The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 7) rules that in obligatory wars the exemptions don’t apply. In such wars, the Mishnah continues, “all go forth, even the bridegroom out of his chamber and the bride from her bridal pavilion” (Sotah 8:8).
Israel Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon discussed the halachic nature of warfare and these exemptions in the case of Shein v. Minister of Defense, which involved a conscientious objector’s refusal to serve in the Lebanon War. Elon reiterated the position that Jewish law does not sanction the aforementioned exemptions in obligatory wars.
None of the exemptions apply to avoiding military service for the pursuit of Torah study. Rather, it seems the two must co-exist within the life of each soldier. Yeshivat Hesder is a yeshiva program that combines advanced Torah studies with IDF military service. Hesder service usually lasts between five and six years, with about two years dedicated to army service, usually in combat units, and the remainder designated for intensive Torah study. The program has been extremely successful and was awarded the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest honor, in 1991 for its “special contribution to society and the state of Israel.”
Both Hesder and Nahal Haredi demonstrate Israel’s ability to find the necessary accommodations within the IDF for a successful integration of religious soldiers. Moreover, the IDF has a Military Rabbinate, established in 1948 by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, which provides religious services to soldiers and makes decisions of a halachic nature on military issues.
Israel today needs courageous leadership, both in the haredi yeshiva system and in the political establishment. With great challenges facing Israel and world Jewry, including threats of terrorism, war, and international isolation, Israeli society needs to be unified around certain core values. Those core values, the esprit de corps of any embattled nation, instill confidence that everyone is in the fight together for the common good. In Israeli society that common good is measured, by the overwhelming majority of citizens, in the willingness of each citizen to put his or her civilian life on hold in military or national service for the betterment of the nation.
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In November 2012, during the height of Operation Pillar of Defense, I traveled to Israel on behalf of the National Council of Young Israel along with several dozen rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America. Continuous rocket fire strafed the communities of Southern Israel from Hamas-ruled Gaza, with the center of the country also targeted. An IDF ground invasion of Gaza appeared imminent.
Our mission, the purpose of which was to express our deep love and support for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael during those difficult days, included meetings with senior military officials and government ministers. We went to the Gaza border and received military briefings from officers poised for battle. Many of them were reservists; one was a chief executive of an Israeli company. Despite his critical business responsibilities, this officer knew his priorities; he told me that in a time of war his obligations as a soldier take precedence over his obligations as a civilian.
I asked myself: What if this soldier rationalized that his contributions to the Israeli economy, also an important service to society, justified his avoiding military service? Other soldiers could make similar arguments in attempting to justify their removal from the field of battle. Such a scenario would be untenable and perilous to the nation’s defense.
The mass dereliction of duty among haredim has long been a force for polarization in Israeli society. Moreover, the insistence of much of the haredi community on shunning other measures of societal cohesion, evident in the refusal to display the national flag on holidays or recite the prayer for the state and the IDF, has left a widespread impression of brazen indifference or worse to the fate of the nation and diminished the honor of Torah in the eyes of millions of Israelis.
Israel’s new government is faced with tremendous challenges and opportunities. Its stated aims are to elevate the dual nature of the state’s Jewish and democratic character. The dati sectors, both haredi and national-religious, are uniquely situated to set the standards the rest of the nation could emulate.
By emphasizing the primacy of Torah study alongside the Torah values of military service and raising a family, Orthodox Israelis would help ensure that the Jewish nation, experiencing a rebirth in its ancestral homeland after 2,000 years of exile, builds a society worthy of Hashem’s blessing – a society that hastens the full redemption of our people.