Military service or/and Torah study

July 4, 2012

With the Tal law about to run out on July 31st, here in the Land of Israel the old chestnut of forcibly drafting yeshiva students into the army has raised its ugly head again, as if that was Israel’s major problem. The media hype has reached a crescendo and the wide coalition government is rocking.

Don’t forget that there are thousands of hesder boys ( the majority of the officer corps and the crack troops), braslav, Lubavitch and other kippa wearing, Tzitzit flying boys in the army as well as hundreds of chareidim in Nachal. Zaka, Magen David Adom, the various chevra kadishas, kashrut authorities, rabbinates, marriage offices, etc etc are manned by chareidim working in public services not to mention thousands working through the Misrad Hachinuch.

Why the press ignore the fact that percentage wise more non-religious Jews than religious avoid the draft is a complete mystery! And why the hesder boys who are willing to lay down their lives still suffer from a nasty vitriolic press is beyond me.
They are accused of trying to make the army more religious! They don’t want to listen to women singing! This is the same press that want chareidim in the army? Anybody else notice the contradiction?

I’ll try to bring some of the relevant sources within the confines of this blog without too much commentary from me. But I admit, that I do have an opinion and it will be obvious.

The earliest source seems to be Genesis 14:14!

Avraham on hearing that His nephew Lot had been taken prisoner during the war of the 4 kings against the 5 kings sets out to free him.

” When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. ”

The Talmud in Nedarim 32a criticises him for using Torah scholars!

” R. Abbahu said in R. Eleazar’s name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written, He armed his dedicated servants ( chanichov) born in his own house.
The commentators explain that the word chanichov is from the root chanoch meaning to educate, to dedicate. Apparently according to the Talmud, Avraham should not have used Torah scholars even to free his nephew Lot.

In 1 Kings 15:22 we read:
Then King Asa drafted everyone in Judah and excused no one. He made them carry the stones and lumber from Ramah. Baasha had been using those to fortify the city. King Asa used the materials to fortify Geba in Benjamin and Mizpah.

On this the Talmud in Sotah 10a comments:

Raba expounded: Why was Asa punished? Because he imposed forced labour upon the disciples of the Sages, as it is said: Then King Asa made a proclamation unto ALL Judah; none was exempted.What means ‘none was exempted’? — Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Even the bridegroom from his chamber and the bride from her canopy.

What is the Halacha?

There seems to be a contradiction in the writings of the Rambam. Of course, there isn’t really as will become apparent.

Those who advocate exemptions for students studying Torah full-time find support in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Rambam writes at the end of Hilchot Shemitta v’Yovel, that the Tribe of Levi is exempt from going to war as they are the ‘Army of Hashem,’ so to speak. They are to fulfill their role as spiritual leaders of the Jewish People. They do not inherit a portion of he Land and their material needs are provided for. Rambam then continues and writes:
And not only the Tribe of Levi, but also each and every individual whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him and to know Him, and releases his neck from the yoke of the many considerations that men are wont to pursue – such an individual is consecrated as the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever. The Lord will grant him in this world whatsoever is sufficient for him, as He has granted the Kohanim and Levi’im (Hil. Shemitta v’Yovel 13:13).
With this addendum, Rambam allows for anyone “whose spirit moves him” to devote himself solely to Torah study, free from the burden of army service and divorced of all material concerns.

One has to admit, that nobody goes to yeshiva or kollel to make money and have a comfortable life. And cruel, senseless financial sanctions in a vain attempt to force yeshiva students into the army does not seem to be the way to go. Neither do the Head of the Armed Forces nor the Finance Minister think that it is!

However, the Rambam himself rules that even a bride and groom must assist in the war effort (Hil. Melachim 7:4). If bride and groom are not exempted, how can a yeshivah student, “whose spirit moves him,” escape the draft? And by suggesting that Torah scholars can look to their brethren for financial support, Rambam also appears to contradict what he writes in his commentary to Avot 4:5 and in Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10-11, where he decries the practice of relying upon others and emphasizes the importance of balancing Torah study with a livelihood.

It seems to me that in Shemitta and Yovel, the Rambam is talking about the normal situation. Whereas in Hilchot Melachim uMilchomotayhem ( the laws of Kings and their WARS – note the hint in the title) he is talking about a time of war.

