There is a big debate in Israel over army service, and whether Haredim ("ultra" Orthodox) should have to enlist. The Haredim claim that they *are* defending the country, by learning Torah. Is it valid to say that defending the country by studying Torah and defending the country by putting your life on the line are truly equal?
In the halakha, as in life itself, it is very difficult to say what tasks are truly “equal” to each other. The tradition, after all, teaches that “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam,” “The study of Torah is equivalent in value to all the other mitzvot (combined).” On the other hand, the tradition also instructs that every single mitzvah of the Torah (excepting those concerning murder, idolatry, and sexual transgression) can be set aside for the sake of pikuach nefesh (saving life). Does this mean that Talmud Torah and pikuach nefesh are “equal?” It certainly conveys that both are of the utmost importance, but it really does not instruct us as to whether they are equal.
Perhaps, though, it is not particularly helpful to frame the question around the issue of equality. After all, even if it is true that “Talmud Torah” is superior to all other activities, it would not imply that one should necessarily study at every moment, to the exclusion of all else. Examples of this can be seen on the domestic level: Suppose that a man is studying Torah, but he is simultaneously the only adult in the house, and a child is in physical danger. Should he continue studying Torah even if the child is, God-forbid, injured or killed? Of course not. He must interrupt his Torah study for however long it takes to avert the physical danger. This is true even in less extreme circumstances. Should a man interrupt his studies to make a trip to visit his mother who is suffering from a non life-threatening illness across town? Of course he should – and he should do so frequently. Should he interrupt Torah studies to assist his wife? Or to listen to his child? Of course. None of this suggests that Torah study is anything less than the most supreme activity. But it does concede the obvious: even the most supreme activity must, of necessity, be interrupted and set aside for other activities from time to time.
Therefore, even if the Haredim are 100% right that they are defending the country by studying Torah, and that Torah is the most supreme activity, this still does not tell us how much Torah study needs to be done, or by whom, or when interrupting Torah study might be appropriate. Hence the real question in the current debate in Israel is: are 2-3 years of national service sufficiently important a cause to interrupt the study of Torah?
In a sense, the Haredim have already answered this question. After all, it is important to recall that, at Sinai, precisely the same mitzvot were assigned to all Jews – Haredim and non-Haredim. The mitzvot – including the mitzva of Talmud Torah – were equally given to the whole Jewish people. Hence, if the Haredim truly believe that Talmud Torah is the preeminent tool for the defense of Israel, they ought to hold that the absolute minimum number necessary should serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) so that most people could go and study full time. At the very least, logic dictates that they should be arguing that all Jews who would agree to study Torah full-time for three years, rather than to serve in the IDF, (and there are probably thousands who would take the offer) should be able to do so, in the name of bolstering “Torah defense.” But the Haredim make no such argument. Their argument for full-time Torah study is only on behalf of the Haredi community.
Implicitly, therefore, the Haredim have already conceded that not all Jews (even those who are Torah-learned and willing) should be released from national service in order to study. As a result, they seem to concur that there needs to be an IDF to defend Israel, and that some number of Jews who are eligible for Torah-study can be “sacrificed” to the IDF for purposes of the physical defense of the state. If, then, they have implicitly agreed to this by not demanding the release of all Torah-study eligible (and willing) Jews, then the question becomes: how many Jews are actually required to study Torah and which sections of the nation should they come from?
To answer this question by positing that the number is precisely the number who are in Haredi yeshivot at any given time – and includes no other section of society – cannot be defended Jewishly. After all, as Moses informed the tribes of Gad and Reuben, if there is a need for physical defense of the Jewish people, then all the tribes – all sectors of society – must participate in the physical defense of the people. It seems reasonable to infer from this that, if there is to be an exemption from military service for the purpose of Torah study, this exemption should be spread equally over all the tribes (sectors) of society as well.
The Haredim suggest that since a large percentage of Israelis are secular, the Haredim, of necessity, bear an unfair share of the burden of “Torah defense.” They may or may not be correct in this claim (after all, countless hours of Torah study occur in Israel beyond Haredi yeshivot). But, if they are correct, then the Jewish way to ease their burden would be to insist that – evenly, from across the society – Israel should draft those who are needed for physical defense, while simultaneously “drafting” – evenly, from across the society – a suitable cadre for “Torah defense.” According to this perspective, Israel should decide how many soldiers it needs, and there should be a similar national consensus on how many are needed for “Torah defense” (in addition to those beyond the age of conscription who can voluntarily spend as much time as they wish in “Torah defense”).
Just as in the physical army, some will come to this “Torah corps” with extensive background, others with little. But who knows? … Perhaps sharing the "Torah defense" in this way may well have the positive result of spreading Torah learning far more widely than was ever previously imagined.
Contemporary Israel needs both Torah scholars and soldiers to protect the state. From a Jewish viewpoint, both scholars and soldiers should come from all sectors of society, as a collective national endeavor.
