Amid the war in Gaza, Israel’s most religious Jews threatened to emigrate.

The statement issued by the chief rabbi of the Sephardic community in March had nothing to do with fear of Hamas rockets or the continuing fight against them. Neither was it related to protests over the remaining hostages or calls for ceasefire.

The concern instead was the forced conscription of Haredi Jews, popularly known as the ultra-Orthodox, into the military.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled unanimously against them. Though a plan must still be formulated, about 66,000 ultra-Orthodox of draft age are now eligible for enlistment.

Israel requires three years of service for most men and two years for most women. But in 1947, then-prime minister David Ben Gurion exempted 400 yeshiva students who wished to dedicate themselves to prayer and Torah study.

Marked by traditional black-and-white garb with a hat, long beard, and side curls, they call themselves Haredim—derived from Isaiah 66:2, which says God favors those who “tremble” at his Word. The success of Israel, they believe, is tied to Leviticus 26:3, where national flourishing is dependent on their “careful” observance of the law, interpreted as strenuous engagement with the Scriptures.

Today, however, the Haredi community is the fastest-growing in Israeli society and constitutes 13 percent of the population, estimated to increase to one quarter by 2050. Yet while 540 military-eligible Haredi men voluntarily enrolled to fight since October 7, tens of thousands have continued to avoid the draft under Ben Gurion’s exemption.

In 1998, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled a law was necessary to codify this policy, and it was passed in 2002. Israel also established a yeshiva that included military service as well as a special battalion for Haredim males. While thousands have joined, the vast majority rejects the secularizing influence of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as a threat to the uniqueness of their separate religious community.

Most Haredi do not celebrate Independence Day, observed from sundown to sundown May 13–14 this year. While they are not anti-Zionist, they believe that only the coming messiah can reconstitute the nation of Israel in the land. In the meantime, they support the current human endeavor through their prayers.

But in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled the 2002 law was discriminatory and ordered the government to address it. Given strong Haredi influence on politics, the issue was left unresolved until March 28, when judges barred the state from continuing payment of stipends to yeshiva students eligible for the draft. Authorities have stated they will not engage in a mass conscription, but an estimated 55,000 Haredi in over 1,200 yeshivas will lose their funding.

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The controversy has sparked protests and counterprotests pitting religious and secular Jews against each other. CT asked Samuel Smadja, the leader of a Messianic Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem, to provide a biblical perspective.

His father, who came to faith among the small Jewish minority in Tunisia, was one of the first messianic believers in Israel, immigrating in 1956. Today Smadja is the regional director for Trinity Broadcasting Network. He founded Sar-El Tours to connect Christians with their Holy Land heritage. He also has Haredi relatives within his family.

Smadja discussed how yeshivas fit within current Israeli politics, whether Haredi prayers are effective, and the best methods to speak about Jesus with an isolated community that equates proselytizing with the agenda of Adolf Hitler.

How do Messianic Jews view the IDF?

The children of Messianic Jews are fully enlisted and striving to be the best soldiers they can be. This is not only to demonstrate our social legitimacy, but to be a light for the gospel and to put forth our testimony.

We want our children to be promoted to the highest posts, as an example.

How do Messianic Jews view the Haredim?

It is better to discuss Orthodox Judaism, as the Haredim are a subset and there is diversity within both. Some join the army, some don’t, and it is hard to generalize since so much depends on which rabbi they follow.

But in general, like Paul said, they fear God but not from knowledge. The Orthodox Jews try to keep the commandments and do their best to climb the ladder of righteousness to get closer to God. And they are willing to pay the price for their convictions, especially during these times of war.

I believe we should respect them.

Yet we disagree with them, even though we have much in common on moral issues such as abortion and the traditional understanding of Judeo-Christian ethics. With many secular Jews, you have to prove God’s existence. But the Orthodox accept the truth of the Bible, and if they are willing to talk, it demands of us a deep knowledge of Scripture.

