Memorial Day event for fallen haredi soldiers, April 24th, 2023
Memorial Day event for fallen haredi soldiers, April 24th, 2023Chaim Twito

The endless debate over Haredi conscription into the IDF contains several especially vexing aspects. Neither side’s arguments are entirely convincing or easily discounted, even though each side thinks its contentions are dispositive and should end the discussion. There is merit on both sides, which should not preclude a decision.

Politicians across the board are not necessarily seeking a resolution to this matter as their benefit accrues from stoking the flames and appealing to their respective bases. They enjoy the issue as a political football and the Haredim as convenient bogeymen, even as Haredim enjoy their status as defenders of the faith. Perhaps most intractable is that the two sides generally talk past each other as each possesses world views that are not only irreconcilable but also lack a common language.

Indeed, there are three world views that are represented in the debate: those who value army service but not Torah study, those who only value Torah study and not army service, and those who value both as proper expressions of being a complete Jew in the Jewish state. The discussions often have a ping- pong quality to them, contentions bouncing off each other but never fully countered. Each side assumes the righteousness and rectitude of its positions.

There are Israelis who constantly complain about “kfiyah datit,” religious coercion, oblivious to the fact that their counterparts might perceive mandatory army service as “kfiyah chilonit,” secular coercion. In a perfect world, in my view, every Jew would spend time as a soldier and every soldier would spend time learning in a yeshiva – the former to teach us how to fight, the latter to teach us what we are fighting for.

What the Haredim tend to minimize in their commitment to full time Torah study is not just that such has almost never existed in Jewish life, at any time. Nor is it just blatant disregard of the Gemara’s declaration (Yevamot 109b) that “he who says he has only Torah does not even have Torah.” Learning Torah that is then not practiced – mitzvot, acts of kindness, concern for the welfare of others – is a most constricted and usually corrupted form of Torah. It is not a living Torah.

But it is more than that self-imposed limitation. While secular Israelis trumpet the imperative of “shivyon banetel,” equality of the burden that each citizen should embrace, religious Zionists have taken to calling it “shivyon bizechut,” the equality of the privilege. Rav Shlomo Aviner has often noted that at least four mitzvot are fulfilled via military service – protection of Jewish life, settlement of the land of Israel, sanctification of G-d’s name, and not standing idly by while your brother’s life is endangered.

Rather than perceive IDF service as a burden it is far more edifying to perceive it as meritorious, a religious obligation that the State of Israel (and, I suppose, our bloodthirsty enemies who seek our destruction) has enabled us to fulfill for the first time in millennia. But what are the major arguments on both sides – and how can we find a harmonious way forward?

The major argument of the pro-draft contingent is quite simple and drawn from the Torah. When the tribes of Reuven and Gad wished to remain in Transjordan, presumably eluding the battle for the conquest of Israel, Moshe rebuked them: “Shall your brothers go to war, and you shall sit here?” (Bamidbar 32:6). Chastened, the tribal leaders responded that of course they would join the battle. Notice, though, how they did not tell Moshe that they would be learning Torah full time and thus should be exempt! Moshe would not have warmed to that idea – as he himself went to battle, as did Avraham, as did King David, as have many great Roshei Yeshivah and Torah scholars today.

I have yet to hear a cogent response to Moshe’s challenge, perhaps because if Moshe himself raised it, there is no cogent response. How can an entire group of people sit back and watch others fight, sacrifice, die – and not be ashamed?

This is self-centeredness wrapped in the mantle of Torah.

And if they do not fight, for whatever reason, how could they not want at least to do national service – even to teach Torah in places where such is lacking? When I learned in yeshiva in Israel almost fifty years ago, many of us joined the “civilian guard.” We were given rifles, rudimentary training, and went on anti-terror patrols once a week from 11:00 PM to 6:00 AM. Why did we join, American students all? We were expected to show up for minyan and seder the next morning, and our contribution to Israel’s security was probably slightly more than negligible. So, why? Because how could we not! How can one live in a society and not give back, not contribute to the common weal, not inconvenience oneself for the greater good?

