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The Mitzvah of Military Service versus Torah Study

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In military service, two great mitzvot are fulfilled that are equivalent to the entire Torah – saving Israel from its enemies, and settlement of the Land * Torah study is crucial for the existence of the nation of Israel, and must be assigned regular and serious frameworks, but it does not override the mitzvah of military service * Nevertheless, in a situation where there is no security necessity to mobilize all yeshiva students, a handful of elites should be allowed to continue studying, so they can grow to become rabbis and public leaders

Q: Is the recent government proposal to exempt Haredi men from the age of twenty-one from military service correct according to Halakha?

A: It is appropriate to preface that the answers to all fundamental questions are found in the Torah, and if we look deeply, we will find that all our problems stem from the fact that we deviated from the path of the Torah. For example, in recent generations the question of whether to immigrate to Israel had arisen. There were Jews who despaired and preferred to assimilate, and there were those who, for various religious reasons, believed that for the time being, they should not immigrate to Israel. Had we fulfilled the great mitzvah and immigrated to Israel, millions of Jews would have been saved from murder and extermination. The question of military service, which has preoccupied us for many years and caused social and political crises, also stems from a lack of understanding of Torah. This is the meaning of what our Sages said: “Be careful in Torah study, for an error in it, counts as deliberate sin” (Avot 4:13).

In the military service, two major mitzvot are fulfilled that are equivalent to all the mitzvot in the Torah: saving Israel from its enemies, and settling the Land.

The Mitzvah of Army Service – Saving Israel

Concerning the saving of a single Jew, we were commanded: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16), Shabbat is profaned for this, and our Sages said in the Mishnah: “Anyone who sustains one soul from the Jewish people, the verse ascribes him credit as if he sustained an entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:5). All the more so is the obligation to save a community of Jews, and for this purpose not only is it a mitzvah to desecrate Shabbat, but also a mitzvah to endanger lives, as we have learned, that in order to save even the property of a community living on the borders, Shabbat is desecrated and lives are endangered (SA, OH 329:6). All the more so is it a duty in order to save all of Israel. And in our times, it is a definite milchemet mitzvah (an offensive war), as Rambam wrote: “What is considered as milchemet mitzvah?… a war fought to assist Israel from an enemy which attacks them” (Laws of Kings 5:1), and this mitzvah requires self-sacrifice, and overrides an individual’s duty to protect his life (Maran Rabbi Kook in Mishpat Kohen 143; Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 13:100).

The Mitzvah of Settling the Land

The second mitzvah is the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz (settling the Land of Israel), as written: “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess…” (Bamidbar 33: 53-54). Our Sages said that this mitzvah is equal to all the mitzvot (Sifre, Re’eh 53). This mitzvah also overrides pikuach nefesh (preservation of human life) of individuals, since we were commanded to conquer the Land and the Torah did not intend for us to rely on a miracle, and seeing as in every war there are casualties, the mitzvah to conquer the Land obligates us to risk lives for it (Minchat Chinuch 425 and 604; Mishpat Kohen p. 327). All the more must we fight to protect regions of the country that are already in our possession, and every soldier who serves in the IDF is a participant in this great mitzvah.

The mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz is incumbent upon the Jewish people in every generation, as Ramban and many other poskim wrote. Only due to inability, seeing as we lacked the military and political possibility to settle the Land, we were unable to concern ourselves with its settlement during our long exile. Indeed, there are those poskim who believe that in the opinion of the Rambam, since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, there is no mitzvah to conquer the Land. However, everyone admits that in the Rambam’s opinion, there is a mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel, and consequently, if after Am Yisrael lives in the Land, enemies come to conquer regions already in our possession, the mitzvah of Yishuv ha’Aretz requires us to fight to protect them, since it is forbidden to give parts of the Land of Israel to Gentiles (Davar Yehoshua 2, OC, 48; Milumdei Milchama 1; Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve’ Ha’Aretz 4: 2).

Conflict between Talmud Torah and Enlistment in the Army

With all the enormous importance of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, it does not override the mitzvah of enlisting in the army. This is not just because of the well-known rule that any mitzvah that cannot be done by others, overrides Talmud Torah (Moed Katan 9a), since this rule also applies to private mitzvot, such as the mitzvah to pray, build a sukkah, grant a loan, and receive a guest. The mitzvah of enlisting in the army is much more important, because the existence of all of Israel depends on it.

We also find that the disciples of Yehoshua bin Nun and King David went out to war, and were not concerned about bitul Torah (wasting Torah study time). Furthermore, the Book of Bamidbar is called the ‘Book of Pikudim’ (census), because in it, all the male soldiers who were about to conquer the Land, are numbered.

Concerning what is said in the Talmud (Bava Batra 8a), that Torah scholars do not need guarding, the meaning is that they are exempt from guarding mainly intended to prevent theft. However, when Israel needs to be protected from its enemies, there is a mitzvah to save Jews, as is written: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16), and in pikuach nefesh – it is a mitzvah of the eminent Torah scholars first (Mishnah Berurah 328: 34).