They know the Old Testament very well, especially the first five books of Moses.

Are they willing to talk?

Much more than they used to be. I grew up in Israel, and 25 years ago the name Yeshua (Jesus) was a terrible word. Messianic Jews were not recognizable because we were so few. Now people know we exist, and that we believe Yeshua is the Messiah.

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It makes for an interesting discussion. The debate centers on how to prove the concept of a suffering messiah, and not just from Isaiah 53, for which they have a different interpretation. And then we address God’s complex unity—the Trinity—and the language of John that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (1:1). This concept is mentioned frequently in rabbinic literature, and we discuss if John aligns with it.

Was God’s messiah meant to be divine, or an elevated rabbi? What the average Christian takes for granted we must prove to the Orthodox—just as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus when he opened the Law and the Prophets.

Why is Isaiah 53 insufficient?

Jews say this chapter speaks about Israel, and that Jews are the referenced people who suffer. There are four pictures of the “servant of the Lord” in Isaiah’s prophecies. One refers to a prophet, one to the people of Israel, one to a messiah, and one to Cyrus, the ruler of Babylon. Jews ask us why we then center these in Yeshua, when the text says “he will see his offspring and prolong his days” (v. 10).

But while the average Jew does not know this, rabbinic literature speaks of two messiahs—the son of David and the son of Joseph. And Joseph, sent by his brothers to slavery in Egypt, is a picture of suffering.

Genesis has this beautiful scene where Joseph presents himself to his brothers and they do not recognize him until he reveals himself. We have to show them that both these messiahs are the same person. But maybe, after 2,000 years of Christian tradition, the Jesus we speak of looks too much like an “Egyptian.”

And how does John align with rabbinic literature?

Remember when Jacob had his encounter with God and the vision of a ladder ascending into heaven? Leaving his homeland, Isaac’s son was troubled in spirit, so he anointed a pillar and said, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey … then the Lord will be my God”(Gen. 28:20–21).

In the Aramaic translations of Torah—Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan—which the Orthodox prize for their commentary, this phrase is rendered as “the word of God will be my God.” There are over 500 examples of this language, for when the name “Jehovah” is written twice for emphasis, the “word of God” is often used as a synonym.

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John tells us the word of God is Yeshua.

Orthodox Jews pray and believe God answers prayer. They know God is love, and that they fall into sin. They believe in heaven and hell.

But before talking about the Messiah, I believe the best starting point is the assurance of forgiveness. During the times of the Tabernacle and the Second Temple, a sacrifice would forgive sins for one year. But today there is no temple, no altar, and no high priest.

The Talmud describes one of the great rabbis, Yohanan Ben Zakkai, whose disciple asked him if he knew he was going to heaven. His answer: “I’m not sure I did enough.” We must be very careful concerning Orthodox Jews; they love God no less than we do. But we can ask them: Can you reach God by climbing the ladder of righteousness?

Is it true that the Orthodox are the most antagonistic to Messianic Jews?

This comes from a small and radical group who view us as trying to convert them to Christianity. Yet they are not looking to hurt us, but to save us. I’m trying to bring Jews to Yeshua, but they see this as an effort to succeed where Hitler failed.

We have to be honest: To win sympathy, some Messianic Jews demonize the Orthodox, and this is not right. It is true they do not love us. But we emphasize that we are not looking to convert Jews to Christianity, but to bring them to their God as we hope and pray that they recognize their Messiah. Paul said he was willing to be erased from the Book of Life for the sake of his brethren. This needs to be our approach for every person—Jew, Chinese, or anyone.

The Cross is already an obstacle. Let us not put others in their path.

How do you understand their self-reference to Isaiah 66?

It is a good description of who they believe themselves to be. They view their community like the tribe of Levi, which did not fight when the people of Israel entered the land under Joshua. Instead, like the Levites, they are dedicated to the religious rituals that support the army engaged on the front lines.

