Photo Credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90
Soldiers of the Neztach Yehuda Battalion (Nachal Charedi) complete the final stages of a 40-kilometer journey all through the night of Feb 16 2010.

A couple of months ago, I was handed a pamphlet titled “Why B’nai Torah Don’t Belong in the IDF” by a colleague of mine, a Rosh Kollel. Bothered as I was by its arguments, I wrote a response, and a dialogue ensued. Last week, he distributed volume two of his pamphlet containing my counterarguments.

Early in the war, I asked a friend learning in the Mir whether his shul would be saying any sort of Mi Shebeirach for the soldiers. My friend, gabbai of the shul, questioned why that should be necessary if general tefillot are being said for everyone’s safety. A respectful, lively discussion ensued and he said he would ask the shul’s Rav. A week later, he informed me that they are saying a Mi Shebeirach for the soldiers composed by Rav Yaakov Hillel.


We commended each other for being able to disagree on such a contentious topic, and we each gained from hearing the other’s viewpoints. There is a cardinal rule I strive to live up to in such conversations: More important than arguing one’s point is arguing it in a way that will stimulate further discussion, not shut down the discussion. It is in this spirit which I submit this letter.

It is important to open with valid concerns which I believe Centrist Orthodoxy needs to continuously recommit itself to – specifically, belief in Divine Providence and taking care to avoid an attitude of kochi v’otzem yadi. Embracing IDF service carries the occupational hazard of forgetting that any military success of ours owes to Hashem, when in fact, based on the natural order, there is no way we could match up to enemies as large and well-funded as those who surround us.

Argumentation against chareidi service in the IDF is couched in two primary arenas: halachic and cultural. A primary halachic argument, used most recently by Rav Yitzhak Yosef and Agudath Israel’s spokesperson, is that all chareidi youth are considered Shevet Levi, whom the Rambam apparently exempts from military service (Hilchot Shemittah v’Yovel 13:13). As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein demonstrates in Leaves of Faith, this is a spurious argument.

First, Rambam describes a person totally divorced from the material world who devotes himself wholly to spiritual pursuits. I can easily embrace a group of genuine such talmidei chachamim being exempt from the army based on the Rambam. (This although many Torah sources would suggest specifically the most G-d-fearing Jews should be the ones fighting, as they have the most merits.) But we know that thousands of young men in the chareidi community are not learning most of the day and, truthfully, even many of those learning don’t come close to this elevated standard.

Second, Rambam is famously analyzed regarding how he categorized various halachot. If this halacha was meant to speak to an actual exemption of war, it would seem to belong in Hilchot Melachim, not the end of Sefer Zera’im. It seems more likely to be something to aspire to, an inspiring message with which the Rambam often ends his sefarim.

Third, taking it to be an actual exemption from defending people in danger, and letting one’s own safety be reliant on other people putting themselves at risk, seems radically opposed to Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10 and Peirush HaMishnayot Avos 4:5. There, the Rambam discusses the chillul Hashem and disgrace to Torah which results from willfully being dependent on others for financial sustenance.

Fourth, if the Rambam meant that Shevet Levi had a categorical exemption from all situations of war, this would go against an explicit non-aggadic Gemara, Kiddushin 21b, which discusses whether a kohen is permissible to an “eishet yifat to’ar.”

Fifth, the Rambam in Hilchot Shabbat 2:23 discusses a case where non-Jews come with clear intention to murder. Not only do we violate Shabbat to fight against them, Rambam says, he emphasizes that it’s incumbent upon every able-bodied Jew to do so. Surely, extra Talmud Torah is not more important than Shabbat observance!

A second primary argument centers around whether this war is a milchemet mitzvah. The Rambam appears to make it clear that when the Jewish nation is murderously attacked, it is a milchemet mitzvah shel ezrat Yisrael mi’yad tzar (saving the Jewish people from a murderous enemy). Yet some argue that this Rambam is irrelevant today, since we no longer have an anointed king or kohen gadol who consults with Hashem via the urim v’tumim. Such an argument is difficult to understand, since no commentary seems to have suggested this until the Chazon Ish. In fact, the Shem MiShmuel (Shoftim, 1911) makes the exact opposite argument regarding all the wars in the times of the Shoftim, wars which were a milchemet mitzvah despite not having a king. The Chazon Ish himself wrote that if there were a milchemet mitzvah, every Jew would be obligated to go fight in it (Orach Chaim, Eruvin, 114).

The most recent use of this argument is from Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, for whom I have great respect, in last week’s Mishpacha. Curiously, he quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein. No source is provided there, but it seems he is referring to Iggrot Moshe Ch”M 2:78, where R’ Moshe says that even a milchemet mitzvah requires approval from the Sanhedrin and the urim v’tumim. However, R’ Moshe goes on to say there that this would not apply to the subcategory of milchemet hatzalah, which characterizes most of Israel’s wars. Either way, the same Rav Feinstein explicitly says that we do go to such a milchemet mitzvah even without the kohein gadol or urim v’tumim (Dibrot Moshe al Shabbat, Vol 1. 20:132), which is the opposite of what Rav Berkovits quotes him as saying.