Indeed, isn’t this what the Chazon Ish himself wrote ( Eiruvin Orach Chayyim Simon 114)
” if there is a need for them, they must come to the aid of their brethren.”

Most nations do not have universal conscription even in times of war. The USA and the UK exempted clergy, theological students and university students during both world wars!

What was the opinion of Rav Kook zatza”l?

I quote from his biography.

“Yet not only in the boundary of Torah was he an activist, but also within the boundary of the general Jewish public, he brought about great things. Behold an evil decree from the British Government was issued, namely, to send back to Russia all of her citizens. Jewish youths that were returned to Russia were drafted into the Russian Army. The danger of the Russian Fronts awaited thousands of Jewish youths. The Rabbi stood in the breach and sent a memorandum to the relevant British war ministry and stressed within it by use of national genius and love of people, that he turns to the nation that values the Bible, to fulfill the verse: “Do not extradite a slave to his master”. His words were accepted and the decree was annulled.

So too  he was successful in his efforts to free all Yeshiva students in England from Army service and supplied them with the certification of being a Rabbi. Now when the cowards warned him of the heavy liabilities of this action, Rabbi Kook responded among other things: “we will not retreat out of fear, in the midst of fire we will go and we will not be burnt. Our purpose is clear to us: to save the Jewish soul in this kingdom, which is suspended by many strands upon the existence of the Yeshivas….”

  However, one time Rabbi Kook was called to the Central Headquarters of Police Detectives in London and was sternly warned, that he should not grant large quantities of Rabbinical Certificates, for by this he will prevent many from being drafted and he brings an impediment to the war against the enemy. They even threatened him, that if he continues to do this, they will summon him to a military trial. The value of lives of the nation of Israel was precious in Rabbi Kook’s view above all and he was ready at all times to sacrifice himself on their account and he paid no attention to the threats of the British Police and continued on in his activities; namely, to protect Yeshiva students from the abolition of Torah study and from danger to their lives and to protect the Yeshivas from destruction.

   And one should not claim that there was no real danger from the Germans when Rabbi Kook exempted them from military service, for on page 100 of the same book we learn:
   “Now also they continue to talk about the miracle that occurred in the London Synagogue, during one day of bombardment during the First World War.
   The government assigned bomb shelters in some of the beautiful houses to protect against the bombs of the planes. One of these houses stood close to the synagogue that Rabbi Kook used for prayer. One time, in the middle of prayer, the planes of the enemy attacked London. The bombs fell and exploded close to the synagogue. The anti-Semitic house owner locked the door to the nearby bomb shelter. The Rabbi commanded the congregation to return to the synagogue and to intensify their prayer. It turned out that the synagogue was saved together with all those that prayed in it, while the house of the enemy of the nation of Israel received several bombs and a number of people were killed there”.

There is an unsolicited letter from Rav Kook who stuck in London in 1917 served as Rav of the Machzikei Adass shul in the East End to Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph Hertz zatza”l in which he quotes the Talmud above on King Asa and the Rambam in hilchot shemita veyovel. Despite the claims of some rabbis that Rav Kook meant this only to apply in the UK, anyone who reads the wording can see that this is not so. They claim to have discussed this with Rav Kook’s son. But I discussed it with Chief Rabbi Hertz’s son whom I used to visit in Willesden.

And why did Rav Kook quote the Rambam in shemitta veyovel during a war when he could have quoted hilchot melochim?

What was the opinion of Rav Hertzog zatza”l. We find it in a speech to a conference industrialists in Tel Aviv before the declaration of the state.

Rav Hertzog declared:

“When we ask ourselves how the Jewish Nation, a lamb scattered among millions of wolves for nearly 2000 years, pressured by the crucible of affliction of the harsh exile, nonetheless once more merited to lay the foundations of its future in its Land? What is the amazing secret of the eternity of the Jewish nation? You might say: the persecutions did not allow us to assimilate among the nations of the world and they have, against our will made us not only a lone nation but also an isolated one.

“But you should know that before the Nazi fiend fashioned his racist philosophy, the nations demanded of Israel only one thing: `Come let us be one people’ (Sanhedrin 39b). Be like us. Assimilate and intermingle with us. What prevented this from occurring? Only the Torah which is the source of the Nation’s soul.

