JERUSALEM – Deep in the heart of Mea Shearim, a Jerusalem bastion of hardline ultra-Orthodox Jews, hundreds of bearded young men in black suits have their noses burrowed into books, immersed in biblical study.

They are the creme de la creme of a cloistered community, the Harvard of the ultra-Orthodox world, who are expected neither to work for a living nor serve in the military with other Israelis. But it’s not just the students at the prestigious Mir Yeshiva for whom prayer and study of scripture is a full-time job. Nearly the entire community has been granted sweeping exemptions that have infuriated the general public.

These young men, and their sheltered lifestyle, are at the heart of a battle that is tearing Israel apart in a clash between tradition and modernity, religion and democracy. The fight centers on whether ultra-Orthodox males should be drafted into the military along with other Jews, but it really is about a much deeper issue: the place of Judaism in the Jewish state.

The question has come to the fore as the government races to meet a Supreme Court-ordered deadline to revamp the nation’s draft law.

In its current form, secular males must perform three years of compulsory service when they turn 18. Ultra-Orthodox men, like the young scholars at the Mir Yeshiva, have exemptions that allow them to continue studying in their isolated enclaves while collecting government subsidies.

For their supporters, seminary students are preserving a tradition that has served as the very bedrock of Judaism for thousands of years.

“Jews need to study the Bible. That is what makes us unique as a people,” said Yerach Tucker, a 30-year-old spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox community. “It is the essence of our lives.”

But polls show that the vast majority of Israelis, who risk their lives and put their careers on hold while serving in the military, object strongly to the arrangement, and many see it as the essence of everything wrong with their country.

This resentment has fueled a broader high-decibel culture war. In recent months, secular activists have rebelled against what they consider growing religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox, such as attempts to enforce gender segregation on buses and public places, and a religious backlash by ultra-Orthodox who feel persecuted.

“It is something so ethical, so basic, that we have all grown up upon: service, giving to the state. Everyone here has to give something to society because we are one society,” said Boaz Nol, a reserve officer who was among those planning a massive protest in Tel Aviv against the continued exemptions.

More than 10,000 reservists and their supporters turned out for the rally Saturday night, many of them carrying placards reading “everybody serves.”

The Supreme Court earlier this year ruled the draft exemptions illegal and gave the government until Aug. 1 to figure out a new, fairer system. That is proving far more difficult than expected.

The deep divisions between religious and secular parties inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government led last week to the collapse of a special committee formed to draft new legislation.

Netanyahu’s largest governing partner, the centrist Kadima Party, is now threatening to quit the government, just two months after joining the coalition with the goal of reforming the draft. Netanyahu has vowed to find a compromise.

Dan Halutz, a former Israeli military chief turned Kadima politician, visited the reservists’ protest tent in Tel Aviv on Saturday and announced that he was leaving the party.

The draft exemptions date to the time of Israel’s independence in 1948, when founding father David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild schools of Jewish learning razed in the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered.

As ultra-Orthodox parties became power brokers, the numbers mounted. Ultra-Orthodox officials now estimate there are about 100,000 full-time Torah learners of draft age.

The emphasis on religious study, begun early in a separate system of elementary schools, has pushed many ultra-Orthodox men to shun the work world, relying on welfare as they spend their days immersed in holy texts. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens.

Unemployment believed to hover around 50 percent, coupled with a high birthrate, has fueled deep poverty in the ultra-Orthodox sector. With families of eight to 10 children commonplace, more than a quarter of all Israeli first-graders today are ultra-Orthodox. Experts say if these trends continue, Israel’s long-term economic prospects are in danger.

But changing the ways of the ultra-Orthodox will not be easy. Leaders speak of centuries-old traditions of prayer and learning that they believe has allowed the Jewish people to survive such tragedies as the Spanish Inquisition, European pogroms and the Holocaust. Study in Yeshiva seminaries, they say, is no less important than military strength in protecting the country from modern threats in a hostile region.

“We are part of the Jewish army,” said Aharon Grossman, 30, a Mir Yeshiva student. “Some people serve in tanks. We serve in yeshiva.”

Ultra-Orthodox leaders insist they will never be forced to serve in the military.

A string of secular-led Israeli governments has maintained the status quo, either because of their dependence on ultra-Orthodox political kingmakers or out of fear of a backlash from a sector that hasn’t hesitated to block roads, clash with police or mobilize tens of thousands into the streets when ordered by their rabbis.

With the clock ticking, Netanyahu now faces a near-impossible task as he tries to satisfy the secular masses, the Supreme Court and various coalition partners, all while preventing sectarian unrest.

Before the parliamentary committee collapse, ultra-Orthodox parties boycotted the panel. And in a sign of what may lie ahead, thousands of black-clad ultra-Orthodox took to the streets of Jerusalem last week to protest the panel’s work. Some wore sacks in a sign of mourning over the prospect of being forced into service.

Einat Wilf, a lawmaker with the secular Independence party, said the ultra-Orthodox have no right to complain, adding that Israelis are fed up with a system in which they take and give nothing back in return.

“They can’t force their ways upon me,” she said. “If they want to pray, fine, but not at my expense.”

She said that despite ultra-Orthodox intransigence, the doomed panel of which she was a member had sought a compromise — even if it was not to the liking of secularists like her.

The ultra-Orthodox reject the idea that they are leeching off the state. They say employment numbers are skewed, and that they contribute to public coffers through sales tax on purchases they make for large families. They also note that the government subsidizes areas that they have no interest in, such as sports and the arts.

A day after Netanyahu disbanded the draft committee, its chairman nonetheless released his recommendations.

Among the proposals: that no more than 20 percent of ultra-Orthodox males, roughly 1,500 people a year, be granted exemptions, while others be permitted to defer service for no more than five years. A national service option was also introduced for those who didn’t fit into the military.

The details of the debate have dominated political discussion in Israel, handing Netanyahu his biggest challenge yet since he formed a 94-member coalition in early May. His office says he’ll meet quietly with political leaders in the coming days in order to formulate a fair draft law.