In Defense of Torah Scholars

This is a definitive exposition of the religious Zionist position on service for full time Torah scholars, those for whom, in the IDF's own terminology, "Torah is their skill [in war]- Toratam umanutam".

Meir Indor, Almagor Terror Victims Assn.

OpEds Almagor head Meir Indor
Almagor head Meir Indor
Yoni Kempinski

(translated from the Hebrew Makor Rishon newspaper)

In retrospect, there is a perfect correlation between the carefully timed political campaigns against yeshiva students not serving in the IDF and the composition of governing coalitions.

When the governing coalition’s hard core consists of leftists and hareidi parties, yeshiva students pose no problem, Yeshivas receive generous government subsidies, and no one in the coalition talks about economic sanctions against them.

The topic comes up always, without fail, when a coalition of rightists and hareidi parties is in power.

Hareidi politicians tell that when they enter negotiations with leftist parties, the leaders of the latter tell them straightforwardly that they will be best off under the leftists’ nurturing protection, because only then will yeshiva study be protected from the media and anti-religious groups.

Against this background, it is clear that the past month’s fight against yeshiva students is not about values, but about politics.  It is even clearer because the campaign’s leaders, such as Boaz Noll, are known characters who already wear other hats in the Israeli left.

On the bright side, the IDF seemingly is becoming sacred to the left—the same left that in other public discussions in Israel insists that the army is not so important, the same left that so understandingly and sometimes even enthusiastically accepts media personalities’, models’, and musicians’ efforts to avoid military service.  One person who comes to mind is Yair Lapid, one of the standardbearers of the fight against yeshiva students, who did not serve in a combat role although he was in excellent shape and highly athletic, and instead preferred to "fight in the hills of Ramat Aviv", near Tel Aviv, in the installation of IDF newspaper Bamachane.

Let it be quite clear that letting yeshiva students defer army service is not a hareidi notion, but an idea of the religious Zionist community, which ran the Council of Yeshivot and most of the religious establishment when the state came into being.

The study of Torah in the Land of Israel is an integral part of the realization of Zionism, and the hesder system, in which young men combine military service and Torah study, is based on the principle that Torah study is no less important for the State of Israel than unpaid Nachal service once was.  Back then, it was accepted for a soldier in the Nachal brigade not to serve a complete tour of duty in the IDF, but to spend the end of his tour settling the Land of Israel while technically remaining in unpaid service, ready to be called up in case of emergency.  Work in the barn was rightly considered part and parcel of army service: settling the land was considered a worthy value.

The story of the yeshivot hesder started with one foot in that barn and the other in the yeshiva world, whatever they may and may not have in common.  Some soldiers went for kibbutz service in the barn, and others went for yeshiva service at Kerem B’Yavneh or Har Etzion.  The state accepted the religious-Zionist camp’s view that yeshiva study is a service to the nation, whether of its own accord or out of a need to find common ground with an important sector of society with the nation’s interests at heart.

In the background, behind service in the yeshivot hesder, there always was a different, older arrangement: perpetual yeshiva service by those who devoted themselves to their studies for many years, who were permitted to defer military service as long as they occupied themselves with only Torah.

Why should they be permitted to defer their service?  Because yeshiva students perform a service for the Jewish people, just as Moses performed a service when he raised his hands to the sky as Israel battled the Amalekites, so that the Israelite soldiers saw him and looked to God as they fought the attackers.

This is not a hareidi view.  This view is that of the Zionist yeshivot, first and foremost Yeshivat Merkaz Harav.  No one is going to suggest that its founder, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, wanted to spare his students from army service.

When Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda and other yeshiva heads met with IDF brass in the 1950’s to determine how to allow yeshiva students to defer their service, he sat with the officers, across from the yeshiva heads.  When his colleagues on the other side called to him, “Reb Tzvi Yuda, come sit with us,” he responded, “I have to make sure there will be a strong army—and these commanders have to make sure there will be a strong Torah world.”

Later, during the Suez Crisis (1956), students at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav asked Rabbi Kook to allow them to go assist the combat forces by volunteering to load ammunition and perform other auxiliary duties.

He said, “sit and spend more time studying Torah, and serve the nation that way.”

The students responded, “Rabbi, in the War of Independence you let the boys go.”

“This is different,” he explained.” “During the War of Independence, every man was required to dig trenches to defend Jerusalem.” (ed. note: the IDF was not short of soldiers in 1956 and the nation's existence was not threatened.) 

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda was a man of truth, and Yeshivat Merkaz Harav was a yeshiva whose students learned diligently as long as their service was deferred.  The yeshiva was characterized by a great amount of esteem for its alumni serving in the IDF, but also by a no less profound respect for those serving behind the bookstands and volumes of Talmud.

