Claims against the Mitzvah of Army Service

Even if the allegations about the difficult religious situation in the army are correct, they should be considered in the proper way – as specific claims * The Torah fundamentally distinguishes between general, overall mitzvot and specific mitzvot; particular questions and difficulties cannot override a general mitzvah * Just as the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is not null and void because of certain shortcomings among residents living in Israel, and yeshivas are not closed because some rabbis were suspected of improper conduct, likewise, specific inadequacies in the IDF do not override the monumental mitzvah of serving in the army * The significance of serving in the army must be studied, and at the same time problems must be rectified

I received a probing question about the mitzvah to serve in the IDF from a lamdan (a well-informed Torah student), who served in the army in a combat unit. He has a national religious background, but has changed his attitudes and is currently studying in a Haredi kollel. It seems his question painfully expresses all the allegations, therefore, I will refer to parts of it at length:

“To his honor, the Gaon, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed shlita. Shalom u’vracha. Recently, we have witnessed a campaign of incitement and anti-religious persecution in the country in general, and within the army in particular. I will present some of the chilling facts in the army: 1) a soldier who wished to advance to a position of commanding officer was not permitted to grow a beard because “future commanders are expected to shave.” 2) Bearded soldiers will not be allowed to participate in official ceremonies. 3) Soldiers in various units were forced to shave their beards, and were punished when they did not.

4) Upon enlisting, soldiers were given birth control measures in their gift packages. 5) Soldiers in an aviation course were made to go to a LGBT club and hear about their lifestyle and beliefs, and even to paint the club. 6) Soldiers were required to watch the most vulgar and obscene performances, which included acts of simulated sodomy, Nazi justification, etc. 7) Soldiers were forced to attend beach parties, including women in immodest swimsuits, and appalling obscenities. 8) Mixed-gender sleeping conditions. 9) Male soldiers were forced to carry women soldiers on their backs … to train in krav maga with female soldiers… 10) Women soldiers are allowed to enter the male soldiers’ quarters, and anyone who complains is thrown out of the course. 11) Soldiers are made to listen to women’s singing. 12) In a recently issued order (replacing the ‘Proper Integration Ordinance’), a male or female soldier cannot request to not serve in a mixed-gender battalion, and the IDF Chief Rabbi has no authority to decide in this matter, only the IDF Manpower Directorate. 13) The army is creating a new military camp for mixed-gender units with easier training, so as not to cause stress fractures to women soldiers. 14) Rabbi lecturers who speak against integration of women and men are kicked out of army bases, but leftist, anti-religious organizations are allowed to brainwash the soldiers with their destructive poison, and turn the IDF into a sin city. 15) Soldiers who studied in higher yeshivot cannot become Battalion Commanders and advance in the army. 16) Torah scroll donations to the IDF were frozen, but any other type of donations are permitted limitlessly. 17) The army expropriated from the IDF Rabbinatet the ‘Jewish Awareness Branch’, and gave it to those who compel young Jewish men to watch lewd performances… 18) At present, the IDF Rabbinate has no power in the army and IDF rabbis are used as a puppets in order give the impression a Rabbinate in the army does exist; IDF rabbis are dictated what to write and say about the recruiting women, and sexual misconduct in the IDF. 19) A soldier who shoots a terrorist is arrested, and possibly imprisoned. Therefore, soldiers are afraid to shoot at terrorists.

Many more examples can be given, but it seems to me the picture is clear: the army is undergoing a systematic, overall collapse of values, with the distorted principle of gender equality imposed in the army being one of the causes. I have presented here two main types of problems: security-ethical, and ethical-religious.

Concerning security-ethical problems, some say: “There’s no choice – we have to guard against the enemy…” but the difficult halakhic question is: who permits enlistment when the orders of the General Staff contradict the Torah? From where is the heter (halachic permission) derived to send a soldier to die on the battlefield because the commander has more mercy on Arabs than his soldiers? There are many stories of soldiers’ deaths due to having mercy on the cruel, such as when the army avoided shelling and instead entered on foot, or when the enemy exploited humanitarian truces to re-arm, or because of the order concerning the ‘arrest of suspects’ procedure. True, the Education Supervisor (תכ”ה) wrote that war orders require entering life-threatening situations, but this, provided it is a danger as a result of war, but not as the result of warped orders.

With regard to the second type, the ethical-religious problems, it was difficult for me to write down all the horrific facts I have given above, about everything  soldiers are forced to see today, may the All Merciful protect us. Everyone knows the halakha (Sanhedrin 74b), codified by Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch, that when a Jew is forced to commit a sin, without any gratification gained by the coercer, but merely for the sake of making him transgress his religion – yahareg, ve’al ya’avor (he must give his life up, and not transgress). But in the army, without any operational reason, the religious are forced to transgress their religion in order to “re-educate” them, and in such a situation, this is a matter of yahareg ve’al ya’avor.

According to all this, how can you, honorable Rabbi, still permit soldiers in your yeshiva, or anyone at all, to enlist in the army?! That is why I am fearful (almost like Rav Kahana crawling under the bed of Rav) – because it is a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn – and therefore, I will ask, k’vod ha’Rav: Do you, Rabbi, take responsibility for all the above prohibitions and dangers that, God forbid, can harm these tender students? How can they possibly not sin? Our Sages said in Sanhedrin (107a) that one should never intentionally bring himself to the test! Once again, I dare ask you Rabbi for sources that permit sending the ‘youngest of His flock’ to the army today, despite all of the above.

