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To learn or to serve? Yeshiva students & the IDF

He understands why the ultra-Orthodox protest the IDF from the inside -- and explains clearly why they are mistaken

On Thursday night in Jerusalem, a demonstration of support for ultra-Orthodox soldiers is taking place. Over the past few months, there has been a gradual rise of incitement against these soldiers which in many instances has led to physical confrontation between extremists in the community and religious soldiers who happen to be in their neighborhood. Though unable to join in this demonstration, it is a topic close to my heart, being that I consider myself “religious” and also served for two years in the IDF.

Certainly, there are a number of points of view regarding the drafting of yeshiva students into the army, however, I would like to add to the dialogue, and address this conversation from a halachic perspective and present several points on the topic as discussed by our Sages. As the Mabit, Rabbi Moses ben Joseph Trani, writes, “Any person who want to criticize a ruling rendered by a colleague, may not do so, unless he too clarifies his opinions with valid arguments, to merely chatter, however and state that the law is not in accordance with the others view is unacceptable.”(Shut Mabit vol 1:116). While looking back at the wisdom of generations past, hopefully we can come to a better understanding of how to grapple with this intense issue in our times.

While all of the points mentioned below do support the idea of integration of military service and Torah learning, I wish to emphasize from the outset that this article in no way should be taken to imply that Torah study or Torah scholars are not a truly vital and fundamental aspect of Jewish national life. As it says in Tractate Makkot, “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, What is meant by the verse, ‘Our feet were standing in the gates of Jerusalem’? What caused our feet to be steadfast in war? The gates of Jerusalem, which were immersed in Torah study.” (Makkot 10a). Rather, the purpose of this blog post is to validate that those who believe in the integration of Torah learning, military service, and sharing in the burden of the Jewish people have firm halachic ground and steady rabbinic shoulders to stand on.

From the discussion on the street, there seem to be four main reasons why yeshiva students should be exempt from compulsory military service.

The first claim: Serving in the army will take the students away from their Torah study, and therefore would violate the rule of Bitul Torah (neglecting Torah study).

The second claim: Maimonides writes that the reason the Levites did not receive a portion of inheritance of the Land of Israel and in the spoils of war is because, “… they were set aside to serve God, and minister unto Him… Therefore they were set apart from the ways of the world. They do not wage war like the remainder of the Jewish people…nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power…Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him to… separate himself to stand before G-d and to serve Him, to know Him…”( Laws of the Sabbatical Year 13:12-13 ). Therefore, yeshiva students whose full time occupation is Torah study should be included in the Tribe of Levi and be exempt from military service.

The third claim: Because Torah study protects Torah scholars and the nation as a whole, they are involved in the spiritual defense and are therefore not obligated to serve in the physical defense.

The fourth claim: A religiously observant individual’s lifestyle will clash with the less stringent standards of religious observance of the military environment.

Before we begin to address the above, an underlying concept which will direct the discourse must be clarified: Is serving in the Israeli Defense Forces classified as a mitzvah (positive commandment) in our day? If so, who is obligated to join is such an endeavor? Maimonides writes, “What is considered as milchemet mitzvah (a war which is a positive commandment)?…A war fought to assist Israel from an enemy which attacks them…In a milchemet mitzvah, the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his chamber, and a bride from her pavilion”. (Laws of Kings 5:1, 7:4) In modern times, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, the author of the response Tzitz Eliezer, and Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Zevin, the author of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, are but a few of many rabbis and Jewish leaders who were of the opinion that the defensive wars being fought in the Land of Israel in our time have the legal standing of a war that is a positive commandment.

In light of this understanding of Maimonides and the rabbis mentioned above, we are better equipped to grapple with the four reasons stated above.

Resolution #1: Regarding the first claim that military service will bring about a neglect in the time one devotes to Torah study, one must consider the following basic tenet as outlined by the talmudic sages: A person is not exempt from other commandments because of engagement in Torah study (Talmud Tractate Moed Katan 9b). The talmudic commentator Rabbenu Menachem ben Shlomo, in his work Beit Habichira (ad loc), writes that the concept of “one who is engaged in a commandment is exempt from another commandment” does not apply to the study of Torah because the entire purpose behind studying Torah is to enable a person to fulfill the commandments. Furthermore, in the work Kehillot Yaakov by Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, he writes that the obligation to study Torah — which was not given for specific time frame — is intended for a person to study during the time in which they are not performing other commandments. However, if there is another commandment that a person is obligated to do in a specific time frame, then not only is one exempt from studying Torah but there is also no obligation to study Torah during that time (Kehillot Yaakov Moed Katan 9b). Therefore, if we have established according to the ruling of Maimonides that the defensive wars of the State of Israel are indeed a positive commandment, then the whole concept of neglecting Torah study in order to participate in her defense would not apply.

Resolution #2: Regarding the claim equating Torah study with the tribe of Levi, there a few questions that can be raised regarding the exact meaning of Maimonides’ ruling when referring to the exemption of military service for the tribe of Levi and those set aside for God in the Laws of the Sabbatical Year 13:12-13. Firstly, if Maimonides was intending to bring a halachic ruling for Jewish military law and exempt all those who study Torah from military service, then it would be more fitting to have placed it with the other Laws of War in the Laws of Kings, Chapter 4. By placing this ruling in the last chapter of the Laws of the Sabbatical Year, it seems less a legal ruling in halachic terms and more a closing lesson of relying on Divine Providence for sustenance.