In this context, the Gemara (Menachot 99a-b) states that “sometimes the dereliction of Torah is its foundation,” citing Moshe’s shattering of the tablets of law that G-d entrusted to him. But Rashi notes that the person who ceases his Torah study to perform acts of kindness is fulfilling the Torah on a broader level, and even “receives reward as if he is sitting and bolstering the Torah.” Nothing we did can compare to army service but what we did enhanced our Torah learning and did not detract from it.

If this is so obvious, then why isn’t it so … obvious?

It is because the Haredi claims have merit as well and should not be cavalierly dismissed. They should, however, be analyzed and contextualized.

Haredim originally argued that a cadre of Torah scholars was necessary to replenish the Torah world after the Holocaust, but that is no longer essentially true. Torah scholarship has flourished here and it is one of the unique blessings of the State of Israel. Today, the arguments run that Talmud Torah is the “equivalent” of all other mitzvot (Peah 1:1); that Torah study “protects and saves” from misfortune and danger (Sotah 21a); that even Gentiles exempt clergy from military service; that Haredim are not the only ones in Israel who shirk military service – plenty of secular youth seek and receive “psychological” exemptions on dubious grounds; and that the controversy is usually contrived for ignoble political purposes, including now.

All these arguments are true.

Added to that is the intentional exclusion of a larger group of Israeli citizens from military or national service – Israeli Arabs. What seems self-understood should actually give us pause. After all, India, founded in 1947 (one year before Israel’s independence) is a majority Hindu country with a 20% Muslim minority population, whose primary adversary is Muslim Pakistan – and yet, Indian Muslims are drafted into the military and fight against their co-religionists if necessary. That we assume Israeli Arabs are not sufficiently loyal to fight in our military carries implications that should be addressed, seriously, and soon. But it is puzzling why the greatest detractors of the yeshivah student’s exemption from military service seem untroubled by the exemption of Israeli Arabs from any type of service. They too benefit enormously from living in Israel.

The Haredi claims are not implausible but they deserve a response for the honor of Torah.

Certainly, Talmud Torah is the equivalent of all the mitzvot but we do not therefore exempt the Torah scholar for the performance of all other mitzvot. “Keneged kulam” can also mean that Torah study reflects on all other mitzvot; the more we learn, the better our performance is apt to be. To dismiss the practical contributions to security of an army and to attribute our protection to the Torah alone is to confuse the proximate cause with the ultimate cause. The Torah mandates – and Ramban codified this as one of the 613 commandments – that we fight, conquer, and settle the land of Israel.

We do not passively wait for assistance from Above, just like we seek out physicians for our medical problems, and just like we do not wait for manna to fall from heaven to feed us but work to sustain ourselves and our families. The Torah protects but it will not protect the person who sits down in the middle of a highway to learn. We must do our share. This is normative – this is the living Torah.

This idea is corroborated by the experience of King David and Yoav, his Chief of Staff. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 49a) states that “were it not for David [and his Torah study], Yoav could not have been successful in battle, and were it not for Yoav [and his military prowess], David would not have been able to learn Torah.”

But this is discussing an older King David, not the King David who frequently went to battle and saw no contradiction between the scholar and the soldier, whose life was the exemplar of the full Torah personality and is the model for the Messiah. Ideally, the two objectives are complementary and not mutually exclusive, and can be contained in the same person.

What must be uprooted is the mutual condescension that adheres to this issue, each side thinking it is superior to the other (because of the greatness of Torah study on the one hand and the necessity of military service on the other hand), and each side thinking the other is inferior (either because of the devaluing of Torah or the perceived selfishness in not serving).

Yet, with all the value of prayer and Torah study, who is on a higher level – the one who donates a kidney or the one who prays that a sick patient should receive a kidney, the one who gives money to the poor or the one who learns Torah in the merit of the poor? The living Torah is a practical, not a mystical, plan for life.

