It is a great mitzvah to serve in the IDF – but also a mitzvah to refuse orders contradicting Jewish law, says Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, head of the Har HaBracha yeshiva in Samaria (Shomron).
The rabbi issued his opinion in reply to a student’s question concerning the recent order by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz that soldiers must remain at an event where a woman is singing. Jewish law prohibits a man being present when women sing, for reasons of modesty.
The issue has become a cause célèbre among secular mainstream media, most of which does not understand Jewish law and Jewish thought and has tried to use the subject as part of a smear campaign against traditional Judaism.
Most media have presented the issue as being representative of attempts by rabbis to overrule army orders, but in fact even the most strictly religious soldiers in the army serve and rarely are in situations where religious observance is not given precedence. In training and combat, Jewish law mandates listening the the commander because he is the expert.
In response to the new IDF ruling, several “Hesder” yeshiva students organized a petition calling on young men not to enlist in the army until there is an acceptable agreement. The IDF for years has allowed soldiers to leave when a woman is singing at a military event when they ask to do so. The reversal in policy occurred several weeks ago when a junior officer at a Negev base decided to publicly forbid a soldier and his friends to leave.
Rabbi Melamed was asked if it is a mitzvah to serve in the armed forces when the Chief of Staff decides to force soldiers to transgress a Jewish law. "Should one sign the petition?” he asked.
The rabbi answered, “It is a great mitzvah to serve in the army to defend the people and the Land of Israel.” He quoted a Talmudic statement, “Anyone who saves one life is as if he saved the whole world," and added, "That is all the more so when we are speaking about saving the Jewish community as a whole.”
He said that enlisting also fulfills, by extension, the mitzvah of living in Israel, which is cited in Rabbinic texts as being equal to all the other mitzvahs together.
Concerning a conflict between army orders and Jewish law, he cited the Rambam (Maimonides) and stated, “When a soldier receives an order that is against Jewish law, he needs to refuse the order.”
The rabbi added that in “extreme circumstances" a man can postpone enlisting in the army in order to strengthen himself first but that the normal route is to perform the mitzvah right away and enlist.
Concerning the petition protest, he said he does not know if the time has arrived that for such a grave demonstration. “In every protest, one must consider the effects,” he said.
The same logic also applies to public leaders, according to Rabbi Melamed, who he said must act responsibly “and publicly reject the Chief of Staff’s decision that was silently accepted by army rabbis.”
He advised that trying to blur the protest and diminish its influence could have the reverse effect of creating circumstances whereby young men do not enlist.