Torah Scholars and the IDF

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By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

This is a response to Reb Barry Jacobson’s remarks in the Five Towns Jewish Times on the Asifa this past Sunday in Manhattan.  It also addresses his inquiry about Torah sources regarding Bnei Torah continuing to study rather than serving in the army.  There is no question, of course, that the soldiers who are protecting the nation against the enemies of the Jewish people are fulfilling a remarkable task and are playing a holy role.  Certainly, all of us, who are beneficiaries of their bravery and dedication. should express our sincere hakaras haTov and pray for their welfare and well-being.  It is unfortunate that some do not.

The leading sages of America, Degel HaTorah, Agudah in Eretz Yisroel and the sages of Shas – the Sefardic Torah organization had all signed on for the call to join in the mass gathering in the Wall Street area.  The purpose of the mass gathering was to show solidarity with the Torah community in Israel.   The Torah community is facing an unprecedented law 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 Shma perfunctorily.  No.  When they recite the words, “Ki haim 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 the notion of 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 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 electro-magnetic 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 Gemorah in Nedarim (32a) discusses the war of Avrohom Avinu with the four kings.  The Gemorah asks why it was that Avrohom Avinu was punished with his descendants having to become exiled and enslaved.  The Gemorah answers because he drafted Talmidei Chachomim.  True, Shmuel provides a different reason – but the halacha still stands with the first explanation.  Most Meforshim understand that Avrohom Avinu’s war did fall under the rubric of Milchemes Mitzvah a war involving a Mitzvah,  and not a Michemes reshus – a voluntary war.  Rav Kook understands it this way himself (See Iggeres HaRaya p. 90).  Why then was Avrohom 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 halacha as well  as a careful reading of the Maharsha in Sotah 10a, (although admittedly Rashi in Sotah 10a does not learn this way).

The Gemorah in Sotah 10a also discusses Assa, who was punished for the same reason.  He trotted out Talmidei Chachomim.  That case as well is understood by most Meforshim as a Milchemes Mitzvah.  Why then was Assah punished?  Once again – there are different categories of Milchemes Mitzvah is the most likely halachic answer, notwithstanding Rashi’s interpretation.

The Gemorah in Sanhedrin 49a seems to indicate that this is the halacha too.  Amsha is not considered a Mored b’Malchus when he purposefully did not drft the Talmidei Chachomim.  In that case, the situation was certainly a Milchemes Mitzvah too.  The Chashmonayim on the other hand were clearly the Oskai Torasecha as seen in the Al HaNissim, and they fought.  The Gemorah 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 zkeinim participated.  The thesis that there are varying levels of Milchemes Mitzvah is clearly emerging 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 on pages 244-248.

But let’s get a bit more contemporary.

It was 1917, thirteen years after the arrival of Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook zt”l on the shores of Eretz Yisroel.  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 zatzal 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 Yeshivos) are necessary, “Hainan hashniyos b’erech  b’madreigos rommemus haTorah – they are a second tier in the steps to the grandeur of Torah.”  The first tier is comprised  of the Torah-only Yeshivos.

Indeed, Rav Shlomo Zevin zatzal, whom Mr. Jacobson cites in his article, is also quoted in HaPardes (Vol 8 ’47 p. 8) that the Yeshivos represent a “lechatchila – 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 that when the geo-political situation is such that there is an imminent danger that 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 Hatzolah volunteers in our communities here in the greater New York  metropolitan area.  However, to institute a mandatory draft of EMT’s taking those draftees from other programs, at this point, is simply not warranted.  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 Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav, the flagship Yeshiva of the religious Zionist movement, didn’t.  Rav Shaul Israeli is quoted in the I Taives edition 5747 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 bride-groom 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 contemporary 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 mother and father.  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 do 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’haim 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 Yisroel among ourselves.  It is to counter the statement of Haman that the Jewish nation is Mefuzar and Mefurad 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.  Amain!

