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Divine Duty vs. Israel’s National Defense: The Battle within Israel’s Soul

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Religious Duty and National Defense: Navigating the Complex Intersection of Faith, Identity, and Military Service in Israel

The schism in Israel between secular Jews, modern religious Jews, and the ultra-Orthodox community, particularly those who are anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, centers on the contentious issue of military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Secular and modern religious Jews criticize the ultra-Orthodox for their reluctance to serve in the IDF, viewing them as shirking their national defense responsibilities and economic contributions. The potential impact of their enlistment is significant, with an estimated 66,000 military-age Haredi individuals potentially adding over 60 battalions to Israel’s defense forces, a notable increase given that the total Hamas forces on Oct 7 were comprised of 24 battalions.

This division is not rooted in a blanket religious exemption from military service, as religious Zionist (or “National Religious”) youth actively enlist and serve in the IDF. These individuals integrate their religious practices with their military duties, serving as role models within the forces and demonstrate that devout religiosity and military service are not mutually exclusive. Their participation dispels the notion that religious beliefs inherently preclude military service.

The reluctance of the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the IDF is attributed originally to theological interpretations and also a desire to maintain insularity from secular influences. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that their study and prayer provide a spiritual protection for Israel, complementing the physical defense provided by the IDF, a kind of “Holy-Dome” complementing the Iron Dome. This perspective, while significant within certain communities, is contested by others who see active defense as more important, especially in war – as we have seen.

The core of the issue lies in a broader theological and ideological debate within Judaism about the nature of Zionism, the role of a secular government in the holy land, and the path towards redemption. While all religious Jews believe in the importance of living in Israel and either anticipate the end of exile or believe that the exile is over, there is disagreement on the legitimacy and role of the current Israeli state. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews tolerate the secular government due to necessity, while a minority actively oppose it. However, the desire for the return of all Jews to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple is a common aspiration.

The schism, therefore, is not merely about military service but reflects deeper disagreements over religious authority, the interpretation of religious texts, and the integration of religious life with national obligations. These issues underscore the complex interplay between religious identity, national service, and the vision for Israel’s future, highlighting the diversity of opinion within the Jewish community about the state’s secular governance and the path towards redemption.

Warriors of Faith: The Enduring Legacy of Jewish Martial Valor Through the Ages

The history of a fierce Jewish martial tradition is a compelling narrative of resilience, courage, and strategic prowess, debunking the stereotype of Jewish meekness and passivity through millennia of recorded history. This tradition is deeply rooted in ancient times with iconic figures such as Moses, who before becoming the leader of the Israelites, was noted by the Jewish/Roman historian Josephus as having served as a military general in Egypt leading the Egyptian invasion of Ethiopia. King David further embodies this martial spirit, known not only for his scholarly contributions to the Torah but also as a valiant warrior whose Psalms acknowledge war and combat training as divine endowments, “Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” (Psalm 144)

The medieval era saw Jewish scholars like Rashi and Maimonides (Rambam) advocating for a balanced life of Torah study and physical defense of Israel, drawing inspiration from biblical heroes such as Joshua, Devorah, and the Maccabees who led and participated in battles to safeguard the Jewish community. This ethos of armed resistance persisted through various historical epochs, manifesting in revolts against oppressive regimes, from the 4th-century Jews of Galilee uprising against Roman rule to the 11th-century Jewish valor at the Battle of Zalaka, and the Jewish defense against Crusaders in Jerusalem, with their last stand at the Temple Mount.

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In more recent history, the tradition of Jewish martial valor continued to evolve. The 18th century saw Colonel Berek Joselewicz raising a Jewish cavalry regiment to fight in the Kościuszko Uprising against Russia. During World War I, the Jewish Nili espionage network aided the British against the Ottoman Empire. A 100,000 Jews served with distinction in the Austro-Hungarian army, 12,000 killed in action. World War II highlighted Jewish martial tradition with 250,000 Jews serving in the American army and from Palestine the formation of the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group in the British Army, enlisted over 30,000 Palestinian Jews in the British Armed Forces. The Jewish, German-speaking British Special Intelligence Group’s operations against the Nazis, demonstrated unparalleled bravery and a commitment to fighting for justice and survival.

