Religious Studies and Army Service
Question: Following the cancellation of the Tal Law [which exempted yeshiva students from army service] and the renewal of public debate over the status of yeshiva students with regards to army service, I would like to know what Jewish law says about this issue. Is the Haredi claim that anyone one who learns Torah is exempt from serving in the army correct? If so, to what limit? If the State of Israel was in grave danger, would all yeshiva students be exempt? And what if 90% of Israeli youth learned in yeshiva, would they all be exempt from serving in the army, leaving us to rely on miracles?!
Mitzvah to Serve in the Army
The mitzvah to serve in the army is based on two principal mitzvoth: first, saving Israel from danger. If we are commanded to save a single Jew, as the Torah states: “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” (Leviticus 19:16), upon which our Sages said in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) “Anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved an entire world”, how much more so is one obligated to participate in the saving of the entire nation. We have also learned that in order to rescue a Jewish community in peril, we endanger our lives and desecrate the Sabbath (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 329:6), how much more so must we behave similarly when saving all of Israel. This is a clear ‘milchemet mitzvah’ (obligatory war) as Rambam wrote: “And what is an obligatory war? …assisting Israel from trouble that has come upon them” (Laws of Kings 5:1). This mitzvah requires ‘misirut nefesh‘ (unqualified devotion), and takes priority over an individual’s obligation to protect himself from danger (Rabbi Kook, ‘Mishpat Kohen’ 143; Responsa ‘Tzitz Eliezer’ 13:100).
The second mitzvah is settling the Land of Israel, as the Torah commands: “Clear out the land and live in it; since it is to you that I am giving the land to occupy” (Numbers 33:53-54). Our Sages have said that this mitzvah is equivalent to all the mitzvoth (Sifri, Re’eh, parsha 53). This mitzvah also takes precedence over‘pikuach nefesh’, [saving the life] of individuals, for we are commanded to conquer the Land of Israel and the Torah did not expect us to rely on miracles, and since every war has casualties, it follows that the mitzvah to conquer the land obligates us to risk lives (Minchat Chinuch 425, 604; Mishpat Kohen, pg. 327). How much more so must we fight to defend the parts of the land which we already possess, and every soldier who serves in the I.D.F. is a partner in this great mitzvah.
Conflict between Torah Study and Other Mitzvoth
Even though the mitzvah of Talmud Torah [Torah study] is equivalent to all the other mitzvoth, the basic rule is that any mitzvah that cannot be performed by others, takes precedence over Torah study (Mo’ed Katan 9a). The same applies to the mitzvah of serving in the army: As long as there are not enough soldiers to maintain Israel’s security, Torah study is interrupted in order to serve in the army. True, the Torah and our Sages explain (Sotah 44b) that there are certain people who return from war and do not participate in it; for example, a person who built a house but did not dedicate it, or someone who planted a vineyard but did not use its’ fruit, or a man who betrothed a wife but did not take her. However, such a discharge is applicable only in a ‘milchemet rishut‘ (optional war), but when in an obligatory war, like a war to saveIsrael from an enemy – “everyone goes out to war, including a groom from his room and a bride from her chupah.” This is the law according to Rambam (Laws of Kings 7:4).
We have also seen that the students of Yehoshua bin Nun and King David went to war without relying on miracles, not worrying about ‘bitul Torah’ (spending time unproductively). As far as what our Sages said (Baba Batra 8a) that Torah scholars do not require protection, they referred to a situation where there is no potential danger. In other words, Torah scholars are exempt from taking part in security intended primarily to prevent theft. But when there is a need to defend Israel, it is a mitzvah to rescue them, as the Torah says: “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” (Leviticus 19:16). And concerning the mitzvah of‘pikuach nefesh‘ (saving lives) – it is a mitzvah which should be fulfilled by the ‘gedolim‘ [spiritual leaders] first (Mishna Berura 328:34).
The Importance of Torah Study by Yeshiva Students
All the same, it must be understood that the most important mitzvah is Torah study, and there is no mitzvah that guards and maintains the nation of Israel more than it. Therefore, together with the mitzvah to serve in the army, it is essential for every Jew to spend a number of years devoting himself, according to his ability, to Torah study. This is what our Sages said: “Talmud Torah is greater than the saving of lives” (Megillah 16b), because the saving of lives involves saving a person’s physical body in the here and now, whereas Talmud Torah revitalizes the soul and the body of the Jewish nation enduringly.
When Necessary, Enlist. When Not, Postpone
Practically speaking, when there is a need to join the army in order to defend the nation and the land, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah does not take precedence over enlisting, just as Talmud Torah does not take precedence over fulfilling the mitzvah of getting married, giving charity, and other mitzvoth which cannot be fulfilled by others. This was the instruction of our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, of blessed memory, during the War of Independence. He said that yeshiva students must enlist in the army, because the difficult security situation required the mobilization of all men.
