Q: Do yeshiva students have to enlist in the army, or are all Torah students exempt from military service – no matter how many they number?
A: The mitzvah to enlist in the army is based on two great mitzvoth – haztalat Yisrael (saving Israel), and yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land of Israel). It should be noted that seventeen mitzvoth from the Torah relate to the army, as listed by Rabbi Zevin in his book ‘L’Ohr Ha’Halakha’, where he thoroughly clarifies the mitzvah to enlist in the army. This issue was also expounded upon at length by Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook in his book ‘L’Nityvote Yisrael’, and other gedolei Torah.
It is well-known that it is a mitzvah for every Jew to save his fellow brother from danger, as the Torah says:
“Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” (Vayikra 19:16).
And our Sages said in the Mishna:
“Anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world” (Sanhedrin 4:5).
We have also learned that in order to save a group of Jews, life is endangered and the Sabbath is desecrated (S.A., O.C. 329:6). How much greater the obligation is to participate in the rescue of the entire nation – namely, the mitzvah of fighting a war. Or as Rambam wrote:
“What is considered as milchemet mitzvah? … To assist Israel from an enemy which attacks them” (Laws of Kings 5:1).
The difference between the mitzvah of fighting a war, as opposed to the standard mitzvah of saving a life, is that the mitzvah of fighting a war requires mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), and it overrides an individual’s obligation to protect his own life (Maran HaRav Kook, Mishpat Kohen 143; Responsa, Tzitz Eliezer 13:100).
Settling the Land of Israel
It is written in the Torah:
“Take possession of the land and settle in it” (Bamidbar 33:53-54), and our Sages said that the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is equal to all the mitzvoth (Sifre, Re’eh, Parsha 53). This mitzvah overrides pikuach nefesh (saving the life) of individuals, seeing as we were commanded to conquer the Land of Israel, and the Torah did not intend us to rely on a miracle. And as there is no war without casualties, it follows that the mitzvah to conquer the Land obligates us to endanger lives for it. (Minchat Chinuch 425 and 604; Mishpat Kohen, pg.327).
The claim cannot be made that this mitzvah is not in force today, for the halakha follows the opinion of Ramban and the majority of poskim (Jewish law arbiters), that the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz remains in effect at all times. True, there are some poskim who believe that in the opinion of Rambam, ever since the destruction of the Temple there is no mitzvah to conquer the Land of Israel. However, all agree that according to Rambam it is a mitzvah to live Eretz Yisrael, and consequently if after the Jewish nation is already living in the Land enemies come to conquer parts of it, the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz obligates us to fight in order to protect it, because it is forbidden to hand over parts of the Land of Israel to the Gentiles (as explained in the responsa ‘D’var Yehoshua’, section 2, O.C. 58, by Rabbi Yehoshua Ehrenberg, a posek and dayan of Belze Hassidim). This, in addition to the prohibition of abandoning parts of the Land of Israel to Gentiles on account of defense and security reasons (S.A., O.C. 329:6).
The Conflict between Talmud Torah and the Mitzvah of Army Service
Although the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is equal to all the mitzvoth, the basic rule is that any mitzvah that cannot be performed by others’ overrides Talmud Torah (Mo’ed Katan 9a). The same holds true for enlisting in the army. When there are not enough soldiers for Israel’s security, Torah study is cancelled to serve in the army. In regards to the explanation of the Torah and our Sages (Sotah 44b) concerning the case of a man who had built a new house and not dedicated it, etc., being exempt from army enlistment, this refers to a milchemet reshut (an optional war). But when it comes to a milchemet mitzvah (an obligatory war), such as a war to rescue Israel from an enemy –
“the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his chamber, and a bride from her pavilion”. This is also the ruling of Rambam (Laws of Kings 7:4).
We have also found that the students of Yehoshua bin Nun and King David went out to war without relying on miracles, and were not concerned about the neglect of Torah study (bittul Torah). Regarding the statement in the Talmud (Bava Batra 8a) that Torah scholars do not require protection, it is not referring to a situation of safek pikuach nefesh (a doubtful life-threatening situation), rather, Torah scholars are exempt from protection intended primarily to prevent theft. But when the lives of Jews need to be defended, it is a mitzvah to rescue them from danger – and with regards to the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh – it is a mitzvah for the greatest talmedei chachamin to act first (M.B. 328:34).
The Importance of Yeshiva Student’s Torah Study
Nonetheless, it is essential to know that the most important mitzvah is Talmud Torah and no other mitzvah guards and maintains the Jewish nation to the extent of Torah study. Therefore, along with the mitzvah to serve in the army, every Jew must arrange a number of years in his life which he devotes to Torah study, to the best of his ability. This is the meaning of our Sages statement:
“The study of the Torah is superior to the saving of life” (Megilah 16b), because saving a life involves the momentary rescue of a human body, whereas Talmud Torah revitalizes the body and soul of the Jewish nation for the long duration.
When Necessary, Enlist; When Not, Defer
Practically speaking, when enlistment is necessary for the protection of the nation and the Land, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah does not override it, just as Talmud Torah does not override fulfilling the mitzvoth of marriage, tzedakah, and additional mitzvoth that cannot be performed by others. This was the instruction of our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook ztz”l during the ‘War of Independence’, that yeshiva students must enlist in the army, because the situation at the time required the mobilization of all young men.