This rich history underscores the enduring legacy of Jewish martial tradition, spanning from ancient warriors and scholars to modern soldiers and resistance fighters. It is a testament to a deep-seated dedication to protection, justice, and the perseverance of the Jewish people, challenging long-held stereotypes and celebrating a complex legacy of combat readiness, faith, and the unwavering fight for freedom and dignity.

Understanding the Religious Objections to Enlistment in the IDF

The reluctance of some of the most devout Jews, particularly within the Haredi, Hasidic, and Orthodox communities, to enlist and fight in the Israeli military stems from deeply held religious beliefs and interpretations of Jewish law. Orthodox Judaism adheres to traditional Jewish law, Haredi Judaism emphasizes strict observance and separation from secular life, and Hasidic Judaism focuses on mysticism and communal living. The term “Haredi,” preferred over “ultra-Orthodox,” translates to “trembling” or “fearing God,” highlighting a life dedicated to religious seclusion.

Central to the Haredi opposition to military service is the belief that Jews should not establish Jewish rule in the Land of Israel before the Messiah’s arrival. This belief bifurcates the Haredi into Non-Zionists, who accept the State of Israel’s existence but deny its religious significance, and Anti-Zionists, who oppose any Jewish state before the Messiah. The majority of Haredim are Non-Zionists, viewing the State of Israel as devoid of messianic redemption, which they believe cannot be achieved through human efforts.

Among Anti-Zionists, a small yet vocal group, Neturei Karta, actively opposes the State of Israel and engages with its enemies, drawing criticism even from within the Haredi community for their public – and I would say, traitorous – activism. In contrast, the Satmar Hasidic sect, one of the largest, and founded by Rav Yoel Teitelbaum (the Satmar Rebbe), with over 150,000 household followers worldwide and in Israel – adopts a less extreme but firm anti-Zionist stance. Teitelbaum’s treatise, Vayoel Moshe, argues against Zionism as a violation of the “Three Oaths” described in the Talmud. These oaths between God, Israel, and the world, dictate that Jews must not mass migrate to Israel, rebel against nations, providing no excessive oppression by the nations. For Teitelbaum, Zionism represents a false messianic movement that must be rejected in order for true redemption to occur.

This complex web of religious convictions highlights a profound belief among certain segments of the Jewish community that the establishment of a Jewish state prior to the Messianic era contravenes divine commandments. The adherence to these beliefs underscores a significant ideological divide within the Jewish world, with implications for military service and national identity in the State of Israel.

The Haredi Belief System

Zionism and the State of Israel is complex, rooted in theological interpretations of Jewish exile, redemption, and the messianic era. This perspective, shaped after the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 C.E., posits that the Jewish people’s return to Eretz Yisrael and the establishment of sovereignty must await the Messiah’s arrival. Haredim view the diaspora as a divine admonition, with redemption achievable only through repentance and strict adherence to God’s commandments.

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Political Zionism, emerging in the late nineteenth century with figures like Theodor Herzl, presented a secular, political approach to Jewish statehood that clashed with Haredi theology. Haredim saw efforts to establish a Jewish state before the Messiah’s revelation as a direct challenge to divine will, advocating for patience and divine intervention for redemption. Despite the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Haredim continued to regard their presence in the country as part of an ongoing divine exile, emphasizing their role as guardians of traditional Judaism over civic engagement or military service.

Central to the debate is the interpretation of the “three oaths” found in the Talmud, which some Haredi groups, like Satmar and Neturei Karta, cite as prohibiting mass immigration to Israel, rebellion against nations, and causing excessive oppression by Gentiles. However, this interpretation is not universally accepted within Jewish thought. Most rabbinic authorities, citing texts from the Rambam to the Shulchan Aruch, emphasize the mitzvah of Aliyah and reclaiming the land across all generations. Historical precedents, such as the Bar Kochba rebellion and the construction of the Second Temple, along with modern events like the Balfour Declaration, are seen as indicators that the time for Jewish return has come, challenging the Haredi stance.

