By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
This is a response to Reb Barry Jacobson’s remarks in the Five Towns Jewish Times regarding the recent gatherings and rallies about Israeli government policies in relation to Torah students (“A Contrast,” March 7). It also addresses his inquiry about Torah sources regarding b’nei Torah
continuing to study rather than serving in the army.
There is no question, of course, that the soldiers who are protecting the nation from the enemies of the Jewish people are fulfilling a remarkable task and are playing a holy role. Certainly all of us, the beneficiaries of their bravery and dedication, should express our sincere hakaras ha’tov and pray for their welfare and well-being. It is unfortunate that some do not.
The leading sages of America and of the Degel HaTorah, Agudah, and Shas organizations in Eretz Yisrael had all signed on for the call to join in the mass gathering in the Wall Street area in New York this past Sunday. The purpose of the gathering was to show solidarity with the Torah community in Israel. The Torah community is facing a law unprecedented in the state of Israel’s history—a law to forcibly draft yeshiva students into the armed forces, contravening an agreement that was made at the very birth of the country.
This response is an explanation and a historical overview about the confluence of army service and Torah study. Not everyone, of course, will agree with the explanations and positions set forth here. However, those that do not agree must realize that they do come from a very different socio-religious milieu than those in the chareidi world who have been brought up with and raised with a deep appreciation of Torah being the only definition of true Jewish life.
Serious-minded chareidi Jews do not merely recite the words of the blessings of the Shema perfunctorily. No. When they recite the words “Ki heim chayeinu (for they are our life) v’orech yameinu (and the pathways of our days),” they mean it, and they mean it as the sole pursuit in life. They view Zionism as a form of secular nationalism and not as the fulfillment of any religious ideal.
The situation may be somewhat analogous to the Manhattan Project during World War II. The top-secret project that was to develop the atom bomb required an enormous amount of manpower—manpower that would normally have gone toward regular the war effort. The project was top-secret and few understood what the Manhattan Project was all about, even the massive number of workers who were building centrifuges to build heavy-water extraction plants. And there were well over 100,000 such workers. Many of these workers and scientists who labored in the project were constantly subjected to sneers and snide remarks from the average citizenry—whose boys were across two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, fighting.
The parallel is obvious. There was little appreciation for those who toiled at electromagnetic isotope separation, thermal diffusion, U‑235 production, and plutonium production, instead of going to the army. There is little appreciation as well for those who toil in Nashim, Nezikin, Kodshim, and Moed, instead of fighting in the IDF. Bring the subject up to someone who was not raised in the bedrock of Torah life and you will invariably get the response, “Oh come on! They are so different!”
But there is no difference.
The Manhattan Project was crucial in saving hundreds of thousands of American lives. And, according to Chazal, full-time Torah study is crucial in saving the Jewish people. But let’s take a quick tour through the halachic and historical record.
The Gemara in Nedarim (32a) discusses the war of Avraham Avinu against the four kings. The Gemara asks why it was that Avraham Avinu was punished with his descendants having to become exiled and enslaved. The Gemara answers because he drafted talmidei chachamim. True, Shmuel provides a different reason—but the halachah still stands with the first explanation. Most meforshim understand that Avraham Avinu’s war did fall under the rubric of milchemes mitzvah, and not a milchemes reshus—a voluntary war. Rav Kook understands it this way himself (see Iggeres HaRaya p. 90). Why, then, was Avraham Avinu punished? The most plausible answer is that there are different categories of milchemes mitzvah. This is how the Radbaz (Volume II #752) understands the halachah, and this is consistent as well with a careful reading of the Maharsha in Sotah 10a (although admittedly Rashi in Sotah 10a does not learn this way).
The Gemara in Sotah 10a also discusses Assa, who was punished for the same reason. He trotted out talmidei chachamim. That case as well is understood by most meforshim as a milchemes mitzvah. Why then was Assa punished? Once again—there are different categories of milchemes mitzvah is the most likely halachic answer, notwithstanding Rashi’s interpretation.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin 49a seems to indicate that this is the halachah too. Amsha is not considered a mored b’malchus when he purposefully did not draft the talmidei chachamim. In that case, the situation was certainly a milchemes mitzvah. The Chashmonayim, on the other hand, were clearly the “oskei Torasecha” as seen in the Al HaNissim, and they fought. The Gemara in Eiruvin 5b indicates that when it is a full-blown milchemes mitzvah like the capture of Israel during the time of Yehoshua, even the z’keinim participated. The thesis that there are varying levels of milchemes mitzvah emerges as the most likely way to understand all of these sources. This is also the approach of Rav Yitzchok Herzog in essay he wrote that was reprinted in the Sefer HaZikaron dedicated to him (pages 244–248).
