Scott Kahn
Director of

Right Now, It’s Just Not Fair

(Photo: Pixabay)

Every couple of hours, throughout the night, I wake up with a start.

I jump up with my heart racing, lift my phone, and check the news to see if anything terrible occurred.

Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is no. Either way, I have no choice but to go back to sleep, only to repeat this high-pressure ritual two or three hours later.

Last night, things seemed to be quiet. Perhaps yesterday was a good day for our hero soldiers in Gaza.

Then, early in the morning, the news flashed on my screen: Seven soldiers killed in Northern Gaza. Wait: no, it was eight. Do I recognize any names? Another news flash; now the number is ten. Ten soldiers, gone.

Most of them were responding to gunfire from inside a building in Shejaiya. First one explosion; then another, and another. Those who ran to help the injured from one blast were caught in the next.

Ten worlds, destroyed. Ten families, decimated.

Every day. There is never a day with no bad news. It just doesn’t happen. It can’t happen. This is the nature of war. It’s cruel and it’s evil. These soldiers are often 19 or 20 years old, or young married men, or fathers with little children. They had so much to live for, and years and years ahead of them to love and to accomplish and to cry and to laugh.

Yet we have no choice. War is cruel and war is evil and, in this case, war is necessary and war is justified and war is the only viable option.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t ask questions.

Because right now, it’s just not fair.

Every day in my local synagogue, I see young men who, if things were different, would be in the army, fighting for Israel and for the Jewish people against an enemy which has sworn to wipe both of the face of the earth.

They are not in the army. They come to synagogue with me.

Why do they come to synagogue?

Some of them are on leave from the army.

Some of them were in the army, and have not been called back for reserve service.

Some of them received exemptions from the army because of various personal or medical reasons.

Some of them are not Israeli citizens.

And some of them are exempt from the army because they are part of a community which is exempted en masse from the army based on the assumption that they are learning Torah.

Why does learning Torah exempt this community from the army?

Based on this community’s own admission, they are exempt from the army because learning Torah protects Israel as much or more than military service. They are serving in their own way, and doing as much or more as the soldiers who put their lives on the line and sometimes die.

Yesterday, ten soldiers died. They were killed.

If everyone were learning as they are supposed to learn, this should not have happened. These soldiers should have been protected by those who learn Torah. Somehow they were not.


Perhaps the idea that Torah study protects as much or more than army service is not wholly accurate. While the notion that Torah study protects certainly appears in Torah sources, the interpretation of those sources is far more complicated than some often claim. (This was discussed on a recent episode of the Orthodox Conundrum Podcast.)

If this is true, those who are exempt should be drafted immediately. It’s not fair that they avoid the responsibility and danger that others assume in their place if their Torah study does not, in fact, protect as they claim that it does.

Perhaps Torah study does protect the nation, but those who are learning are not spending enough time learning, or are not learning with enough passion, or are not careful enough about dedicating every available minute to their learning.

If this is true, then those who are exempt should be held responsible for the lives lost as a result of their negligence. If a soldier is held responsible or court martialled for failing to perform his duty, why are those who assume the same level of responsibility not held to equal account? Is that fair?

Perhaps Torah study does protect the nation, but there is no direct correlation between their study and the results on the battlefield. Torah study, in other words, protects Israel in a general sense, but there is no way to say that one person’s learning directly impacts a particular event in battle.

If this is true, then the entire system of exemptions needs to be revisited with an eye towards a more equitable division of labor. The Israeli army is considering raising the age of retirement for reservists because it cannot afford to lose soldiers in the middle of a war. There is, in other words, a direct correlation between the number of people fighting and Israel’s chances of success. There is no logic in exempting all those who study Torah, whose individual contributions might help, at the same time as soldiers are being forced to fight for longer because their contributions definitely help. (The halachic principle of “Bari v’shema – bari adif” – that is, a claim that something definitely took place has more legal strength than a counterclaim that something may or may not have taken place – should be operative here.)

Ten worlds were destroyed yesterday. Ten families were decimated.

Those who have avoided military service while claiming that they are spiritually contributing to the war effort need to answer these questions. If their answers are not satisfactory, things need to change.

And they need to change immediately.

Because right now, it’s just not fair.

I believe in the power of Torah study, and in the necessity of Torah study, and in the absolute importance of Torah study. I believe that the greatest students who are en route to becoming the Torah leaders of the next generation should be able to learn uninterruptedly; the future of the Jewish people largely depends upon their scholarship, and if that demands army exemptions, so be it. There are many good reasons that individuals can and should receive exemptions. Greatness in Torah study that will enhance Jewish lives across the world most certainly qualifies. And yes, perhaps their intense and unceasing study will mystically help our soldiers, too.

That is quite different from exempting thousands who are not the future leaders of our nation – never mind the thousands who are only studying in order to avoid the army.

Israel needs as many soldiers as it can get. My son-in-law who serves in the reserves and who has been fighting in Gaza went nine weeks before coming home for Shabbat, because there are not enough soldiers to give these reservists the breaks they both need and want.

And ten soldiers died yesterday.

The narrative that ultra-Orthodox politicians have been spouting has been utterly discredited. We need a new narrative: a narrative that includes the full participation of all populations in the divine experiment that we’re conducting. I pray that it’s not too late.

Because right now, it’s just not fair.

About the Author
Rabbi Scott Kahn is the CEO of Jewish Coffee House ( and the host of the Orthodox Conundrum Podcast and co-host of Intimate Judaism. You can see more of his writing at
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