Critics of the Haredi view argue that the overwhelming historical, halachic, and pragmatic evidence supports Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel as fulfilling Jewish destiny. They contend that the Holocaust, assimilation, and international recognition of Jewish rights to a homeland have nullified the “three oaths,” even if they ever held binding halachic significance, which they did not. The argument extends to practical considerations of self-defense and survival, emphasizing the necessity of Jewish national revival and cooperation with other nations as essential to the Jewish people’s future.

While Haredi communities adhere to a theological opposition to Zionism based on a specific reading of Talmudic texts, the majority of Jewish thought supports the Zionist project as a legitimate, necessary response to Jewish exile. This reflects a broader discourse within Judaism on the balance between divine promise, historical necessity, and the practicalities of statehood and survival.

What Are The Three Oaths and How Did They Arise?

The “Three Oaths” concept, which has significantly influenced the Haredi perspective on Zionism and the State of Israel, originates from a rather enigmatic source—King Solomon’s Song of Songs. This source, primarily a collection of love poetry, has been interpreted through a complex lens of Talmudic discussion, leading to a stance that has profound implications for contemporary Jewish politics and identity.

The Three Oaths in the Talmud (Ketubot 110b-111a) are:

  1. Jews should not ascend to the Land of Israel “as a wall” (en masse)
  2. Jews should not rebel against the nations
  3. Nations should not oppress Israel excessively

These oaths emerged from a Talmudic debate (Ketubot 110b-111a) between Rabbi Zeira, who advocated for living in Israel, and Rav Yehuda, who believed Jews must remain in exile until the redemption. Rabbi Zeira introduced these oaths as a counterargument to Rav Yehuda’s stance, inferring them from a small passage in the Song of Songs. However, it is crucial to note that these oaths are not considered halacha (Jewish law) but rather the opinion of one rabbi, Rabbi Zeira. Judaism does not generally elevate singular opinions to the status of law due to the potential for contradictions and chaos this would introduce.

Maimonides, a preeminent codifier of Jewish law, described the Three Oaths as a parable (al derech mashal), a piece of practical advice for a defenseless people under foreign rule rather than a binding legal obligation. This interpretation is supported by the omission of the Three Oaths from major codifications of Jewish law, including Maimonides’ own Mishneh Torah.

Interestingly, Rabbi Zeira, the original proponent of the Three Oaths, later recanted his stance after moving from Babylonia to Israel. He then believed that Jews should have migrated en masse to Israel, directly contradicting his own earlier position. This change of heart highlights the dynamic nature of rabbinic opinion and interpretation.

The source of the Talmud’s Three Oaths, in turn is derived from a passage in the Song of Songs (2;7, 3:5, 8:4 – 3 identical refrains) , which underscores the complexity, and, in this case, probable absurdity, of deriving legal or theological principles from poetic texts. The Song of Songs, which underwent significant debate before its inclusion in the Jewish Tanach (canon), is a collection of love poetry that does not explicitly mention God or laws. Its acceptance was ultimately due to its supposed authorship by King Solomon as an allegorical interpretation focusing on God’s love for Israel rather than human romantic, even erotic, love.

From the refrain: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and by the hinds of the field, that you not awaken or stir up love, until it please” – to the 3 oaths – to anti-Zionism and refusal to enlist in the IDF. Satmar and others have built an entire religion around a single (non legal) passage in the Babylonian Talmud, which in turn was derived likely from an overactive imagination in reading a fragment of King Solomon’s shir haShirim love poem, a poem that essentially says, do not fall in love too early.