But let’s get a bit more contemporary.
It was 1917, thirteen years after the arrival of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, zt’l, on the shores of Eretz Yisrael. The First World War had broken out and Rav Kook, the patriarch of the Religious Zionist movement, pleaded with the Chief Rabbi of England to try and rescind the decree of the drafting of yeshiva students. The letter was written to Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz (of the famous Hertz Chumash) and is found in Iggeres HaRaya, Vol. III p. 88 (#810). Rav Kook pleaded with Rabbi Dr. Hertz to use his good offices to try to spare the yeshiva students. The plea was nearly identical with the pleas of the chareidi spokespeople today.
Rabbi Shlomo Benizri in his Toraso Umnaso cites the Sichos HaRav Tzvi Yehudah Kook (Chapter One response 305) that although the yeshivos that offer both learning and army service (Hesder) are necessary, “Heinan ha’shniyos b’erech b’madreigos rommemus haTorah—they are a second tier in the steps to the grandeur of Torah.” The first tier comprises the Torah-only yeshivos.
Indeed, Rav Shlomo Zevin, zt’l, whom Mr. Jacobson cites in his article, is also quoted in HaPardes (Vol. 8 ’47 p. 8) that the yeshivos represent a “lechatchilah—an ideal” and he further writes (Tehillim 105), “Do not touch my anointed ones and in my prophets do no harm!”
No one is going to argue with the idea that when the geopolitical situation is such that there is an imminent danger, all available people should go out to protect the nation. This was often the situation in the past, as the war of 1948 demonstrated. But in current times, even the top IDF experts assert that there is no manpower shortage.
Another example: We need Hatzalah volunteers in our communities here in the Greater New York area. However, to institute a mandatory draft of EMTs, taking those draftees from other programs, is simply not warranted at this point. It may not be politically correct to say so, but it is nonetheless true.
Will some disagree with the Manhattan Project analogy? The rosh yeshiva of Mercaz HaRav, the flagship yeshiva of the Religious Zionist movement, didn’t. Rav Shaul Israeli is quoted in the 1 Teves 5747 edition of HaTzofeh as saying, “A man who sits and studies Torah protects the world no less than a military army.”
From a halachic vantage point, most of the poskim seem to understand that there are three, not two, categories. There is a milchemes reshus—a voluntary, optional war. There is a milchemes mitzvah, in which most of the nation, including a new bridegroom, should generally go out to war, but not those that are studying Torah. And finally, there is a national emergency milchemes mitzvah, in which everyone should go out to war—including, and perhaps especially, the Torah scholars. This is how Rav Kook, Rav Herzog, and the Maharsha understand the sugya. Rashi, however, holds of the two-category model. He holds that whenever it is a milchemes mitzvah, even the Torah scholars go out to war. It seems to this author that most of the contemporary leaders in the Religious Zionist camp hold of the three-category model.
What is missing in all this, however, is the realization that we are all children of the same mothers and fathers. We are all parts of the same body and we should treat each other with the respect and love that we must have for our family members—even if we disagree as to what approach should be emphasized or adopted, or whether it is a three-category model or a two-category model. Recently, we have seen two conflicting PR YouTube videos to a song entitled “Anu Mashkimim v’Heim Mashkimim.” The song explains how we awaken early for the right purposes, they awaken early for useless purposes. The song was used by both sides of the debate to denigrate the other side. Both uses of the song are wrong.
We stand now in the month of Adar. The Manos HaLevi, Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, explains that the concept of shalach manos is to further brotherly love and ahavas Yisrael among ourselves. It is to counter the statement of Haman that the Jewish nation is mefuzar u’meforad throughout the nations because of their lack of unity. The month of Adar should counter the spirit of disunity and contribute to family love.
May Hashem speedily grant mutual respect and unity among us. Amein! v
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.