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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).

More pointedly, Ralbag explained the verse as praising Avraham for taking with him into battle “chanichav yelidei beito,” those raised in his home and educated by him, saying it is appropriate to take into battle only those “who were trained in Avraham’s ways and values since their youth.”

In a similar context, Radak (Yehoshua 5:14) rejected the criticism of Yehoshua for abandoning his Torah study on the eve of battle as a “far-fetched exposition, for wartime is not a time for Torah study.” Further, Chazal underscored that King David’s fighters – Benayahu ben Yehoyada, Adino HaEtzni, and others – were the Sanhedrin, they were the Torah Sages of the generation.

What happened to us, to the concept of the scholar-warrior, to the notion of the man of Torah leading the Jewish nation into battle? In short, the exile robbed us of that, and over the centuries we made a virtue out of passivity, pacifism, and even surrender. We artificially created a division of labor in Jewish life between students and soldiers.

Who better to teach us this point than Yehoshua, depicted in the Torah (Shemot 33:11) as one “who never left Moshe’s tent,” the tent of study. Really? What about Moshe’s command to Yehoshua (Shemot 17:9), “choose men for us and go out to battle with Amalek”? The answer is that the battle itself is part of Torah.

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote that “the Torah personality is the fighter who conquers the land of Israel.” Only the greatest in Torah study can fully conquer the land of Israel. Indeed, there are two defining statements about Yehoshua, Moshe’s successor: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua” (Avot 1:1), and the prophecy of Eldad and Medad in the wilderness, “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the land” (Sanhedrin 17a).

The two statements are inseparable; that was Yehoshua. That was the essence of his Divine service, and completely normal. His dedication to Torah and divine service was comprehensive and not bifurcated. Such a personality, and such an endeavor, is not bitul Torah (the nullification of Torah) but rather kiyum haTorah, the very fulfillment of the Torah. Who is more suited to conquering the land of Israel and investing it with holiness than people who love Torah, Divine service and the Jewish people?

The exile took such a toll on us that we have had a hard time re-acclimating ourselves to the normalcy of Torah, with many still idealizing the division of responsibilities and incapable of merging the book and the sword.

Many persist in conforming all the aforementioned giants of Jewish life to match their pre-conceptions or agendas, to render them one-dimensional figures that ultimately diminish their greatness. They denude them of their military exploits and ensconce them in the House of Study, as if the two are mutually exclusive. They once might have been – during the exile – but today, the halls of the Hesder yeshivot are populated with roshei yeshiva who were captains, majors and colonels in the military – and who better to guide the Torah Jew through the maze of modern life than the contemporary scholar-warrior?

Rav Shlomo Aviner once identified three cardinal mitzvot that are fulfilled through IDF service: saving Jewish lives, conquest of the land of Israel, and Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name that is engendered when the nations of the world see that Jewish blood is not cheap.

There is another Kiddush Hashem as well – when all Jews see that the Torah can be the foundation of a modern state and that the Torah Jew can serve God in every sphere of life. Those mitzvot are certainly vital to an individual Jew’s self-definition as they are to the existence of a Jewish state.

For sure, a free society can willingly choose to exempt certain Torah scholars from military service as it exempts others for frivolous reasons. But the ideal of the scholar-warrior should be nurtured and cherished as the one best capable of ensuring Israel’s defense and its sacred standing. And it forever deprives the secular Israeli of his persistent complaint, whether sincere or contrived, that “ultra-Orthodox” Jews are parasites who contribute nothing to society and live off the blood and sweat of others. We can hold the book and sword together and achieve greatness in both; can they?

Fortunate is the generation that has witnessed the renaissance of the Jewish spirit that is a harbinger of the Messiah who himself will personify both virtues – “meditating in the Torah and observing mitzvot like his ancestor David and fighting God’s wars” (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 11:4). May we will all soon merit that day of complete redemption.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey. His books, writings and lectures can be found at Rabbipruzansky.com.

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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