However, when there is no necessity to recruit all young men, then it is the duty of the Jewish nation to exempt students who are worthy of developing into Torah scholars for the sake of Clal Yisrael, so they can grow and become rabbis and educators – provided they do so with respect and amity towards the soldiers protecting our nation and country. For only Torah learning stemming from such a position can make a full contribution to raising the spirit and courage of Clal Yisrael.
In line with our rabbis teachings, and seeing as the State of Israel is surrounded by enemies, according to Torah instruction the majority of yeshiva students must perform a significant service in the army, similar to the service of Hesder yeshiva students or ‘Hesder Merkaz’, so they can integrate into the reserve forces, upon which the I.D.F. bases its primary strength in time of war. However, those few students worthy of becoming important Torah scholars, and whose going out to war is likely to harm their studies, should continue learning in yeshiva for several, unlimited years, for the benefit of Clal Yisrael. Somewhat similar to our Sages statement that one thousand students enter for mikra (Tanach). From there, only one hundred go forth and succeed to be worthy of Mishna (the simple understanding of halakha). Of these one hundred, only ten go forth for Gemara (in-depth study), and of these ten, only one goes forth for hora’ah (instruction) (Vayikra Rabbah 2:1).
The New Law
The law in question broadens the opportunity of learning in yeshivas at the expense of army service and the public coffers. This stems from recognition of the importance of Torah study, and the national need to give greater weight to Torah learning in yeshivas following the spiritual and physical crisis the Jewish nation experienced in recent generations. Accordingly, the law grants full exemption from military service to roughly 20% of all yeshiva students. For this, the representatives of the Hareidi community should have expressed gratitude to the Members of Knesset and the government, instead of crying needlessly, ranting, raving, and spreading lies, as if nowhere in the world were yeshiva students ever required to enlist in the army (have they not heard about the Cantonists, and the recruiting for the Russian-Japanese War, and for World War I, etc.?).
Anyone Who Says There is No Mitzvah to Serve in the Army is Not a Gadol
Q: Is it true you said that a gadol ba’Torah (an eminent Torah scholar) cannot possibly say it is not a mitzvah to serve in the I.D.F.?
A: Indeed, anyone who says that it is not a mitzvah to serve in the I.D.F. cannot be considered a gadol ba’Torah. There might be a debate between gedolei ha’Torah about the number of yeshiva students who need to enlist; there could also be gedolei Torah who believe that in the present situation, which is not an immediate state of pikuach nefesh, it is better for Am Yisrael that all yeshiva students continue learning, including those who do not study diligently, because in the army they are liable to decline spiritually. And although we believe their opinion is mistaken, the debate remains within the framework of the details of the mitzvah and its obligation. But no gadol ba’Torah can possibly claim it is not a mitzvah to serve in the army, just as it is impossible to claim that a person who saves a human’s life, or settle’s the Land of Israel, does not fulfill a mitzvah. If one makes such a claim – it proves he is not gadol ba’Torah.
According to my knowledge, the rabbis who are considered gedolei Torah in the Hareidi community, such as Rabbi Eliashiv ztz”l, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l, and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef ztz”l, agreed that it is a mitzvah to serve in the army, and only opposed compulsory enlistment for yeshiva students at the present time. In contrast to them, members of Satmar who claim there is no mitzvah whatsoever to serve in the army cannot be considered eminent Torah scholars.
The Difficult Complaint against the Hareidi Community
This is the difficult complaint against the Haredi community: Why don’t they explicitly say that those serving in the army fulfill a mitzvah? Why don’t they pray for the welfare of the soldiers? One can argue about the need for yeshiva students to serve in the army, and claim that the mitzvah can be fulfilled by others, but how have they allowed themselves in heat of the debate to erase a mitzvah from the Torah?
This complaint is directed primarily to all the mashgichim (spiritual supervisors) and various spokesmen, however, the eminent Hareidi rabbis also bear responsibility. For various reasons, most of them avoid speaking about this great mitzvah, thereby giving room to the serious mistake of many of their students, who brazenly dare to claim that serving in the army is not a mitzvah.
Mobilization for Guarding the Sanctity of the Army Camp
If the representatives of the Hareidi community would invest even a tenth of the effort they devoted in the fight against enlistment to the struggle of preparing the army for the absorption of members of their community, they would have been much more beneficial. Because then, the fear of the young men declining spiritually in the army would wane, and all those yeshiva students who do not study diligently could enlist in the army without fear. Subsequently, most of the complaints against the Hareidi community would disappear. At the same time, they would assist all those frustrated young men who are unable to find their place, and thus strengthen the I.D.F. in terms of security and spirituality. Consequently, they would have a positive effect on the state of tzniyut (modesty) of all soldiers, and as a result on the entire country – not unlike the religious soldiers – the yeshiva students – who by means of their good example have already influenced the entire army today – until gradually, the I.D.F. will become much more suitable for religious individuals. And as the number of serious, observant soldiers increases, so will we merit greater sanctity of our military camp, and as a result, be privileged to see the Final Redemption, speedily in our days.
This article appears in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.