The Importance of Torah Study by Yeshiva Students

Nonetheless, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is equivalent to all the mitzvot, and there is no mitzvah that in the long run, protects and maintains the people of Israel more than it. Therefore, along with the mitzvah to serve in the army, there is a necessity to include in the life order of every Jew, years in which he devotes himself to the best of his ability, to the study of Torah. This is what our Sages said: “Studying Torah is greater than saving lives” (Megillah 16b), because saving lives concerns the current salvation of a human body, while Talmud Torah revives the soul and body of the Israeli nation for the long term. Therefore, even though in practice, whenever there is a need to engage in saving lives, saving lives overrides Talmud Torah, it is necessary to devote quality time to Torah study.

The Mitzvah of Recruitment, and the Mitzvah of Developing Torah Scholars

In practice, the mitzvah to enlist in the army applies to all of Israel, including those who wish to study Torah in yeshiva. True, when there is no security necessity to recruit all the young men without exception, as was the case in the War of Independence, it is a mitzvah to postpone the recruitment of those interested and suitable for rabbinical positions, so they can study diligently and excel in the Torah, and when they become rabbis, contribute with their education and Torah to the strengthening of Jewish awareness, the security of Israel, and to settlement of the Land, as is the case within the ‘Atuda Tzeva’it‘ (Academic Reserve Program), where talented soldiers study in order to later contribute more to the army.

And although there are great Torah scholars who combined military conscription in their first years of study in the yeshiva, nevertheless, many of those who deserve to be rabbis will be able to contribute more with their Torah to the people of Israel if they postpone their conscription, as long as they continue to develop their Torah studies in the yeshiva.

On the Condition They Appreciate the Mitzvah of Army Service

It is important to note that this contribution of Torah students can take place on the condition that the students treat with great respect the mitzvot of the soldiers who stand guard over our nation and our country, because only Torah learning stemming from this position can contribute to uplifting the spirit and heroism of Clal Yisrael. On the other hand, Torah study that denies the sanctity of the mitzvot of the soldiers is fundamentally unfounded, similar to the study of one who disbelieves in the mitzvot of Shabbat.

Agreement and Criticism of the Haredi Position

In light of this, we have no disagreement in principle with the Haredi public about the need to postpone the recruitment of diligent yeshiva students who are destined to become rabbis and educators. The appropriate postponement for teachers is a few years, whereas the appropriate postponement for rabbis is several years.

The criticism is in two areas: first, that those who study in yeshiva should study the Torah correctly, and consequently, respect the mitzvah of enlisting in the army. Second, only a few percentages that the public needs to postpone the draft in order to grow in Torah, as a kind of ‘reserve’, are permitted to postpone the draft; the rest, even if they study diligently, must fulfill the mitzvah of enlistment.

The Concern and the Solution

Indeed, one can understand the Haredim who fear that military service will cause a spiritual decline to the point of abandoning Torah and mitzvot. If this is the case, then it is an existential problem which cannot be compromised. However, the solution is not cancelation of the mitzvah, rather, in an effort to create a military path that does not endanger the spiritual future of the soldiers. Just as Jews are forbidden to violate Shabbat in order to go to synagogue, even when the concern is that not going to synagogue will cause them to leave religion, similarly, it is forbidden to evade the mitzvah of army service because of this fear. Already today, students of the Hesder yeshiva have reasonable conditions that are adapted to the lifestyle of the religious public.

The Absurd Assumption

The argument of those opposed to the recruitment of Yeshiva students into the army is also based on the mistaken assumption that half of the members of the National- Religious public become secular, while among the Haredi public there is almost no abandonment of religion. But this assumption is so far-fetched, that it is hard to believe that there are rabbis who repeat it over and over again.

The problem is that it is indeed difficult to give exact numbers, because it is difficult to define who was religious from the start, and who became secular. In addition, both religious and Haredi society are made up of different groups. In the end, there is no big difference in the dropout rates, and this, in wake of the Haredi public’s agreeing to forgo an entire package of elementary mitzvot in order to keep their children within the Haredi framework. On the other hand, in the National-Religious public there are parents whose religious identity is quite weak. In light of this, the success of National-Religious education is enormous.

Even if in practice as a result of the observance of all the mitzvot, including recruitment to the army and Yishuv Ha’Aretz, the rate of deserters was significantly higher (as it was, to a certain extent, in the previous generation) – we would have had to fulfill all the mitzvot, and put more effort into education in order to adhere to the entire Torah, without neglecting any mitzvah. All the more so, when keeping them is not harmful, but beneficial.

Respect for Torah Scholars

During the days of counting the Omer, we must strengthen our respect for each other, especially among Torah scholars. Nonetheless, this does not demand concealing words of Torah, or agreeing to a mistaken opinion, but rather, to respect one another. In other words, even when one thinks that Torah scholars are making a serious mistake in the foundations of the Torah, one must continue to honor them for their dedication to Torah and all their good characteristics, and try to learn from them as much as possible.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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