The question of whether, when and to what degree, the Hareidi Yeshiva students should be drafted is obviously, for anyone even remotely following Israeli news, one of the most difficult and vexing problems in Israeli society today; one that has the potential of causing a terrible rift in the population that will be very hard to resolve.
There is a great deal that has been and will be written on this topic; I will therefore attempt in this answer only to provide a short summary of the arguments from the “orthodox perspective”.
(I place the words “orthodox perspective” in quotes because there is a wide divergence of views within the Orthodox world on this question, as there is on many questions. In general, although non-Orthodox clergy and writers will often refer to what “the Orthodox” hold about some issue, the truth is that Modern Orthodox, National Religious [Mizrachi], mainstream non-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox, [just to refer the major groups, let alone the tremendous number of subgroups] hold widely differing views on many questions of philosophy and ideology, such as politics, the State of Israel, secular education, culture, the role of women, and many other topics. What unites all Orthodox is that we subscribe to the obligatory nature of Halacha as traditionally codified in the Shulchan Aruch, and agree about the veracity and absolute importance of the basic fundamentals of faith as described by Maimonides, which are popularly known as the thirteen Ani Ma'amins. The question of army service in particular is subject to very large differences between the groups. But I digress.)
To understand the basic Orthodox positions on this question, it is important to consider the following points:
From time immemorial, the Jewish attitude towards war is described succinctly by one of our greatest warriors, King David, who said in Psalm 20 : “Some trust in chariotsand some in horses,but we trust in the name of Hashem, our God.” In general, although we have been often called upon to fight, we know that our true power comes from G-d’s help, and not only from human strength. There are innumerable verses in the Jewish Bible that attest to this.
In keeping with this idea, from the time of Moses and on, there was always a dual track of draftees who were conscripted to serve the people. Numbers 31:4 states “A thousand for each tribe, a thousand for each tribe, from all the tribes of Israel you shall send into the army." The Talmud teaches that this means that for every thousand sent into battle, there were an additional thousand who were dedicated to learn Torah and serve G-d full time to invoke merit for Divine mercy during this difficult time. Theologically then, those who are learning full time are also serving in a vital capacity in defense of the nation. Obviously, this does not mean that an unlimited number should be in this service, the concept nevertheless is clear. See here for a fuller development of this concept.
Fast forward to the early 20th century. It goes beyond the scope of this short answer to describe this in detail, but there were very different attitudes that developed in the Orthodox world in regard to Zionism and the State of Israel. Very broadly, one could describe the Religious Zionists, who were very supportive of the formation of the State and served proudly in her army on the one hand, the anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox Hareidi on the other extreme who were opposed to the formation of the State and to serving in her army, and a large middle ground of what I would call the non-Zionists, who were ambivalent about the state, and held similar views about army service. (I wrote about this division and its implications for today here .) Based on these concerns alone, there was always a principled resistance within the Hareidi movement to army service for the Zionist enterprise, which remains for some today.
The Holocaust is a major factor in this discussion as well. While there is enormous deserved attention devoted to the horror and cruelty of the Holocaust in the brutal killing of so many millions, not as much is written of the sea change that was caused in the role of Traditional Jewry, the erstwhile majority of the Jewish people, who at least nominally lived under the guidance of the great Torah scholars and Yeshivot of Central and Eastern Europe. When the accursed Nazis, may their names be blotted out, destroyed virtually the entire Torah world, there remained a terrible paucity of Torah scholarship that was in grave danger of extinction. The persecution of Jews in Arab lands as well led to a severe crisis of Torah scholarship within the Sefardic community as well.
Both in America and in Palestine/Israel, there remained only a miniscule number of great Rabbis and scholars who had escaped the conflagration, who found themselves living within a society that was largely hostile to traditional Jewish scholarship. They understood that it was absolutely vital that Torah scholarship, the timeless spiritual energy source for the Jewish people, be planted again on new shores and restarted with all hands on deck. Some of those great scholars who had survived, notably Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman of Ponovezh, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (the Chazon Ish), and others in Israel, and Rabbis Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, Rav Aharon Kotler, and Rav Joseph B Soloveichik and others in the USA became the heroes of a movement to restore Torah scholarship to its original glory, and set out to conscript any young man who was willing to devote himself to Torah study at a high level to take part in this highest of national priorities.
This effort was initially met with much skepticism from those who were busy writing the epitaphs for Orthodox Judaism, confident that it would never take root in the “New World”. In a famous meeting, the Chazon Ish extracted a promise from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that those who devoted themselves full time to Torah study would not be drafted while they remained at their studies. Ben-Gurion later was quoted as saying that he agreed to this because it was not worth having a civil war over the few hundred yeshiva students, who in any case represented a world that would soon die a natural death due to their being out of date and out of touch.
