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IDF army service is a Halachic obligation

The Zvhil-Mezbuz Rebbe of Boston: By Jewish law, every able-bodied Jewish male from the age of 20 is required to serve – period
Ultra-Orthodox soldiers stand on the stage at a Memorial Day service for fallen Haredi soldiers in Jerusalem, April 24, 2023. (Chaim Tovito)
Ultra-Orthodox soldiers stand on the stage at a Memorial Day service for fallen Haredi soldiers in Jerusalem, April 24, 2023. (Chaim Tovito)

I will undoubtedly be attacked, discredited and vilified in some circles for expressing this, but I simply cannot remain silent, and indeed I feel it is my obligation to speak out.

I am absolutely disgusted and repulsed by the position of some elected officials, politicians and political parties that there should be a blanket IDF service exemption for haredi men. There is absolutely no justification for such an outrageous and unjustified blanket exemption, either logically or halachically.

From a logical perspective, how can we expect “others” to protect us, defend us, fight for us if we don’t do our part and contribute to and be an active part of that existential requirement? Indeed, if these proponents of an unlimited blanket exemption were to be fully successful in achieving their expressed goal and vision that every Jewish man should devote his life fully and exclusively to study and observance of the Torah, and therefore in their opinion be exempt from IDF service, then ultimately there would then be no “others” at all and who would be left to serve in the IDF and defend Israel then? It makes no sense.

Fifty years ago, as a newly-minted rabbi and lawyer then writing on the Jewish Law of War towards a Ph.D in International Law, I wrote that from an Halachic perspective the Torah, from the Chumash to the Talmud to the Rambam, is crystal clear. Every able-bodied Jewish male from the age of 20 who is not from the tribe of Levi (which includes Cohanim) is required to serve. Period.

There were no blanket exemptions, just various limited exemptions based upon individual special circumstances (such as a husband in his first year of marriage, etc.). And indeed even those limited individual exemptions are only operative in the case of a Milchemes Reshus, a “permissible” or optional war (such as for elective territorial expansion). But critically, when it came to Milchemes Mitzvah, an obligatory war for self-defense, for Israel’s very survival, such as wars we are fighting today surrounded by enemies seeking to destroy us, there were absolutely no exemptions whatsoever, least of all any blanket exemption of an entire segment of the Jewish community. That would be unheard of. Except, evidently, today in some circles.

In addressing the issue of exemptions who are we in the name of the Torah, the Talmud, the Rambam to ignore those very authorities while at the same time encouraging the study of and devotion to those same holy texts?

I was so very heartened and thrilled to see so many haredi young men enlisting in the IDF in the aftermath of the horrible tragedy of October 7th, in the holy Torah-true tradition of Joshua, Yehoshua bin Nun, the first General leading an Israeli army, applying Torah practices to real life. Their actions were an important statement and example of the true values of a Jewish nation and homeland, an example to be encouraged and supported that also has the admirable side-effect of bringing all our people together, healing rifts in our society, and promoting cooperation and unity.

Certainly, accommodations can be made in the IDF, as they already have been, for the needs of Haredi Jews. I understand the concern that Haredi Jews may be exposed to less than authentic practices and views of Judaism, a concern mitigated by the existence of IDF units such as Nachal Chareidi, but even in “mixed” units it is equally possible that the opposite will occur and fighting side by side they will by example and with love attract the non-observant who will discover or rediscover the beauty of the Torah. I was privileged to have a son serving in the IDF, and subsequently fighting in Gaza, who did exactly that.

And if we have so little faith in the commitment and steadfastness of our observant youth and their ability to resist such influences, then the solution is not to isolate or exempt them from IDF service, but rather to support them, prepare them, and strengthen them.

In the Tachanun supplications recited as part of Shachris service each weekday morning, there are three verses addressing Shomer Yisroel, the Guardian of Israel. The first prays that our Guardian protect “she’aris Yisroel,” the remnant of Israel, the second prays to protect “am echod,” one people, and the third prays to protect “goy kadosh,” the holy nation. There is a deep reason for that particular intentional sequence – from remnants to unity to holiness.

If, as the Haredi community and indeed all of us preach, we aspire to be a holy nation, then we must first turn the remnant of Israel that we are into “Am Echod,” a singular, unique, united, one nation, united under the one G-d. One unity under The Unity – that is how we will survive, defeat the enemies that surround us, and thrive. Only as one united nation, with no divisions, no special treatment, nobody exempt.

No, there should not and cannot be a blanket exemption for any group among us. That simply increases divisiveness and discrimination and engenders resentment and hatred. That is not the way of the Torah or of Klal Yisroel.

About the Author
Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff, the Zvhil-Mezbuz Rebbe (Admor) of Boston, is the Chaplain of the City of Boston, spiritual leader of Bnai Jacob Synagogue in Boston, and also serves The Jerusalem Great Synagogue in Israel.
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