I do not deny the fact that this issue is complicated and complex, certainly such a halachic ruling is liable to dismantle governments, provoke wars, etc. This is truly hilchot tzibur (halacha for the public at large), pikuach nefesh of the public. Nevertheless, is there a halachic heter to throw these soldiers into a brothel of prostitutes because of the aforementioned future concern? In a place where they will be forced to deal with all of the above?!

True, it’s not all of the army. There’s also guard duties, food, and positive things. But we are not talking about a low-ranking soldier who decided on his own to force his subordinates to commit transgressions, but rather, a all-embracing set of change beginning with Jewish awareness, and continuing on to removing beards, hearing women sing, sleeping with women, preventing the promotion of commanders with beards,  up until beach parties and lierally being forced to watch actual lewd exploits. And all this, under the command of the Chief of Staff and under his direction – fact is, they did not oust the commanders who do all these things. Until what point will you continue to claim that there is a mitzvah to serve in the army? Until they force soldiers to bow-down to idols? Is that the limit?

P.S. This was written out of a storm of emotions about the situation and the spiritual holocaust our brothers experience in the army. A thousand forgiveness’s, if, unintentionally, I bluntly exaggerated things, and forgive me if what I said seemed disrespectful to you, Rabbi. Honorable Rabbi, you are held dearly by all, and everything I wrote is out of a desire to clarify halakha, and for knowledge of Torah. ‘It is a matter of Torah, and we are required to learn.’

Answer: Differentiating Between Clallim (General matters) and Pratim (Specifics)

The most important foundation of Torah study is the distinction between clallim and pratim, because equating them totally confuses understanding. A specific difficulty or question can override a specific position, but it cannot override a general one. The distinction between prat (specific) and clal (general) is both in quantity, and quality: in quantity – the amount of pratim (pl. of ‘prat) of mitzvot dependent on the clal, is infinitely greater than the amount of mitzvot dependent on the pratim. In quality – the magnitude of Kiddush Hashem (the sanctification of God) in the manifestation of the Clal, is infinitely greater than the Kiddush Hashem resulting from the pratim.

The Allegations against Yishuv Ha’aretz

The most prominent example of this is the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (the settling of the Land of Israel). In the past few generations, there were God-fearing Jews who opposed aliyah (immigration) to Israel out of fear the new immigrants would leave the path of Torah and mitzvot. However, these were prati concerns as opposed to a clali mitzvah, and therefore in practice, all those who encouraged Jews to remain in exile caused a far greater, decimating spiritual decline, for those who remained in the Diaspora assimilated and were murdered in an immeasurably higher percentage than those who immigrated to Israel. And it cannot be argued that it happened only because of external circumstances such as the rise of Communism and Nazism, because even those who survived the Holocaust and remained in Western countries, left Torah and mitzvot and assimilated in much higher percentages than those who immigrated to Israel. In those days as well, opponents of aliyah amassed individual stories of sins committed in Israel by the chalutzim (pioneers), and in the name of this self-righteousness, caused people stay in exile. Had those self-righteous understood the words of our Sages, who said the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is equal to all the mitzvot, they would not have mistakenly equated the significance  of pratim to the clal.

Allegations against Yeshivas

In a similar way, haters of yeshivas and rabbis make numerous prati allegations against them, filling newspapers with reports of rabbis who abused their students, who raped, stole, discrimitaed, cheated, and the like. As a result of this, someone who does not understand the value of Torah and yeshivas could argue it would be better if there were no yeshivas and rabbis, and how is it ethically permissible to put tender students to the test?! However, even if all the factual allegations are true – they are pratim, and must be dealt with in all seriousness and in privacy. They are negligible in comparison to the clali value of Torah study held by rabbis in yeshivas. If these “purists” had remembered the words of our Sages, that the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (Torah study) is equal to all the mitzvot, they wouldn’t have erred in their allegations.

The Mitzvah to Enlist in the Army

By the same token, all the claims you raised are of prati significance as opposed to the clali mitzvah of enlistment in the army comprised of two mitzvot, each of which are clali and equal to all the mitzvot in the Torah: saving the Jewish nation from the hand of her enemies, and the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz.

As for the allegations themselves, at least half of them are totally untrue, and the rest of them are only a half, a third, or a quarter true, and in general their severity is far from what you have described; for example, most of your allegations about tzniyut (modesty) are mainly at the level of prohibitions d’rabanan (rabbinic prohibitions). Indeed, they must also be dealt with, as I have often referred to the problems in the army, and the need to lodge complaints against the commanders and sometimes even refuse an order. Nevertheless, all of these allegations do not invalidate the great, clali mitzvah.

Fact is, when pratim and clallim are measured by the same criteria – the pratim will come out on top, because the clallim are abstract, and measuring the pratim is indeterminable. Therefore, a couple of difficult incidents paint the entire picture, whereas all the wars and mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), the training and guard duty, comradery of the fighters, and above all, the enormous Kiddush Hashem of victory over the enemies and the return of Am Yisrael to its Land as written in the Torah and Prophets – don’t count.

Therefore, anyone studying Torah in truth, must learn about the greatness of the mitzvah of army service, which the youth of our generation merit to fulfill. And at the same time, we must work to rectify the prati problems. The more young Haredim enlist in the army, the more they will merit fulfilling the sacred, clali mitzvot, and consequently, the prati problems will be more easily rectified.

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

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