When, according to this approach, does a soldier close the Talmud and leave the bookstand?  When there are insufficient soldiers to do the job.  Then everyone goes.  What about equality in sharing the burden?  All concerned share equally in the burden.  And what about exposure to lethal danger?  Most people in the army are not in combat units, and are in no greater danger than yeshiva students.


Against this background, it is to be expected that the heads of Zionist yeshivot defend Torah study as an existential security asset and raise their voices against the incitement of Kadima and the left.

If their voices are not that loud, it’s possible that this is a reaction to the existence of draft-dodgers on the rolls of the hareidi yeshivot.  Instead of kicking them out of the Torah brigade and transferring them to brigades within the IDF, their yeshiva heads prefer to hide in a bunker under radio silence. 

The Zionist rabbis may think that less involvement with hareidi yeshivot will preclude a public discussion of the status of the yeshivot hesder.  Do they not realize that both sets of institutions are based on the same principle, and that for anti-religious crusader Adv. Yehuda Vessler, those studying in yeshivot hesder also are partial draft-dodgers?

Last week, a group of former IDF officers and combat soldiers came together to do the yeshiva heads’ work for them and mount a defense of this principle.  Some members of the group, including the author of this column, did the same thing twenty-two years ago, when a similar anti-yeshiva campaign was underway against the Shamir government, whose coalition members included Haredi parties and Techiya.

Our message then, as today, was this: When we are going to battle, we want to know that standing behind us there are masses of Jews praying and studying Torah for the sake of the nation’s success, as Moses did in his time.

One member of the original group was Lt.-Col. Noah Hertz, an IDF pilot who spent time in captivity in Syria.  He lost his leg in that war, but not his spirit, and subsequently became religious.  There was a certain occasion when the group met with journalists who treated him insultingly.  Even though most of the journalists had served at Galei Tzahal, the IDF radio station in Yafo, they castigated him for daring to describe Torah study as “national service,” and referring to the “auxiliary spiritual artillery division.”

Hertz answered patiently: “When you come to help us with the task of prayer and Torah study for the sake of our nation and everyone studies Torah together, we will revisit the division of labor.”

They argued with him until a bareheaded former Palmach fighter from the group whose son had become religious intervened: “Look, you don’t agree,” he said, “but at least understand that Noah Hertz and his colleagues, including my son, are not draft evaders or draft dodgers.  They sincerely believe that this is a fitting way to serve the homeland and nation.”

The most recent conflict has essentially been a repeat performance, amplified according to the greater number of news media now in the market.  This time, though, there is the additional, patronizing argument that the haredim must be retrieved from their world, as if this were a benighted world from which the IDF would help bring them forth to progress and integration into Israeli society.

In the meantime, the Torah and its students are being publicly kicked around by leftist political operatives, kicked from the Suckers’ Tent to the halls of the Knesset and from there to the activists of the Student Union, which never before was as political as under current chairman Itzik Shmuli.

The campaign reached its nadir with the expressions of derision heaped by its organizers on Tzvi Tal, the religious High Court Justice (ret.) who lost a son in the Yom Kippur War and, nevertheless, invested of himself deeply in forging the eponymous Tal Law that regulated deferment of army service for yeshiva students.  On the other hand, it’s hard to complain about their insults to him when the ones who threw out his law were his one-time colleagues on the High Court.

The best laid plans of men have gone awry again.  Binyamin Netanyahu, who declined to take on the High Court to regularize Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, now finds himself facing the High Court again, this time on the topic of yeshiva students. 

He is learning the hard way that he has no choice but to find a solution to the dictatorship of the court, which insists on inserting its two cents into questions of values and political decisions, and on using its verdicts to show the administration just how limited the government’s power is.  

The state specifies a certain list of priorities, determines that the students of the Torah are in the service of the state—and the High Court simply comes and says no, in the name of equality and in the name of this and in the name of that other ethereal non-judicial concern.

There is only thing that enjoys immunity before the High Court: the Arab public, the vast majority of which does not serve.  Arabs who do not serve are not subjected to personal economic sanctions.  They are rewarded with affirmative action programs to subsidize their employment and encourage employers to prefer to hire them, as is made clear by the current ad campaign sponsored by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Try petitioning about that, and you’re liable to get yourself thrown bodily out of the High Court.

And yet, maybe, just maybe, the High Court, deep down inside, despite all its declarations about egalitarianism and a state of all its citizens, really doesn’t buy its own propaganda...  In the eyes of the court,  yeshiva students are brothers who must participate in serving the country, whereas the Arabs are the enemy, or at least not family ...