tracks. And this Torah shall not be replaced. It is well-known and widely recognized that even all the frameworks and tracks defined as “adapted for Haredim” have led to the abandonment of the yoke of the Torah and to severe transgressions of the Torah, heaven forbid.

C) Additionally, in the joint assembly of all the Councils of Torah Sages (Adar 5774 [March 2014]), it was unanimously decided that no compromises on the issue of conscription are permissible, and there should be no negotiations with them on this matter at all. Foreseeing the consequences, aside from the fact that every compromise will lead to further compromises, every compromise will bring ruin for generations. Therefore, the great sages of past generations have ruled not to enter into negotiations with them at all. And certainly, it should not be considered to agree on quotas, targets, or civil service tracks, etc., even for weak students. The law is that one life is not sacrificed for another.

D) In this time of persecution, we instruct the entire Haredi community and Torah scholars, the upholders of the world, to be strong and courageous, not to fear and not to be dismayed. We are trained through all generations to give our lives for the observance of the Torah and Judaism, as our forefathers did in all generations, and even now we will not shy away from going to prison and enduring all types of sanctions. We are ready to give our lives with all might and courage for the sake of upholding our holy Torah, according to the laws detailed in times of persecution as explained in the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 157).

And now, in this crucial period when, as part of the decree, they also take away the livelihood of Torah scholars to pressure them to leave the world of Torah, we hereby call upon all generous members of our people to support the yeshivas and kollels with their funds and with all their might, and they shall be blessed with wealth, prosperity, and all good things. As Maimonides wrote in the Epistle on Martyrdom: “The nation has already been praised before the Almighty for enduring the hardships of persecution, etc., and it is like a whole burnt offering on the altar.” And one suffering in distress is greater than a hundred who are not in distress, and we have nothing left but this Torah.

And thus we have come to sign:

Moshe Tzadka, Maran Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yosef; Moshe Maya, Elder of the Council of Torah Sages; Yaakov Toufik Aviezri, Rabbi and Av Beit Din of Beitar; Reuven Elbaz, Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr HaChaim, Member of the Council of Torah Sages; Yehuda Cohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Yekirei Yerushalayim, Member of the Council of Torah Sages; Shlomo Yedidya Zafrani, Av Beit Din of Keter Torah and Nasi of Iggud Amalei ha-Torah; Massoud Ben Shimon, Rosh Yeshiva of Or Elitzur, and Av Beit Din of Bnei Brak; Yaakov Chaim Sofer, Rosh Yeshiva of Kaf HaChaim; Benayahu Shmueli, Rosh Yeshiva of Nehar Shalom; Ben-Zion Mutsafi, Rosh Yeshiva of Bnei Zion; Baruch Shraga, Rosh Av Beit Din of Jerusalem; Yitzchak Bracha, Rosh Yeshiva of Ateret Yitzhak; Shimon Cohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yosef HaAtika; Shmuel Toledano, Rosh Yeshiva of Brit Yaakov; Eliyahu Toufik, Rosh Yeshiva of Be’er Yehuda; Ben-Zion Atun, Rosh Yeshiva of Reishit Chochma; Menashe Toufik Aviezri, Rosh Yeshiva of Be’er Yitzhak; Ovadia Yosef [grandson of the late Rishon LeZion], Rosh Yeshiva of Ohel Yosef.

Letter translated from the Hebrew by Menachem Butler and Nissim Leon.

Dr. Nissim Leon is a senior lecturer in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Bar-Ilan University.

Menachem Butler, an associate editor at Tablet Magazine, is the program fellow for Jewish Law Projects at the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog. Follow him on Twitter @MyShtender.

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