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The IDF And Torah Scholars: A Response

By Barry Jacobson

Thanks to Rabbi Yair Hoffman for taking the time to respond at length. I enjoy his writings because I have confidence that he performs his own open-minded analysis and doesn’t merely reiterate a party line. This is in addition to his vast knowledge on many halachic topics, and his having grown up in a house where scientific knowledge was valued—his father made many important contributions to NASA.

The analogy to the Manhattan Project is quite interesting. However, there is one major difference. The guys working on the Manhattan Project celebrated July 4, and respected their flag and their anthem. They fully believed in the USA, and their mesirus nefesh for the country was on a par with that of the soldiers. Aside from it being physically dangerous to work with radioactive materials, it was very difficult to be away in some remote desert for months on end. They had no rest or recreation. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman taught himself lock-picking to ease the monotony, which he practiced on his colleague’s offices, to their great consternation.

The fact that this asifah was arranged in conjunction with groups who rabidly hate the medinah (state), and who may not even recognize it to begin with, makes it suspect. Sticking up for Torah is one thing, but when every issue is cause for a rally, then it becomes a case of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It is doubtful the members of the Manhattan Project would spit on U.S. soldiers, forbid their children to join the military, and refuse to participate in Memorial Day ceremonies. I also contend that no matter how many sincere and heartrending cries were heard at the asifah during fervent recitation of Tehillim, selichos, and Kabbalas ol Malchus Shamayim, they simply don’t measure up to the cries of a mother who may have lost her son in battle, or a soldier left maimed for life. Those cries truly pierce the heavens.

When Rav Kook wrote of talmidei chachamim being exempt from the army, he was referring to those noble of character, filled with love of their nation, fully engaged with the thinking of society, imbued with the spirit of Torah and wanting to share its sublime values with others. I know, because my high-school principal spoke and lived the values of Rav Kook. In addition, a close friend informed me that they do go to the army in Mercaz HaRav, just later on.

It was also apparent from Rabbi Hoffman that we really are now in a time of milchemes mitzvah, as the simple reading of the Rambam in Hilchos Melachim would seem to indicate. Fighting an enemy who comes to attack is explicitly listed. However, Rabbi Hoffman claims that because we have enough manpower without Torah scholars, we are in a middle ground. That claim is not clear, because if that were the case, why not abolish the draft altogether, like the U.S. did, and rely on volunteers? While there may appear to be sufficient manpower now, it is only because Tzahal is busy 24/7 behind the scenes in preemptive activity, as we witnessed recently with the intercepting of an arms ship. But open warfare could again break out at any time, G‑d forbid. And if it does, it seems Rabbi Hoffman would agree that yeshiva boys would be obligated to serve, should it be necessary.

But how would they do so, if they had no training, belonged to no unit, had never handled a weapon, etc.? Shouldn’t they at least get some basic training over bein ha’zmanim, instead of going on tiyulim? This way, if there is an emergency call-up, they will know what to do. And wouldn’t making a small effort like that go a long way in the eyes of the masses? But instead, many yeshiva bachurim look with disdain on the rest of the country, and run around with a holier-than-thou attitude, like they exhibited in that horrendous video this week.

It is this type of behavior that has led to the ascendancy of Yair Lapid. He is not a one-man show. He represents numerous voters who are very angry at chareidim. I contend that if the chareidi public acted warmer, there would be no such hatred. As the pasuk says, ka’mayim ha’panim el panim. People mirror back the feelings others have for them. As I wrote last summer, if some simple hakaras ha’tov were shown to the secular during the 60 years when learners were exempt from the army and were also generously financed, these bad feelings would never have developed.

As far as the notion that Torah learning protects us, I view it differently than chareidi thought. They view the Torah as a voodoo doll that has magical powers, like a red bendel. But I view the entire purpose of the Torah as for forming ethical character, and in that z’chus, the protection comes. I have tons of proofs, but will list only two here: “Anybody whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom persists” and vice versa. Also, “One who is looked upon pleasantly by humans is looked upon pleasantly by the Al–mighty.”

A relevant situation took place with the first elections in Bet Shemesh. If Torah is a red bendel, then why not do anything, even unethical, to achieve that magic spell? But if it really is the ethics of the Torah that are key, then the ends do not justify the means. This discussion about the purpose of Torah really requires a separate column, and space does not permit.

The Gemara tells a story about a worker of an Amora who was supposed to transport merchandise on some platform. He overloaded it, it broke, and all the merchandise got ruined. The Amora wanted him to pay for the damage. The Gemara said, because of “V’asisa ha’yashar v’hatov,” you must not only forgo the cost of damage, but must also pay him his salary for the day. Talmidei chachamim are supposed to adhere to the highest levels of bein adam lachaveiro.

