By Barry Jacobson
The recent rally in Israel against government plans to conscript yeshiva bachurim left a bad taste in my mouth. First, it is unfortunate, but I admit to having nagging doubts as to whether those ruling on the issue are doing so from a halachic standpoint or an ideological standpoint—the ideology being that any anti-Israel cause we can find is cause for great enthusiasm, whether it be the army, kashrus, geirus, digging of graves, operation of buses, etc. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see a million-man hakaras ha’tov rally, instead, as somebody mentioned? It shouldn’t be all that hard to find something in Israel to be grateful for, as we have listed in past articles, including the fact that the medinah is the greatest financial supporter of Torah in history.
Moreover, I am concerned about the philosophy that underpins this entire way of thinking. The ostensible reason why yeshiva bachurim should not serve is that Torah learning is important for the nation, and may even protect the rest of us. Why is learning important? I personally believe there is no reason to learn other than to develop good character and learn proper behavior and sensitivity towards others. The famous ethical work Mesillas Yesharim analyzes the Baraisa of Reb Pinchos ben Yair which delineates a chain of character traits. It begins by stating that the study of Torah causes one to act with more watchfulness or care (zehirus), and that, in turn, causes one to act with greater alacrity and energy (zerizus), and so forth, until one achieves the greatest trait of all, which is humility (according to some readings of the Baraisa, which is found in Maseches Avodah Zarah). I believe a reasonable definition of humility is to realize that my neighbor is just as important and worthy as I am. Furthermore, we see that the Torah is supposed to be a stepping-stone for proper behavior, as it is the first link in the chain.
It seems to me, therefore, that one who would claim that “because I learn Torah, I am more important or worthy than my neighbor” is missing the boat on what the entire purpose of Torah is all about.
I am not a halachic expert, and leave that to people far more knowledgeable. But I ask, if there are valid sources for a yeshiva bachur not to serve, why haven’t these teshuvos been publicized? Rav Zevin wrote a lengthy, well-sourced teshuvah saying yeshiva bachurim should indeed serve. But the counterarguments never seem to be expressed or cited. Rather, all we see is huge posters containing all kinds of histrionics, lacking any substance, claiming the Israeli government is out to destroy Judaism. Is the way to decide who is right to see which side puts up the biggest and most frightening pashkevilim? Don’t the people acting this way see that it turns off anybody with the slightest intellectual inclination?
So I am not only concerned with the substance of the debate, but with the tone, as well. Those who might think of attending a similar rally in New York should understand that they are quite possibly being used as political pawns, and that the truth may be very different than the speeches they might hear. Halachah may be totally on the opposite side of the point of view that will likely be expressed there. No matter how much wailing or emotionally charged oratory you may hear, keep your wits about you.
I hope that some of the knowledgeable rabbanim in our community can give straightforward answers to the following questions, which would alleviate much of the confusion: Is our current situation with the Arabs considered milchemes mitzvah or not, and why? Isn’t defense against deadly attacks, or even seizure of land, in Israel considered milchemes mitzvah? In a milchemes mitzvah, are there any exemptions permitted other than Shevet Levi? (Note, one commenter pointed out that even Shevet Yissachar, the learners of Yissachar/Zevulun fame, had to go to war.)
If the answer to the first question is yes, why are we constantly bombarded with sources saying that one third of the nation went to war, one third operated material supply lines, and one third stayed behind to learn? (Dialogue, Fall 5774/2013, No. 4) Those sources refer to milchemes reshus, which is not relevant here. Milchemes reshus is often defined as war over economic disputes or circumstances. Shouldn’t the presumption be, until conclusively proven otherwise, that we must all share the burden, as Moshe thundered, “Ha’acheichem yavo’u lamilchama v’atem teishvu poh?” (Should your brothers go out to war, while you sit here?).
Furthermore, why is the entire atmosphere being poisoned with hysterical cries of shmad (forced conversion or violation of Torah), when in reality we are talking about what is quite possibly a mitzvah d’Oraisa (Torah obligation)? Even if there are doubts on how to pasken or what our present status is, isn’t it at least a safek d’Oraisa (possible Torah obligation, which we normally are required to do, in case of doubt)? Is this how we treat an opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah, by loathing and decrying it?
If one searches on petter chamor (the redemption of a firstborn donkey), one will find many pictures of such ceremonies. What is interesting is that the donkey is almost always dressed in elaborate and elegant finery to demonstrate the importance we place on any mitzvah and our eagerness to beautify it (hiddur mitzvah). In addition, chareidim often organize expeditions to fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach ha’kein (sending away the mother bird), going out of their way and giving up Torah learning for something that may not be obligatory at all (and may even be forbidden because of cruelty to animals, unless one really wants the eggs). So why, when it comes to serving in the army and fulfilling a possible Torah obligation, is there such denigration? It somehow seems that ideology is getting in the way of halachah, something chareidim constantly accuse other movements of.
I am also bothered by the claim that the lax atmosphere in the army is not appropriate for a yeshiva bachur. If thousands of new bachurim would be serving, wouldn’t it be possible to make separate units for them? Was this point negotiated, or did the rabbanim just issue a blanket dismissal? In addition, it is not clear that the atmosphere in times of war was ever much better, as we see from the parashah of yefas to’ar.
The roshei yeshiva know that many boys cannot concentrate on a full day of learning, and would welcome the physical training of the army, which would also provide good career preparation. However, it was reported that one rosh yeshiva said, “We will not become Mengele.” (In other words, having to select which boys are the good learners, and which should go to the army.) But by insisting that everybody in your yeshiva be exempt, aren’t you in effect being a Mengele, by forcing others to take their place?
I would like to conclude with the following story. During the Holocaust, it happened around Rosh Hashanah that a certain Aktion was scheduled. The Nazis were going to execute everybody in a certain group. The father of one boy in the group had obtained a special card that exempted his son. But he became concerned that there may be a numerical quota, and if he presented his permit, there was a chance they would take somebody else in his place.
He went to ask his rav. The rav told him, “I really can’t pasken for you on this matter. I’m not going to tell you what to do either way.” The man said, “Well, if he can’t tell me it’s permissible, I must assume it is forbidden. This will be my personal Akeidah.”
This poor father didn’t make any cheshbonos or grandiose rationalizations. He didn’t say, “Well, my son is more religious than other people’s sons, so he should be the one to live,” or “His zechus will protect everybody else in the concentration camp.” He simply said, “I cannot in any way put my child over the child of somebody else, even if this will be his last day.”
For some reason, it seems to an amateur like myself that this was authentic Judaism in practice. Why do I get the feeling that perhaps the Judaism of today is missing something? v
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.