Since the outbreak of the war there has been an outpouring of support for the IDF from the chareidi community, with many young men seeking to join the army or participate in the war effort. In a press briefing at the beginning of the war, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated, “We are seeing a growing trend of members of the chareidi public submitting requests to be drafted and volunteer in the IDF. More than 2,000 inquiries have been received from members of the chariedi public so far.” In the weeks since, many more young charedi men have drafted into the IDF.
The sense of unity in Israel today is tangible, with groups providing food, clothing, religious articles, and other supplies for our holy soldiers.
But in September – just a few short weeks before the war – there were protests in Jerusalem surrounding a new draft law, exempting yeshiva students from serving in the IDF, with chareidi parties threatening to dissolve the coalition if their demands were not met.
Exemptions for yeshiva students has been a sore topic since Israel’s Supreme Court declared the Tal Law unlawful in February of 2012, undoing the decades long status quo whereby full time students were exempt from service in the IDF. Advocates of maintaining the status quo argue that those studying Torah provide a spiritual protection to the State of Israel, and that Jewish law allows for exemptions of yeshiva students.
But does Jewish law indeed allow for the exemption of yeshiva students from army service?
The Mishna (Sotah 8:7) states: “…In a milchemet mitzvah [mandatory war], all go out [to battle], even a groom from his room and a bride from her wedding canopy.” Invoking the book of Yoel by mentioning bride and groom, the Mishnah expresses a sense of urgency and the necessity for everyone’s involvement. And while many explain that women are exempt from combat, they are nevertheless obligated to assist in the war effort (See Tiferet Yisrael, ad loc.).
The Rambam defines a milchemet mitzvah as, “war against the Seven Nations, war against Amalek, and assisting Israel from the hand of the enemy who comes up against them” (Hil. Melachim 5:1).
Unfortunately today we find ourselves embroiled in a milchemet mitzvah, a national security situation which threatens our very existence and demands everyone’s participation.
Those who seek exemption from serving in the IDF argue that “Toratan omanutan,” Torah study is their sole occupation. They point to a passage at the very end of Hilchot Shemitta V’yovel where the Rambam writes that the Tribe of Levi is exempt from going to war, as they are the “Army of Hashem,” so to speak. As the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, they do not inherit a portion in the Land, and their material needs are provided for. The Rambam continues and writes that any individual “whose spirit moves him,” can devote himself solely to Torah study, just like the Tribe of Levi. Divorced of all material concerns, and free from the burden of army service, “such an individual is consecrated as the Holy of Holies” (Hilchot Shemitta V’yovel 13:13).
But this passage is difficult, as commentaries struggle to find a Talmudic source for the Rambam’s ruling. Some point to Nedarim 32a, where Avraham is criticized for drafting Torah scholars in the War of the Four Kings against the Five, or Sotah 10a, which relates how King Asa was punished for mobilizing Torah scholars. Also difficult, the Rambam himself rules that even a bride and groom must assist in the war effort (Hil. Melachim 7:4). And by suggesting that Torah scholars can look to their brethren for financial support, the Rambam appears to contradict what he writes in his commentary to Avot 4:5 and in Hil. Talmud Torah 3:10-11, where he decries those who rely upon others for their livelihood!
Analyzing this passage, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein questioned just how many people would fit the Rambam’s criteria and asked, who can “…confront a mirror and tell himself that he ought not go to the army because he is kodesh kodashim, sanctum sanctorum in the Rambam’s terms?” (“The Ideology of Hesder,” Tradition, Fall 1981).
It would appear that the Rambam’s ruling is not the rule, but the exception. His allowance is reserved for the select few who are able to devote themselves solely and wholly to avodat Hashem. Exempting entire segments of the population from army service and from pursuing a parnassah is certainly not what the Rambam intended.
Additionally, the mitzvot of pikuach nefesh (saving another’s life) and Lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa (not to stand idly over the blood of your fellow) obligate one to save and protect Jewish life. The Rambam writes in Hilchot Shabbat (2:23), “It is mandatory for every Jew who is able to come and assist his brethren under siege and save them from the hand of the Gentiles on Shabbat…” Here, the Rambam does not allow for any exceptions or exemptions.
While some authorities like Rav Yitzchal HaLevi Herzog, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, allowed for the exemption of yeshiva students in the early days of Statehood, Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin challenged them and asked, “From what source do you derive that Torah scholars are exempt from participating in a milchemet mitzvah, from ‘assisting Israel from the hand of the enemy who comes up against them,’ who threaten to destroy them, Heaven forbid?” Rav Zevin argued that when Jewish life is at stake, no one may sit idly by (See his essay, “L’sheilat ha-Giyus shel B’nei ha-Yeshivot,” originally published anonymously in 1948).
To understand those who ruled against drafting yeshiva students, one must appreciate the state of religious life in the young country after the Holocaust, when so much Torah had been lost. Those studying full time were charged with the task of rebuilding Torah here in Israel. When Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the famed Chazon Ish, together with other leading rabbis reached a compromise with David Ben Gurion to provide exemptions for yeshiva students, only some 400 students were exempted! Writing about a milchemet mitzvah, the Chazon Ish himself recognized that “if there is a need for them, they must come to the aid of their brethren” (Orach Chayim, Eiruvin, no. 114).
In recent years, those 400 exemptions have grown exponentially. Moshe’s rebuke of Reuven and Gad, “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you sit here?” (Bamidbar 32:6), resonates with those who see the imbalance in the current situation.
And for those concerned about their spiritual life in the army, Hesder and Nachal Chareidi units have long proven that a healthy balance between Torah study and army service can indeed be achieved. As the Midrash states, “The sword and the sefer descended from Heaven, bound up together.” After all, the Chashmonaim – our mighty Maccabees – were also kohanim.
Our hope and fervent prayer is to see the fulfillment of the prophecy of Yeshayahu that the nations of the world “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Until then, those young men from the chareidi community seeking to draft into the IDF should be applauded and encouraged.