Michael Boyden

‘Torah Study is their Craft’

There has never been a time or a place in the nearly 4,000 years of Jewish history in which those who studied Torah were exempt from military service because “Torah study is their craft”.

Indeed, the Book of Joel 2:16 goes so far as to state that in certain circumstances even “the bridegroom should leave his chamber”.

Jewish law distinguishes between different kinds of war. Milhemet Reshut is described as an offensive campaign, whereas a defensive war is classified as Milhemet Mitzvah in which everyone has an obligation to participate to defend his country.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 8:10) tells us that in such circumstances “everyone should go and fight”.

What possible moral justification can there be for thousands of able-bodied young men to avoid military service on the grounds that “Torah study is their craft”, when we face enemies all around who are committed to our annihilation?

Earlier this month the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, threatened: “If they force us to enlist, we’ll all go overseas”.

At a time when our young are being killed and injured on the battlefield, and reservists are having to leave their families and occupations for months on end to serve on the front lines because the IDF doesn’t have enough soldiers, such a threat is little less than treason.

For years we have been forced to put up with a situation in which the burden of defending our country has not fallen equally. The current war, which is the longest that Israel had had to fight since the War of Independence, has served to highlight how inequitable is a situation in which some go to war while others sit in their yeshivot and kollelim.

It may be impossible to force them to fight, but there is no reason why the taxpayer should fund their draft dodging. Those who object to military service could be given alternative responsibilities like working in hospitals, or reinforcing the police and fire services, but there is no possible justification for them getting off scot-free.

Politicians of the right and the left have not been prepared to bite the bullet and confront this issue for fear of losing their ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. However, this time it might just be that the rest of us have had enough.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.
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