Rabbi Hoffman quotes a number of sources who say the Torah protects as well as the soldiers. But in fact, is the Torah protecting us now? The Gemara in Makkos tells us that somebody was eaten by a lion in the city of a certain Amora. Eliyahu HaNavi was so angry with him (that he did not daven sufficiently for all the inhabitants of the city) that he didn’t speak to him for three days. Since, unfortunately, we have seen the deaths of thousands of soldiers in the past, when people were indeed learning, something must be lacking with our methodology. One may argue that without the learning more would have died. Yet from Gemara, even one was too many and meant we were not doing enough.

What, then, are we doing wrong? I believe it is because we are not together with the soldiers in spirit, but talk bad about the cause they fight for, and put the medinah down constantly. If we don’t bond with a full heart with those we claim to be protecting, perhaps the protection doesn’t work. To my surprise, a friend sent me a Midrash which states that in the time of Dovid HaMelech, a righteous king, who had an army of righteous and learned soldiers, the soldiers would fall in battle. The Midrash asks why, and answers, because there were some in the generation who would bad-mouth each other. This bickering removes all protection. Baruch Shekivanti.

But I have another problem with the claim of protection. Rashi in Berachos 60a says that ideally one should not go to doctors, but only daven. Rav Frand quotes a Ramban, similarly, that one on a high enough madreigah should not go. I believe the Vilna Gaon did not. But if chareidim do go to doctors, then they are saying they are not on such a high level of bitachon. Of course one can argue that for a medical emergency, the situation is different. But war is also a shaas ha’sakanah, and moreover, what about routine medical checkups? Are there any chareidim who never go for those? Since the majority almost certainly do, despite the bitachon issue, and despite the bitul Torah involved, how can they then say when it comes to the army they are such big baalei bitachon that the rest of the nation should rely on their learning? So I am bothered about this concept of being a tzaddik on somebody else’s cheshbon. Are we really acting in accordance with the highest ethical values, or are we somehow letting our political feelings influence our judgment on this difficult question?

One point which I should raise is that many are probably thinking that my living in America and telling Israelis to go to the army doesn’t sound too kosher, either. But I must say that I have four kids (arbaah avos nezikin). I believe at least one of my sons could make a meaningful contribution to the Israeli army. He would probably benefit in return. Rabbi Hoffman knows him quite well, as he had the privilege experience of teaching him for a year. It takes a whole army to wake him up in the morning. This way, the army would be right there. Seriously, I have spoken to him about it. He loves athletics, camping, action, and being outdoors. I believe there are many chareidi kids who would similarly benefit.

Rabbi Hoffman concludes with a mention of the importance of achdus, which is reflected in the mitzvah of mishloach manos. My rebbi, Rabbi Shlomo Wahrman, is mefalpel in his Sefer Shearis Yosef vol. 1, p. 349 about the famous machlokes surrounding the reason for the mitzvah. The Terumas HaDeshen holds it is to provide food for seudas Purim, in case one couldn’t afford; while the Manos HaLevi holds it is to increase friendship among Jews. Suppose one dropped off the gift with no label. Perhaps Terumas HaDeshen would hold he does fulfill the mitzvah, since he did give food, while Manos HaLevi might hold not, because not knowing the giver, the recipient can’t increase his friendship.

My rebbi cites Reb Menachem Ziemba, Hy’d, who suggests the root of this machlokes is in a Gemara Megillah, which asks why the Jews came so close to a terrible fate. Reb Shimon bar Yochai’s students said because the Jews participated in the inappropriate seudah of Achashverosh; while Reb Shimon bar Yochai himself said because they bowed to an idol (which Haman had with him). Rav Ziemba suggests that according to the first opinion, it is logical that Chazal would establish mishloach manos so that every Jew can participate in a seudas mitzvah, to make up for eating at the seudah of Achashverosh. However, according to the second opinion, that the reason was avoda zarah, then it is logical that Chazal would try to increase friendship.

Why would that help? Because of the second part of the very Midrash we quoted above. Whereas when Dovid fought, his men would be defeated because of the bickering, in the time of Achav, despite that he was a wicked king and his entire generation were idol worshippers, when they fought wars, they were successful—because they spoke no ill of each other. So Rav Ziemba concludes that increasing friendship is the antidote to avoda zarah and the goal of mishloach manos according to Rav Shimon bar Yochai. I can only whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Hoffman’s conclusion. Freilichen Purim. v

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Posted by on March 14, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.