Judaism: The Religious Soldier and the Army Camp
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
In this past week’s Torah reading (Ki Thetze), we learn that we are especially commanded to guard the sanctity of the army camp, as it is written: “When you go out as a camp against your enemies, you must avoid everything evil…This is because God your Lord makes His presence known in your camp, so as to deliver you and grant you victory over your enemy. Your camp must therefore be holy. Let Him not see anything lascivious among you, and turn away from you.”
In general, the Torah instruction for the army camp is to guard “from everything evil”, that is, from all the sins in the Torah, including offenses considered particularly immoral, such as idolatry, incest, and bloodshed (ibid, Sifre).
Our Sages learned from the phrase “everything evil” (‘d’var [the root of the Hebrew word for ‘speech’] ra’), to be particularly cautious of sins concerning speech – ‘lashon ha’ra’ (defamation), swearing, and profanity (ibid, Sifre).
In the section dealing with the army camp, the Torah also cautions to guard appropriate modesty between men and women, as it says: “Let Him not see anything lascivious among you, and turn away from you.” And as our Sages said: “Our Rabbis taught: The words, ‘You must avoid everything evil’ means that one should not indulge in such thoughts by day as might lead to impurity (nocturnal emission) by night.”
From the words of our Sages we have also learned that vulgar speech and clowning around are liable to cause the loss of Jewish lives (see, Tanchuma, Ki Thetze 3).
Torah and Prayer in the Army Camp
The Torah also warned soldiers to be especially careful to keep the camp clean of all filth of feces, because it is forbidden to speak words of ‘kedusha’ (holiness) in a place that is not clean.
From this we learned that we must be very strict about this so that we are able to hold Torah study, prayers, and blessings in the army camp. As we have seen in the war during the times of Yehoshua bin Nun, that the angel came to warn Yehoshua not to cease learning Torah in the camp. And indeed, Yehoshua quickly fulfilled Torah study in the camp, and after that, we merited a great victory and conquered the land of Israel from the Seven Nations (see, Megillah 3a-b).
Reasons for the Mitzvoth of the Army Camp
One could ask: Wait a second! All of these mitzvoth and prohibitions are valid at all times! Why did the Torah have to repeat itself, commanding the soldiers to be especially cautious in the army camp? A number of answers were given to this question, and all of them are ‘divrei Elokim chaim’ (words of the living God).
The underlying reason mentioned in the Torah is “Because God your Lord makes His presence known in your camp”. Israel are the children of God, and He cherishes the soldiers going out to war for their sake. Therefore, He imbues His Divine presence amongst them “so as to deliver you and grant you victory over your enemy”. Thus, the army camp is sacred – similar to the holiness of the ‘Mikdash’ (Temple), and the soldiers should sanctify themselves like the ‘kohanim’ (priests) entering to perform the holy service. But, if “anything lascivious” is found in the camp, God will remove His Divine presence from us.
Additionally, Rashi explains according to Chazal, that in particular, soldiers are in need of extra ‘seeyata d’shmaiya’ (help from Heaven), because Satan accuses in times of danger, and therefore, they must be very careful of everything evil.
War May Spoil the Soldiers
Ramban explains that the licentious habits of soldiers in their camps are well-known. Apparently the soldiers, who are under emotional pressure from hard training and dangers, seek a release from the pressure, and the easiest way to achieve this is by levity, profanity, and promiscuity.
Moreover, the necessity to fight while risking one’s life breaches normal frameworks and reveals new strengths, and if a soldier is not careful to restrict himself, these forces are liable deviate in negative directions.
Furthermore, when a man is with his family, he is more restricted from sexual immorality, but when he departs for the army, the fear of destruction of the accepted value system increases.
The Army Camp and Peace
War arouses enormous life forces within man, stemming from the basic, animal-like inclination for life. But along with that, it is liable to obscure man’s true ideal, which is not designed to engage in wars and killing, but to add life and blessing in the world.
Had we remained at the spiritually high degree of the Mt. Sinai Revelation, the evil inclination and the Angel of Death would not have controlled us, God’s Name would have been called upon us, and all of the Seven Nations living in the land would have accepted us with open arms. Some would have chosen to fully convert; others would have chosen to become ‘gerim toshavim’ (foreign residents), and presumably, most of them would have departed for another place, and God would have given them a good land, as He gave the Girgashites (Orot: Hamilchama 4, pg. 14).
However, since we transgressed in the Sin of the Golden Calf, the evil inclination and the Angel of Death control us, and we are obliged to fight wars. Nevertheless, we must direct our wars towards ‘tikkun olam’ (perfection of the world), and thus, come closer to the ideal situation. This is why the Torah commanded to guard the sanctity of the army camp. Without this safeguarding, we would be like all the other nations, who wage wars according to their sporadic interests, inevitably causing an incessant cycle of wars.
Maintaining the sanctity of the camp can lead to the success of war in the deepest sense – to destroy the evil, increase good, and make real peace.