“Simple nationalism, when it lacks faith and cleavage to the living G-d, nationalism which is devoid of Torah and mitzvos, could in no way have wrought the historical wonder of endurance of the Jewish Nation and its revival.

“For hundreds upon hundreds of years of exile, our nationalism had no substantial basis on which to lean….

“We have endured throughout our exile only on the strength of the Torah she’be’al peh, the Oral Law, on the strength of that Divine current which flows from generation to generation and which originates from the very foundry of our people. Jewish history testifies to this. Let all those sects and circles of our Nation who abandoned the Oral Law come and testify. Where are they today?

“In respect to the settlement of the Land, all believe in the adage: `the revival of the Nation in its Land.’ But can such a revival take place without a spiritual revival? Without the revival of all those Divine values for whose implementation our Nation came into being? “V’es ruchi etain bekirbechem, And My spirit I will give among you”, Yechezkel said regarding the return of the Nation to its Land. `My spirit,’and not just any `spirit’, not the sprit which originates from alien sources, because modern culture is totally contaminated by tumas ha’meis, by the negation of the soul.

“The culture of the nations is devoid of all content, and has no spiritual or ethical force. `My spirit’ specifically, the original Jewish spirit. The spirit of both the Written and the Oral Law. A spiritual revival of the Jewish Nation cannot transpire without the Oral Law, and the Oral Law cannot be maintained without the yeshivos. The entire Torah center in Eretz Yisroel serves as a new source for the spiritual revival of the Nation.

“Eretz Yisroel is the symbolic Mikdosh of the Nation and there is no Mikdosh without a Kodesh Kodashim. What is our current Kodesh Kodashim? The sacred yeshivos which are the foundries of dvar Hashem, zu halocho, places in which His Shechina rests on the land, or as Chazal have said: `since the day of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, Hakodosh Boruch Hu has naught in His world but the four cubits of the halocho.’

“Our heart grieves over the yeshivos in the Diaspora which were totally destroyed, the abodes of Torah, which were uprooted and are no more. But Hakodosh Boruch Hu preceded the blow with a cure, and planted Torah in Eretz Yisroel.

“Now that the people are building the land, which is the Mikdash of the Nation which in Hashem’s mercy have been saved from the destruction, in their own merit and the merit of Torah, it is our sacred obligation to strengthen and fortify that kodesh kodashim, the abodes of Torah in the land of the avos and the prophets.

“It is written ‘This is the Torah, a man who dies in the tent.’ Chazal explain: The Torah perseveres only by means of one who perishes for its sake. This maxim penetrates the very depths of our souls. Torah doesn’t negate life. Quite the contrary is true. Torah commands us to love life, and stresses the value of life.

“The meaning of this idea is that Torah can persevere only by means of one who perishes for its sake, who sacrifices his sum and substance, his inner self, on the alter of the Torah.
“Those bnei Torah who dwell in the tents of Torah and who don’t think about careers or a materialistic future, but sacrifice themselves and their inner cores for the sake of the upholding of Torah in our Nation, are our spiritual heroes.

“The yeshiva students and their Rabbonim, as the Rambam says are `Hashem’s soldiers, the spiritual army of the Jewish Nation.’ ”
HaRav Herzog concludes by saying that the Jewish Nation needs the yeshiva students, and by calling them “the spiritual army which safeguards the Nation’s spiritual treasures.”

What would he think of the views of his son and grandson, named after him?!

What is the view of the Midrash?

Hashem commanded Moses to prepare the Jewish army for attack: “A thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe, for all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the legion” (Bamidbar 31:4). Not one word in the Torah is without meaning. So why are the words “a thousand from a tribe” repeated? The Midrash says that for each soldier that went into the battlefield, another went into the house of prayer to daven. We find a similar situation in Tehillim when King David said, “Immobile stood our feet, within your gates, O Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:2). The Talmud says, “what was the cause that our feet stood immobile, firm in the war against our enemies? The gates (“shearim”) of Jerusalem where people were occupied with Torah study” (Makkos 10b).