The extrapolation of the Three Oaths from a single, non-legal passage in the Babylonian Talmud, based on an interpretation of a fragment of King Solomon’s love poetry, illustrates the intricate process of rabbinic interpretation. This process has led to the development of significant religious and political ideologies, such as those seen in the Satmar and other groups’ staunch anti-Zionism and refusal to enlist in the IDF.

The journey from a poetic adjuration not to “stir up love too early” to a foundational element of contemporary Haredi identity exemplifies the transformative power of rabbinic interpretation, albeit one that raises questions about the relationship between text, context, and belief. To say it less diplomatically, one short refrain in the song of songs led to an opinion of one man in the Talmud, which in turn led to the Satmar and others, weaving a whole religious philosophy that results in 60 potential battalions of soldiers not being available to defend Israel and deep resentment from those who put their lives on the line in defence of Israel and pay taxes.. Kinda crazy.

Balancing Faith and National Duty: Navigating the Complexities of Military Service in the Israeli Haredi Community

The reluctance of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) represents a significant aberration from mainstream Jewish theology and values, rooted in (“flimsy”, my opinion) theological interpretation, followed by a belief in a “Holy Dome”, evolving to a distrust that their lifestyle may be too fragile to withstand public exposure – and all potentially rooted in the traumas of diaspora. This stance, which has fostered a cult-like mindset against questioning or critical thinking, stands in stark contrast to the ethos of religious soldiers serving in the IDF, who embody the spirit of King David by demonstrating that there is indeed “a time for everything under the sun.”

Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party highlights the successful integration of Torah study and observance with military service among religiously observant nationalists, challenging the notion that integration into the secular world poses a threat to religious identity. The ultra-Orthodox community’s exemptions from military service have historically been justified by fears of secular influence; however, the religious Zionist movement has shown that these fears can be addressed.

The establishment of Israel and the rise of Zionism have led to a complex relationship between religious beliefs and national identity within the Jewish community. While Zionism was embraced by many as a return to ancestral lands and a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, the Haredi community viewed it as a direct violation of religious principles, insisting that divine intervention alone should lead to the redemption of the Jewish people. This view led to a rejection of the Israeli state and its secular institutions, including the IDF, and a resistance to military conscription based on religious grounds and the desire to preserve a distinct way of life.

Despite these tensions, there is an increasing awareness that Jewish identity is diverse, encompassing a range of beliefs and practices. The narrative of Jewish martial tradition counters stereotypes, showcasing the resilience, adaptability, and strong sense of collective identity within the Jewish community. As Israel navigates the challenges of religious pluralism and national unity, the legacy of Jewish martial tradition underscores the strength and diversity of the Jewish people.

The IDF’s efforts to accommodate religious soldiers, providing an environment where they can maintain their religious lifestyle while serving, underscores the possibility of reconciling religious observance with national defense duties. This reflects a broader understanding of the military as a unifying force that transcends ethnic, religious, and social divisions, fostering a sense of belonging and collective ownership of the state. Military service, thus, becomes a critical expression of citizenship and belonging in the Israeli context.

Ayelet Shachar’s insights further emphasize the role of military service in defining membership within the Israeli polity, highlighting the distinction between those who partake in this fundamental expression of self-determination and those who do not. The practical necessity of increasing Haredi enlistment is undeniable, with the potential addition of 66,000 soldiers significantly bolstering Israel’s defense forces, and with this statistic increasing year over year. The argument for universal service is not only pragmatic but deeply rooted in the belief that every Israeli has a vital role in protecting and serving their country. With commitment and creativity, it is entirely feasible to integrate Haredi individuals into the military, allowing them to contribute to Israel’s defense while adhering to their religious lifestyle, thus reinforcing the unity and resilience of the Israeli nation.

There is no choice.

About the Author
Teich, based in Toronto, is an international strategy, market growth, and communications consultant for emerging economies and organizations. With a past role as CEO and extensive experience in over 80 countries and cultures, he's now semi-retired, continuing his consultancy, an author of two best-sellers, and an avid follower of history and current affairs.
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