The author can be reached  at yairhoffman2@gmail.comidf2

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7 thoughts on “Torah Scholars and the IDF

  • March 11, 2014 at 11:28 am

    There are many significant errors in Rabbi Hoffman’s article.
    Rabbi Hoffman claims that “The Torah community is facing an unprecedented law in the state of Israel’s history – a law to forcibly draft Yeshiva students into the armed forces.”
    This is absolutely false. In 1949 the Defense Service Law gave the IDF the authority to enlist any citizen over 18 years of age. The Tal Law, however, gave the authority to the Minister of Defense to DEFER military service under 3 conditions: he studies in yeshiva at least 45 hours a week, has no other job, he declares that he meets these criteria and the Rosh HaYehshiva makes this declaration as well. In 2006 and in 2012 the constitutionality of the Tal Law was challenged and ultimately deemed to be unconstitutional. This is not a new law rather revoking of Tal Law mandating all Israeli citizens to serve in the IDF.
    To Be Continued in my next post

  • March 11, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Dina Demalchusa Dina applies in Israel as well and obligates all Jews to listen to the government (we don’t paskin like the Ran). Furthermore from law of Shutfush (partners) Israeli citizens must obey Israeli Law as well.
    Regarding Rabbi Hoffman’s statement that “There is no question, of course, that the soldiers who are protecting the nation against the enemies of the Jewish people are fulfilling a remarkable task and are playing a holy role.” is his own opinion but clearly is not shared by his Charedi bretherin in Israel. For example IDF soldiers are called Nazis and Charedi soldiers have been beaten up on the streets.”
    As per a member of the BDaTZ their official position is rejection of the autonomy of the State of Israel and their function is to “eradicate any remnance of Torah study via army service and perpetual crimes against Charedim.”
    to be continued in next post

  • March 11, 2014 at 11:40 am

    Furthermore the timing of the Asifah was a true crime since it occurred just a few hundred miles away from the PM meeting with Obama where they are discussing the Iranian and Palestinian issues. I drove by the Asifah following a meeting in midtown in the Nefesh B’Nefesh meeting with Yehuda Sharf and the Mayor of a large city in Israel where we were discussing improving efforts to assist American Jews move to Israel.
    As my Rosh HaYeshiva says- “Are you for the Jews or against the Jews.” Don’t repeat the sin of the Meraglim who refused to go to Israel because there would be no Man and they would be forced to work and defend the land. Hashem wants us to live in Israel (Avnei Nezer YD 454, Even HaEzer 75,5 Pischei Teshuva). We need to defend our land. If you wish to stay in the Midbar.. fine. But don’t dare joining the anti-semites. It’s just not worth it.

  • March 11, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Can you please cite where it says Dina Dimalchusa Dina applies outside of Choshen Mishpat?

  • March 11, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    The analogy to those who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II is faulty. Weapons development does not divert manpower from the war effort; it IS the war effort. This is as true today in Israel as it was 70 years ago in America.

    You write that “Many of these workers and scientists who labored in the project were constantly subjected to sneers and snide remarks from the average citizenry” I would like to know where you get that information from. For one thing all those workers were in the middle of the desert, and their work was top secret. My father A”H was a physicist who worked radar at MIT during the war. His family got a letter from a neighbor who was at the front lines telling him how much he and his army buddies appreciated the work that my father and his colleagues were doing, keeping them safe by doing military research. Israeli society has the same attitude toward those involved in their own weapons research. Nobody sees them as similar to the…

  • March 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Many perceptive and learned responses to this article have been published at Rav Natan Slifkin also analyzes it at his website, It is worthwhile visiting those sites to see those comments.

    Now that sixty rockets have been fired at southern Israel and an IDF response is expected, I anticipate that Chareidi shuls will be ringing with the mishebeirach for Tsahal, that squads of talmidei chachamim will be traveling southern communities to engage in 24/7 Torah learning, and that there will be a moratorium on calling for “revenge” against Jews living in Yehudah and Shomron and on labeling dati-leumi Jews “animals,” “wicked,” and “Amalek.”

  • March 13, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Dina Demalchusa Dina: see Dvar Avraham 1,1 for extensive explanation of halachic application of this principle.

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