As believers in the Bible, we can appreciate this as a godly principle. The Haredim say if they leave the yeshiva, without their prayers Israel cannot have success. They see themselves as watchmen on the wall, praying 24/7 for Israel. Christians who engage in round-the-clock prayer movements today should realize the Haredim were doing this long before them.

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And what about Leviticus 26?

This verse accords with the charge given to Israel in Deuteronomy 11, pictured by the mount of blessing and the mount of curse. According to the Mosaic covenant, if you want God’s blessing you must keep the commandments. But read these passages also in light of Psalm 1:3—the person who prospers is the one “who meditates on his law day and night.” Go to any yeshiva and you will see Haredim studying Torah long into the evening. They believe this is saving Israel and gaining the favor of God.

Concerning the Haredim’s application of these verses to their enlistment in the army, I can understand their point. But I believe that the favor of God comes only through the Messiah. Since Jews do not recognize the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31, their striving for flourishing depends on Psalm 1.

They take the Bible very seriously. I wish the Christian world was this dedicated.

But are they correct in their interpretation?

Secular Jews certainly disagree. Most Israelis are traditional, but this does not mean they read their Bible every day. In their opinion, with 24 hours in a day, the Haredim can find a way to study scripture when serving in the army. It is not fair, they say, that I am sending my son or daughter to the front lines while they sit in the yeshiva—especially in this time of war.

Yet you believe in the power of prayer.

Yes, but differently. The return of the Jewish people to Israel is neither a coincidence nor a result of our efforts. In Ezekiel, God said he is bringing the Jews back to the land even though they have profaned his name among the nations. It is not that our people reached a certain spiritual level and God was impressed. God did this to show the world that he is faithful to his word.

The return of Jews to Israel is the best proof the Bible is true.

And if God brought us back to the land, I don’t believe he will then send us into the sea. This is my prayer, but Israel’s safety does not depend on what is said in the yeshiva, but in the promises of God.

When an Orthodox woman goes to the wall and prays for her children, does God answer her? Yes, according to his mercy. But when we, as believers in Yeshua, come before God’s throne, he answers us according to his grace. There is a huge difference, because we come under the promises of the New Covenant.

When Prince William enters the royal palace of King Charles, he is not given food because the servants had mercy on him. This is what happens to the beggar. But William is served because of his position. Like him, we are sons and daughters of the King.

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I respect the prayers of the Haredim. But Israel’s redemption is not from this.

But if these prayers can activate God’s mercy, is Israel right to exempt the Haredim from army service to allow their full dedication to God?

This is not a spiritual matter; it is political. As a Messianic Jew, I believe that God can answer their prayers as they fight in the army, as my children do.

But Haredim object also because the army tends to secularize society and remove community distinctions. The structure of the army is not yet suitable for them. The IDF must make major changes to accommodate them with the correct food, with rabbis as chaplains, and with the separation of sexes. We have to be fair, and if the army really wants them, they have to change—and not insist on changing the Haredim. It will be a process, to win their trust.

While the army has begun this effort, there is much more to do.

Did Ben Gurion make a mistake in granting the exemption?

He was a secular, socialist Zionist, but he understood the Haredim are part of the nation. Their number was small, so he let them pray. But today they are a huge percentage of the population. To be honest, the controversy is not about getting their several thousand children into the army. It is about their power.

Our system of coalition politics currently ensures that they control the parliament; no government can form without them. And with this leverage they ask for whatever they want. It is not just enlistment. Why should the Haredim be paid to study at yeshiva, many say, when I must pay for my child to go to university? The Haredim are milking the cow too much.

They are making a huge mistake. They could offer instead to volunteer in national service in hospitals, schools, or with Magen David Adom, the equivalent of the Israeli Red Cross. Instead, people are saying, “If there is a God, I don’t want to be like that.”

In Israel, when anyone searches for God, they go to the synagogue. Perhaps this will be an opportunity for the messianic movement, that people might find in us an additional option.

[ This article is also available in Français русский, and Українська. ]