Prayer is the powerful weapon of the Jewish people. As our Patriarch Isaac said when Jacob came to receive his blessing, “the voice is the voice of Jacob and the hand is the hand of Eisav” (Bereishis 27:22). The power of Jacob and his descendants is their voice whereas the power of Eisav and his descendants is their hand. When the voice of Jacob is heard in the houses of prayer and study, then the hands of Eisav have no power (Gittin 57b as quoted by the Vilna Gaon). When Jews go into battle, the physical battlefield is only a facade. The real confrontation takes place in the house of study and prayer where the soldiers are those who study Torah and pray to Hashem. This explains the verse we quote whenever we open the Holy Ark before the reading of the Torah: “And it was when the Ark traveled, and Moses said, ‘Arise Hashem and let your enemies scatter and let those who hate you flee from you.’” (Bamidbar 10:35) This sounds like a battle cry and would appear to be out of place in a synagogue prior to the Torah reading. However, with the realization that reading and studying the Torah is our most powerful weapon against our enemies, we understand why this is the appropriate time to quote this declaration.

Yaakov himself acknowledged this when he gave Joseph an extra piece of land, the land of Shechem. Before he passed away, he said, “I am giving you this land which I have taken with my sword and my bow” (Bereishis 48:22). However, our Sages explain that Yaakov never fought at Shechem. He actually scolded his sons Shimon and Levy for fighting there. What does it mean “he took it with his sword and bow”? Moreover, why was the land of Shechem not given to Shimon and Levy who fought for it? Why was it given to Joseph? Rashi explains that the “sword” refers to the study of Torah, and the “bow” refers to words of prayer. The study of Torah strikes down the enemies of the Jewish people as in face to face confrontations. The prayers of the Jewish people reach up high to the Heavenly Throne and strike at our enemies from a distance (see Brachos 6b). “For not by their sword did they possess the land, nor did their own arm help them; but by Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your Countenance” (Psalm 44:4). The Targum explains that they merited the light of Hashem’s Countenance through their study of Torah. Everyday in our prayers we say, “for with the light of Your Countenance You gave us, our God, the Torah of life”. In return, we merit the light of His Countenance through our Torah study.

Study and prayer, the secret weapons of the Jewish people, were not so secret many years ago. Our ancestors always accepted that when they went into war, they would rely on study and prayer. Even the gentiles were aware of this and took it into consideration when they went to fight the Jews. When Moses sent a message to the King of Edom requesting permission to go through their country, his introduction mentioned that in Egypt they prayed to HaShem Who “listened to them” (Bamidbar 20:16). Rashi quotes this message: “we have this blessing from our father, the power of the voice of Jacob; when we pray, Hashem answers”.

Whoever really cares about the security of the people of Israel must accept the need to maintain this secret army. By allowing the Yeshiva students to defer their army commitments, one enables them to save their people in a unique way. These students do not fight with conventional weapons. They fight with their studies and prayers. As King David reminds us, “Some with chariots and some with horses, but we – in the Name of Hashem, we call out (Psalm 20:8). Our enemies come to battle with their tanks and infantry, but we come with our study and prayer. And in the end, “They slumped and fell, but we arose and were invigorated, HaShem Save! May the King answer us on the day we call” (ibid 20:9). The sooner we rediscover the power of our secret army, the sooner we will be able to protect the land of Israel from its enemies and live in true peace.

There are other practical arguments. The USA, population circa 250 million has 1,456,862 active military personnel. They are at war in Afghanistan and are policing vast parts of the globe.
Israel, population circa 7 million ( including Arabs who are not exempt but who the Army “choses” not to call) has 176,500 active military personnel.

The USA manages with 0.58% of its population on active service whereas Israel cannot manage with 2.5% ???!!! Don’t forget that modern warfare does not require large amounts of foot soldiers.

Not that 176,500 soldiers can manage to stop the missiles falling on the south of Israel, leaving over a million men, women and children living in fear!

If 10,000 chareidim turned up at Tel Hashomer tomorrow, would Zahal be able to accommodate them, or tell them to go home?

If I were a religious leader I might be tempted to call their bluff! But then probably that is why I am not a religious leader!

Let’s hope that the powers that be realise that when the boat is sinking, the first thing that you throw overboard is not your tallis and tefillin!

Good shabbes

Rabbi Meir Wise
Ramat Bet Shemesh

One Response to “Military service or/and Torah study”

  1. Cirlei said

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