Secondly, the only connection that Maimonides makes between Torah students and the tribe of Levi is that they both derive their sustenance from God, not in regard to their obligation of military service. In addition, while the tribe of Levi is not commanded to join in a milchemet mitzvah to conquer the Land of Israel because they do not receive a tribal portion in it, it does no way imply that they do not have to join in a milchemet mitzvah in a defensive war to protect the Land or the Nation of Israel from its enemies.

Continuing on this thread, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein writes that even if we are to understand that Maimonides’ statement does imply an absolute military exemption in halachic terms, it would have little practical significance in the modern debate of the issue. He writes that a Levi is literally defined by his genealogy, while those symbolically compared to a Levi must be able to meet the spiritual qualities as defined by Maimonides in the latter part of the ruling, “…to stand before God, to serve Him, to worship Him, to know God; and he has cast off from his neck the yoke of the many considerations which men have sought.” Rav Lichtenstein questions how large a segment of the Torah community — or of any community — this lofty description applies to.

Can anyone… confront a mirror and tell himself that he ought not to go to the army because he is kodesh kodashim, sanctum sanctorum, in Maimonides’s terms? Can anyone with even a touch of vanity or a concern for kavod contend this? Lest I be misunderstood, let me state clearly that I have no quarrel with economic aspiration or with normal human foibles per se. Again, least of all do I wish to single out b’nei yeshivot (Torah Students) for undeserved moral censure. I do feel, however, that those who would single themselves out for saintliness should examine their credentials by the proper standard.(Tradition, Fall 1985, p. 212, footnote 30.)

Resolution #3: Upon a cursory glance, the third claim that Torah learning serves as a spiritual protector for the nation and therefore the students involved in its daily study should be exempt from military service does have has firm roots in the Talmud. In Tractate Bava Batra 7b it states that Torah scholars do not need to contribute to the building of a protective wall around a city because their Torah protects them. However, upon deeper inspection it seems that there is a very significant caveat to this Talmudic statement.The Radbaz, Rabbi David ben Solomon (d.1573), writes that this above ruling only applies when the scholars themselves say that they do not need protecting. However, if the scholars believe that there is a need for protective measures then they also must share in that responsibility. As he writes, “they (the Scholars) do not have the right, to demand of others to protect them, and they too need to participate in guarding like everyone else.”.(Shut Radbaz Vol 2, chapter 752) Similarly, Rabbi Yosef Zeven eloquently writes:

When actual lives are at stake, may we rely on miracles? In 1929 during the Hebron Massacre … didn’t young students of the yeshiva, whose holiness shone like stars in the sky, fall before the malicious enemy? Please, did these martyrs need protection or not?…If you understand that the scholars need protection in relatively peaceful times and are exempt from building the protective walls, what consequence has this when compared to a life-and-death struggle, a war which is a mitzvah and in which all are obligated? The defense authorities ordered everyone to cover all windows as protection against shattering glass in case of an air raid. Would anyone think that some rabbis will not do so, claiming, “Rabbis do not need protection?”…Why did rabbis leave areas under enemy fire along with the rest of the general population? Why did they not rely on this maxim?”(Talmud Torah veSherut Tseva’i)

Rabbi Zeven, a prominent rabbinic leader of the 20th century, seems to be echoing the idea of the Radbaz mentioned above that in times of danger all are required to take the necessary precautions and join together in to joint efforts of protection .

Resolution #4: After addressing the first three claims suggesting exemption of military service for yeshiva students, we are left only with the last one: Namely that compulsory military service takes place in an environment and setting of looser standards of religious observance than one is accustomed to and is therefore grounds for refusal to participate. On the surface, this seems to be the strongest of all of the arguments. For if the military is not able to accommodate the needs of its religious constituents, whether it be in terms of Kashrut (Kosher Dietary Laws), modesty or times for prayer and study then the objections to compulsory service is very understandable. It is not reasonable to expect a person who leads a certain lifestyle — whether it be religious, political, social, or otherwise — to enthusiastically sacrifice that identity in order to join a collective which does not respect and accommodate choices that are so central to them and their way of life.

That being said, while there are definitely individual situations which can pose a challenge to the religious soldier we must not forget that there is a simple way in which the overall state of affairs can be improved. The higher the number of religious soldiers who join the military, the more the military establishment must confront that new reality and make the proper changes to accommodate the needs of their religious constituents (something which I witnessed first-hand during my time in the IDF). But as long as the ultra-Orthodox soldier remains a minority within the establishment, we cannot expect broad changes to occur. The ultra-Orthodox community must not make the mistake of standing on the sidelines until the situation improves, but must actively strive and take part in its realization.

The author is a Jerusalem-based rabbi and Jewish educator. He served as a non-commissioned officer in the IDF Rabbinate, and is the author of the book “‘A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel”.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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