About a half a year ago, I participated in a symposium of the “Jerusalem Conference” organized by the “Besheva” newspaper. The moderator, well known kippa-wearing Israeli TV newscaster Amit Segal, asked the panelists whether the current situation in the army is better for a religious soldier than it was twenty years ago. I replied that in general, the situation today is better.
After several minutes had passed, I felt unsatisfied with my answer. I asked the moderator for a chance to correct my remarks, and said that although progress had been made in many ways, nevertheless, the situation is not necessarily better today. Perhaps for the ordinary religious soldier the situation is better, but for the Torani public (generally known as ‘Haredi- Leumi’), the situation is worse.
After the discussion, I thought how, on the one hand, the situation in the army is clearly improving, but on the other hand, there is a distinct feeling that the difficulties are becoming increasingly unbearable. In the meantime, various people came up to me, including a tall Jewish man with long hair down to his shoulders, and without a kippa, and said: “I want to tell you one thing: When a rabbi says one thing, and then a few minutes later says the opposite – I am ashamed of rabbis!”
A Complex Reality
Indeed, the situation in the I.D.F. is complex. On the one hand, the percentage of religious soldiers in the army has increased, and they are no longer ashamed of the kippa on their heads. There are almost no kitchens which are not kosher. The majority of commanders are aware of the need to allocate time for prayers, so there is little conflict about that.
But on the other hand, the army began to integrate women into combat units, and with the growing permissiveness among the secular public, the atmosphere in the army is much more immodest and unsuitable for a Jewish way of life. And even the general consciousness in the army has been dissociated from the basic commitment of the I.D.F. being a Jewish army.
In practice, for those soldiers with moderate religious requirements, serving in the I.D.F. is easier, but for the Torani community, the spiritual and cultural environment has become harder.
Religious Jews and the Army
If fifty years ago the majority of religious youth left religion, for majority of them, it occurred under social pressure in the army. Gradually, religious education improved. Preliminary army programs were established, preparing the youth to deal with predictable challenges they would face in the army. The number of religious soldiers increased, and there are more religious officers who understand the observant soldier. Consequently, the abandonment of religion decreased. These statistics are gratifying.
Nevertheless, even today, more than twenty percent of the graduates of the religious schools remove their kippa and stop observing Shabbat while in the army, because even after all the improvement, it is still difficult to maintain an appropriate spiritual level in the army. Thus, we find many commanders in combat units who were formerly religious, and many graduates of religious schools who were vastly weakened in terms of religious observance. Some of them attend a yeshiva or ‘mechina’ for a year of return after the army. Most of them just get farther away.
Army service cannot be blamed as the sole reason for leaving religion, but it certainly enhances and accelerates the process of secularization.
In the eyes of some, what relates to the phenomena of some children leaving religion as a fact of life that cannot be changed – seeing as this is the price that must be paid for the decision to be part of Israeli society – this unfortunate situation is tolerable.
The Torani Public
But in the eyes of those people for whom Torah and mitzvoth are central to their very being, the abandonment of the Torah path and its commandments by twenty percent of the children is intolerable.
The verse that God said concerning our forefather Avraham: “I have given him special attention so that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep God’s way, doing charity and justice” (Genesis 18:19), establishes an infinite commitment to instill this heritage.
Consequently, many people concede the mitzvah to serve in the army, preferring hareidi education, which negates military conscription, and prevents its graduates from facing the difficult test of serving in the army. Today, about half of all children learning in hareidi schools are the children, or grandchildren, of students who graduated from National- Religious schools. Then, there are those people who try to educate in the complete Torah way, which includes military service, whilst gnashing their teeth and making a supreme effort to keep all the mitzvoth, within a spiritually difficult framework.
The Terrible Pain
When disaster happens, and a son leaves religious observance, it causes his family constant and untold suffering. The pain does not stop – it torments during the days, and does not quit throughout the nights. At every family occasion, they are reminded of the child who is not observant, and are filled with grief. True, the years heal somewhat, but the piercing pain always remains.
The pangs of conscience ensue, and the recurring questions arise: Perhaps we chose a school which provides high-level secular studies, but compromised on its religious level? Maybe we weren’t meticulous enough with the child’s learning Torah and keeping mitzvoth? Perhaps the opposite – maybe we were too strict? Maybe we should have tried harder to convince him to go to a Hesder yeshiva, if he did not, instead of an elite combat unit?
True, everyone knows that after God gave man free will, there will be those who choose evil. Nevertheless, the feeling of guilt is still bothersome, seeing as it is our responsibility to provide for our children the finest education, in order to improve, as best as possible, their chances of choosing well and continuing the heritage. And the sorrow and feeling of failure do not let go, and accompany the family at all times, both in happy and difficult hours, similar to a certain kind of mourning, which, up until the last day, time cannot heal – and even then, hoping and longing that, perhaps, the son will repent.
This being the situation, the struggle of those Torani soldiers to restore Jewish character and commitment to Jewish heritage in the I.D.F., is the present-day interpretation of fulfilling the mitzvah “Your camp must therefore be holy”.