However, when there is no need to mobilize all the young men, it is the Jewish nation’s duty to exempt those students who are worthy to advance in Torah for the sake of all of Israel, for they are the one’s who will grow to be rabbis and educators. This is exactly what Rabbi Kook said to Prime Minister Ben Gurion in his famous meeting with the heads of the yeshivas. And this is how he instructed diligent yeshiva students, that as long as there is no pressing security reason to enlist, it is better for them to continue to advance in their studies in order to teach Torah to the masses, thus making a decisive contribution to the strengthening of Jewish identity, the security of Israel, and the settling of the land. Provided, of course, they do so with great respect for the soldiers guarding our nation and country, because only study stemming from such an attitude can contribute fully to elevate the spirit and bravery of all of Israel.
According to these principles, Rabbi Kook would stress that yeshiva students are not exempt from enlisting, but only postpone recruitment as long as they continue to grow in Torah, and there is no security need for them. But when they reach the stage of leaving the yeshiva in order to teach, they enlist according to the needs of the army.
Who Determines When Yeshiva Students Must Enlist?
Ideally, the heads of the defense establishment, having all the military and political data at their reach, should determine how many yeshiva students may be exempted from military service. However, when it is difficult to trust their statements, we must examine reality according to their actions.
For example, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s position on the issue seems based mainly on his political interests. When he thought he would benefit from the exemption of yeshiva students, he supported the ‘Tal Law’. Lately, upon realizing he would benefit more by supporting yeshiva students’ recruitment, he began saying that the security of the State requires the mobilization of all yeshiva students, except for four hundred prodigies. Most probably in the near future, we’ll also hear the army chiefs (who rely on him) claim that, at present, all yeshiva students must enlist – even though in reality, they are not doing even the minimum required to make the army religiously adaptable for them.
Assumingly, if the Prime Minister reckons that politically, it pays for him to support the exemption of tens of thousands of yeshiva students, this will be his position. And, naturally, he will back this position with bureaucrat and authoritative explanations.
In any case, from the very fact that they apparently decide the matter according to their political interests, we can assume that there is absolutely no security need to recruit the majority of yeshiva students.
Also, the fact that the army exempts athletes and musicians from significant military service indicates that the security situation does not require the mobilization of all young men.
Indeed, the fact that Haredi society in general does not serve in the army, creates a terrible, national rift. Even though this situation may be tolerable from a security aspect, from a national perspective, it is a disastrous. It must also be pointed out that the fact that secular society has severed themselves from participating in Torah study and Israel’s traditional fulfillment of mitzvoth, also constitutes a terrible national problem, putting into question the ability of this population to provide future generations loyal to the Jewish nation.
National-Religious Attitude towards the Haredi Position
In principle, we do not disagree with the Haredi community on the need for postponing recruitment of yeshiva students who will become diligent rabbis and educators. The correct postponement for appropriate candidates to become teachers should be just a few years, while candidates to become rabbis are worthy of many more years postponement. And although there are genuine Torah scholars who combined military service in their first years of learning in yeshiva, nevertheless, for many of those worthy of becoming rabbis and educators, it is preferable to postpone enlisting for the years in which they advance in the yeshiva.
It is clear, however, that the majority of students enrolled in Haredi yeshivas are not candidates to serve as rabbis and educators. Some learn well, and some barely learn. According to halacha, those who learn well should combine a short and qualitative military service with their yeshiva studies – similar to the Hesder program, and those who do not learn well should enlist for full military duty.
Why Haredi Students Don’t Enlist
There are two major factors which presently cause the Haredi society not to encourage recruitment of students who are not going to become rabbis and educators – one good reason, and the other, bad. The bad reason is that it is safer and more comfortable to avoid the army. At home you can sleep better, when war breaks out, God forbid, you don’t get killed, and parents and wives are free from the burden of worrying. The good reason is that military service is likely to cause a spiritual decline, to the point of abandoning the Torah and mitzvoth. This already represents an existential threat that cannot be compromised. Indeed, over the last few decades, the religious-halachic situation in the army has improved, but the spiritual-moral state has deteriorated, in accordance with society at large. Nevertheless, despite certain improvements in the ability to fulfill halacha in the army, there are still serious problems that cause many of the youth from the religious society to decline spiritually in the army. And when it appears that there is no pressing demand to enlist all the young men, many Torah scholars believe it is better to ensure their spiritual future over the mitzvah to serve in the army.
May the situation be corrected soon, and all of Israel joins the effort for the sake of the Nation and the Land.