A third argument, buttressed by many sources, emphasizes the importance of the spiritual aspect of the war (Torah and tefillah). Of course Torah and tefillah are an equally critical part of any Jewish war. No dati-leumi Jew would dispute that. Yet two brief notes and some questions are in order.

First, these sources prove the inverse – namely, not everyone learns Torah full-time. We live in olam hazeh and the physical battles need to be fought as well. Second, while the fear-mongering rhetoric emerging in the wake of funds being frozen to chareidi yeshivot declares that Torah learning is in danger, the fact is there are more people learning Torah than at any point in Jewish history, even if we don’t count any Israeli chareidi draft-age yeshiva students!

And, if Torah study is what protects from the most dangerous of threats, including Hamas, why be bothered by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling? Surely more intensive Torah study is all that’s needed to solve the issue. Also, if Torah study is so critical to the point that yeshiva students could not leave yeshiva for one day to help farmers whose livelihood was crushed, why were they able to take a day off to vote in municipal elections? Or go around my neighborhood asking for money on Purim, while drunk no less?

All this being said, in my experience of numerous conversations the past few months, halachic concerns are only the surface-level issue. Once the halachic issues are covered, the primary issue which emerges is, in one form or another, a fear of secularization by joining the army.

Many chareidi rabbonim, most recently Rav Yitzchak Berkovits in the aforementioned article, like to point to the attrition rate in the datileumi community as the reason to avoid the army. The concern is real, and many in the secular community do wish to see chareidim assimilate via the army. However, such sweeping generalizations ignore three critical points.

One, the reality is completely changing regarding how the army relates to Torah/emunah/frumkeit. Twenty years ago, a commander was officially reprimanded for referring to “Avinu she’bashamayim” before battle. Now? Commanders are loudly doing kabbalat ol malchut shamayim before going into battle, all their soldiers answer, and no one is reprimanded. It’s not the same reality anymore. Are there still spiritual dangers? Sure, but not nearly in the same way they once were.

Second, among the wide spectrum of Israel’s dati community, there are those whose education does not leave them with religious observance/avodat Hashem at the top of their values pyramid upon graduating 12th grade. Such people go on to drop religious observance as they enter the army, yes, but their decision to do so came before graduating high school, and was going to happen regardless of whether they actually spent time in the army. Sociological data from Dr. Ido Liberman backs this up. In Gemara-speak, the army is the siman, not the siba.

Third, there is a major distinction between yeshivot hesder and mechinot (with exceptions on both sides). Yeshivot hesder incorporate many years of intensive, classical yeshiva Talmud study along with deep exploration of the fundamentals of Jewish thought. As well, their students tend to go through the army together as a group (contrary to Rav Berkovits’ assertion that this is only true in the beginning of their service) and overall, yeshivot hesder graduates seem to experience a much lower dropout rate than many mechinot.

This is particularly relevant because it demonstrates how, institutionally, through extensive negotiations, yeshivot hesder took the spiritually challenging environment of the army and turned it into something much more favorable to a religious hesder soldier. If chareidim came to army and demanded some suitable framework as yeshivot hesder did, they’d probably get a favorable answer as well.

Actually, not probably. One brave Rav has already done so. Rabbi Carmi Gross, formerly of the Ma’arava chareidi yeshiva high school, created a chareidi hesder yeshiva, Derech Chaim. Rabbi Gross, whose father, Rabbi Alexander Gross, was a close talmid of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitch, recently gave a Hebrew interview to Makor Rishon. There, he lays out his vision in which a chareidi life and IDF service complement each other, rather than clash. Along with nine hours a day of Gemara b’iyun and bekiut, the students study computers at night. Ultimately, they serve in cyber units with the IDF, but sleep in the yeshiva and return each evening for night seder.

Being that this is an internal Israeli issue, what is the relevance of writing about it in The Jewish Press?

One, it affects all Jews. Last week, a seminary student I know – a Bais Yaakov graduate –broke down crying after seeing a chareidi anti-draft protest in Geula.

Second, with so much anti-IDF rhetoric emerging, it is important not to just nod along agreeably nor to spew rhetoric in return, but to take a step back and reflect on whether the reasons for such rhetoric resonate with us and, if not, why not.

Third, it is important to realize that even people in America can make a difference. If an Anglo chareidi is making aliyah, research the various subcommunities and schools one can join. RBS is now filled with serious Torah communities and schools which encourage integration into the workforce and allow for pursuing army service, rather than demonizing it.

Lastly, one can choose to support yeshivot and organizations that bring limud haTorah and army service together, such as yeshivot hesder, Rabbi Gross’ yeshiva (note: I do not know anybody affiliated with the yeshiva), or Tzalash, an organization endorsed by Rav Asher Weiss which strengthens the connection to Torah for religious IDF soldiers.

The author thanks Rabbi Dr. Judah Goldberg and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein for reviewing this article. All ideas contained therein and responsibility for them lie solely with the author.


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Rabbi Chaim Goldberg has semicha from RIETS and a graduate degree in child clinical psychology from Hebrew University. Aside from practicing psychology and teaching Torah at various yeshivot/seminaries, he runs Mussar Links, a non-profit dedicated to publishing the Torah writings of Rabbi Hillel Goldberg.