What remains particularly inexplicable is the reluctance in much of the Haredi world to recite the prayer for the IDF, a disinclination for which I have never received a satisfactory explanation. That lacks in many things – ingratitude, for one – but also in an inability to share in the struggles of others. Those who have started saying it during the war are treated as if some cosmic breakthrough has been achieved rather than just behaving in a way that is normal.

It is not helpful when certain Roshei Yeshivah speak contemptuously of the IDF, as if an army is unnecessary, as if any kind of support is “glorifying” the soldiers. This is poor theology and poor midot.

What compounds the problem even more is the new normal that Israeli society has adopted in the last year – that those who protest raucously and even violently, blocking roads and highways, acquire some measure of social and legal immunity, as if strident demonstrations convey automatic legitimacy to the cause that is the subject of the protests. Well, at least that was true for anti-government demonstrations; I wonder if it will be true for Haredi demonstrations. I think not.

With the abundance of valid contentions on all sides, what is the bottom line? It is the unspoken and primary reason for the Haredi reluctance to serve: the notion that they do not feel fully part of this polity and that the average Haredi could not survive spiritually outside the bubble in which they live. That is a sad admission, a failure of education and parenting, and tantamount to proclaiming that the Torah cannot be applied in the modern world.

Sure, the number of religious Zionists who go off the derech in the IDF is not insignificant and there is the persistent sense going back to the beginning of the State that the left’s interest in Haredi enlistment is less for the necessity of conscription and more for the necessity of assimilation.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of genuine bnai Torah who learn Torah, observe the mitzvot, serve with distinction, and are positive role models for those with whom they serve. Too many have been killed in combat in the last five months, still carrying their sefarim with them. Their Torah was also precious and their loss to our nation is grievous. The idea that we cannot remain pious Jews unless we live in an insulated community that guards us against interactions even with other Jews is preposterous and an indictment of the Torah. And even that fear can be assuaged by the establishment of separate Haredi units, such as already exist with Netzach Yehudah.

Weighing all considerations, on balance Haredim should serve because it is right that they serve! Sevara hu, lama li kra? It is so rational that a verse is unnecessary. How could they not? “Shall your brothers go to war, and you shall sit here?” Failure to serve is the repudiation of a living Torah. We are no longer evading the Czar’s draft.

Obviously, coercion will not succeed – no one benefits from having reluctant, disinclined, and unenthusiastic warriors. Jailing offenders also will not work; one can learn Torah in prison as well. What must happen is that the Haredi rabbinic leadership, whoever they are and regardless of their stature vis-à-vis their predecessors, must speak of the State of Israel, the people of Israel and the army of Israel as values, worthy of being embraced by all. IDF service should not have to be concealed from their public and is not an indication of second-rate spiritual status. On the contrary, it is a sign of a first-rate spiritual and Torah sensibility.

We cannot expect goodwill from all sides; too many have a vested interest in prolonging this dispute. But there is a problem if Yoav Galant can declare that the Torah protected us “in the exile,” as if the Torah doesn’t protect us here. There is a problem if Haredim and others, for sundry reasons, have been unable to convey the immense value of Torah to the general society – of Torah study, mitzvot, the prophetic vision of our return to Israel, the providential nature of the modern State of Israel, and the redemptive process underway before our eyes.

If we roughly categorize our society by three groups – “secular,” “religious nationalist,” and “Haredi,” each group has its virtues and challenges, each group has what to contribute to society, and each group has what it can learn from the others. And each group has shared obligations to preserve and nourish the spiritual and national destiny of the Jewish people.

As Haredim multiply in number, kain yirbu, it is natural and proper that their national lives will take on a greater focus and their societal contributions increase commensurately. We are not in the position to hire Hessians or even the Wagner Group to defend us. We must all share the merit of building and sustaining our national home. That is the objective of the living Torah.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Esq. was a pulpit rabbi and attorney in the United States and now lives in Israel where he teaches Torah in Modiin and serves as the Israel Region Vice-President of the Coalition for Jewish Values and the Senior Research Associate for the Jerusalem Center for Applied Policy.