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The Book And The Sword

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The forthcoming debate over an updated Tal Law – the parameters for service by haredim in the Israel Defense Forces – is liable to become heated and nasty. Mutual accusations will be hurled, with one group asserting that mandatory military service is part of an ill-disguised war against Torah and the other side seeking an equal sharing of the defense burdens that fall on most other Israelis.

The debate will feature arguments that are both somewhat compelling and somewhat misleading: that Torah study is the defining mitzvah in Jewish life, comparable to no other; that the IDF has a manpower surplus, not shortage; that it is unfair that some young men risk their lives for the safety of the Jewish people, while others sit in the comfortable confines of the bet midrash – and are supported (through government funds) by the families of those who are serving; that military service is often a prerequisite to entering the Israeli workforce and will resolve many of the financial struggles that beset Israel’s haredim; or that haredi opt-outs from the military are a small percentage of the total number of Israeli youth not serving in the military, a number buttressed in recent years by thousands of secular Israelis (often from the Tel Aviv suburbs) who receive medical and/or psychological deferments from physicians all-too-willing to sign them.

The proponents, both secular and religious, will struggle to distinguish between Israeli haredim, whose service is compulsory, and Israeli Arabs who, as Israeli citizens, should also be required to defend their country but whose widespread service in the IDF would be problematic, to say the least.

Undoubtedly, the dispute will become embroiled in coalition politics with the most sordid kind of horse-trading. Although the current government no longer needs the votes of the religious parties to survive, future governments surely will. The Torah itself will be unnecessarily dragged through the mud. While certainly Torah protects those who study and uphold it, it does not exempt the sick from seeking medical assistance, the hungry from eating food or the destitute from finding gainful employment. The Torah still demands that we live in reality – after all, the Torah is the book of the Source of ultimate reality – and therefore not make national defense the only realm in which mystical considerations dominate our decision-making.

Nonetheless, understood properly, this controversy affords a wonderful opportunity to redefine the terms of the debate in a way that can revolutionize Jewish life and restore the crown of glory as of old.

There have been many dramatic transformations that have occurred in the Jewish world since the re-establishment of the state of Israel. Obviously, the highlight is the regained Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel for the first time in nineteen centuries. But something else changed in the Jewish psyche – if not in the Jewish people itself: the renaissance of the scholar-warrior, what Rav Eliezer Shenvald, distinguished rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Meir-Harel in Modiin and IDF colonel, called tzva’iyut and yeshivatiyut – the fusion of the military and the yeshiva.

In the exile, we grew accustomed – even grew to think it natural and proper – that, in the language of the Talmud (Masechet Avodah Zarah 17b), “either the book (safra) or the sword (saifa),” but never both, and certainly not together.

Not only is that wrong, it is detrimental to the Jewish people.

It was never like that. The giants of our nation all went to battle – Avraham, Yaakov and his sons, Moshe, and, most famously, David. None of this was considered out of character or a concession to the times, but rather a natural part of serving Hashem. It is the righteous who are supposed to lead the Jewish people into battle.

Many justify prioritization of Torah study over military service by referencing Rabbi Elazar’s statement in Masechet Nedarim 32a that Avraham was punished because “he conscripted the Torah scholars” who lived with him when he went to battle against the four kings to rescue his nephew Lot. Of course, this statement is not cited as normative halacha by the Rambam or Shulchan Aruch, as we generally avoid deriving normative halacha from aggadic statements, and there are other interpretations of that Gemara (Shitah Mekubetzet understands Avraham’s mistake as not rewarding them for their service).

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About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


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The forthcoming debate over an updated Tal Law – the parameters for service by haredim in the Israel Defense Forces – is liable to become heated and nasty. Mutual accusations will be hurled, with one group asserting that mandatory military service is part of an ill-disguised war against Torah and the other side seeking an equal sharing of the defense burdens that fall on most other Israelis.

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