Fast forward to today. (I told you this would be a short summary – there is much that I am leaving out). The Yeshiva movement has been successful beyond the wildest dreams of the Rabbis of yesteryear. The Orthodox community and the Yeshivot are growing, vibrant and dynamic, and pulsating with reborn life. It is truly a modern miracle that the Yeshiva world of Europe has not only been restored, but according to many (certainly in terms of sheer numbers) been surpassed. Rather than the few hundred students that Ben Gurion saw, we were witness a few weeks ago to the Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi, which saw hundreds of thousands around the world celebrate the completion of the entire Talmud by thousands dedicated to this remarkable study.
As part of this successful resurgence, there are now (at least) many tens of thousands of young men of draftable age who are studying full time and therefore by law, not able to work or earn money to support themselves or their families. Far from being a tiny fringe group, there is now a very significant number of dedicated learners, who are seen by a non-appreciating secular community as draft-dodging freeloaders, and hence the problem that we now face. This is exacerbated by the fact that virtually every young man in the community is still expected to devote years to full time study, when truth be told not every person has the aptitude, discipline or interest to do so, and thus there are all too many who while nominally are enrolled as students, who are seen pursuing non-sacred interests as well.
A question that is, and should be, raised is whether it is still necessary to exempt every single young man from Army service, or whether the Torah world has been sufficiently reconstituted to the point that only those who truly show promise as the future scholars, teachers and leaders be granted the exemption, while others ought to be required to participate in National service and do their fair share like everyone else.
Another complicating factor in this discussion that is not well known is the role that the IDF has in Israeli society. Although far less so today than in the early days of the State, the Israel Defense Forces has played a major beyond its primary mandate of being a military institution, serving as a “melting pot” consciously been designed to transform the various immigrant groups with their religious, ethnic, and cultural differences into the “Modern Israeli”, who leaves behind the “Galut mentality” to become the fearless Sabra warrior without the baggage of the past. The IDF was very aggressive in persuading young moldable minds of the importance of fitting in and leaving behind the outdated customs and attitudes of the past, particularly religious ones. As a result, many of the young conscripts from deeply religious homes in the early days came back to their parents transformed into secularists who had little use for Torah and Halacha. This trauma caused a severe backlash even among those who might have been willing to send their children to serve in the IDF, for the fear of losing them as G-d fearing Jews.
Although this has been somewhat alleviated today with the creation of Hesder and Nahal Hareidi and other religious tracks within the army, the basic fear and resistance still is very strong. (See here for an interesting take on a recent case).
Much more could be written, but this is already too long. The bottom line is that we are dealing with an extraordinarily difficult topic, about which there are extreme and deeply held beliefs that have developed on both sides of the divide, and thus not amenable to easy solutions. It is my personal hope that in time cooler heads will reason together, and ways will be found so that:
The sanctity and importance of the great Yeshivot are preserved, and the truly deserving scholars will continue their vital spiritual service
For those who do go to the Army, they will be able to serve their country with no need to compromise their religious beliefs and standards.
More openness and dialogue between the hareidi leaders and the rest of Israeli society be promoted to lessen the walls of fear and mistrust and gain appreciation by all of the different ways that people of all types are serving the Jewish people, each in their own important way.
Torah study is indispensible for our Jewish communal spiritual needs. But we have other needs as well, including the need for practical military service in defense of Israeli society. Pursuing one sacred goal cannot exempt an entire sector of society from this other necessary communal need. This is not a case where "one who is engaged in a mitzvah is exempt from other mitzvot." Admittedly, in this day and age, Israeli military needs have changed as technology has changed. It may well no longer be necessary for every able bodied young adult to serve in the IDF, as was necessary 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.
But it is certainly not "defense" work in any conventional way to pursue the cultural, spiritual, religious work of Torah study. Anyone who thinks that studying Torah builds up a protective shield around sages should consult what happened to the great yeshivot and their students in the Nazi era. That is nothing but magical thinking, may God save us. When many citizens of Israel take on the dangerous and onerous work of military service, it is indefensible that some other citizens are broadly exempt from those burdens.
The Talmudic Sages knew this. They understood that in cases of wars of self-defense, everyone must serve, "even the groom must leave his chamber and the bride must leave her canopy" [Sotah 44b]. Not everything the IDF does counts as a "commanded war," but generally speaking, the defense of the society requires that people not escape their obligations and justify it as if God will reward them thanks to their labor in the Talmud.
This is a very complicated topic. It goes beyond the question about the validity of the claim that defending the country by studying Torah is equal to putting your life on the line are equal.
In historic times we always had different roles for different people when it came to the question of serving the country, the roles are not necessarily equal but having different people playing different roles can be seen as a crucial component of an advanced society.
It is not unacceptable to have a limited number of excellent Torah scholars exempt from military service, and to say that by studying they are contributing to the strength and the well being of the country. They might not be puuting their lives on the line and yet serve an important role is the essence of what it means to have a Jewish state. Remember that not every solider that enlists is “putting their life on the line” as well.
Israeli law gives exemptions for excellent athletes and superb musicians or to people that contribute to the country in different ways then military service. The problem is with the overarching exemption given to all Haredi men declaring they are students.
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