Disobeying Orders in Tzahal (Israel Defense Forces) – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Last week, we began to discuss the propriety of soldiers disobeying orders of a commanding officer in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces).  This question emerged as a burning issue during the evacuation of the Jewish communities of the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Many rabbinical leaders, led by the venerable Rav Avraham Shapira zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, strongly urged soldiers to disobey orders.  Other major leaders of the community, such as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef, instructed soldiers not to disobey orders.

We cited the Rambam who states that one must disobey an order from a government authority to violate a Torah law.  Thus, Halachah requires (and Israeli civil law permits) a soldier to disobey an order to gratuitously violate Shabbat when it is clear that there is no concern for Pikuach Nefesh (danger to life).  However, we noted that in an ambiguous situation, one should not refuse orders, as this will destabilize the army which will endanger the people of Israel.

Contemporary Applications of Rav Yaakov Ariel

Rav Yaakov Ariel, a leading Halachic authority in the Religious Zionist community, rules (in an essay published in 1984, Techumin 4:178) that one cannot disobey an order in a situation of ambiguity.  He rules that Israeli soldiers should not disobey an order to conduct a military exercise on Shabbat even if there are serious doubts as to whether there is legitimate concern for Pikuach Nefesh (danger to life).  In addition, he views disobedience due to political concerns to be entirely unacceptable.  For example, he rejects the actions of soldiers who refused to participate in Tzahal’s siege of Western Beirut (then a stronghold of the PLO) in 1983 due to their claim that the siege was morally offensive.

Rav Ariel aptly notes that the morality of the siege is at its core a political question as to the efficacy of the military mission.  The issue becomes a moral one only if one assumes that the operation is unnecessary, which is a political question.  If one believes that it is the wise course of action, then the operation is morally acceptable.  Rav Ariel rules that such decisions should be left to the discretion of the government and not left to every soldier to determine and judge the wisdom of Israel’s foreign policy when there is legitimate debate regarding the issue.

Furthermore, Rav Ariel notes that soldiers were obligated to obey military orders to evacuate Jews from Yamit, the Sinai Jewish community that was destroyed by the Israeli government (then headed by Menachem Begin) in 1982 in the wake of the peace treaty signed with Egypt.  He explains:

“This is because the government at worst erred in its judgment, but it did not intend to sin.  Rather, it thought that this would help the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael….. While it is true, regrettably, that the government did not consider its steps due to Torah concerns, nonetheless, the fact is that there were some rabbis who permitted the matter” (see Gray Matter 1:142-143 where Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yitzchak Hutner and Rav Ovadia Yosef are cited as permitting exchanging Israeli land for peace).

The fact that some Rabbanim permitted exchanging Israeli land for peace defines the question of evacuating Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael as “ambiguous” and delegitimizes refusal of military orders based on the claim that such evacuation violates Halachah.  Such disobedience is divisive, destabilizing and dangerous. As Rav Yehudah Shaviv notes (Techumin 15:130), “We must very carefully consider what weakens Jewish control over and the existence of Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael: obeying an order to evacuate a Jewish community or the disobedience of a military order which is liable to divide and weaken”.

A Bad Government is Better than No Government

The following comments of the Sefer HaChinuch (ad. loc.) highlight the importance of obeying military orders even if a situation is morally and/or Halachically ambiguous:

It is impossible for a community to function without a leader whose orders will be followed.  This is because people have differing views regarding various maters and it is impossible that they will agree on a course of action regarding these matters.  Thus, if there were no leader nothing would ever be accomplished.  Therefore, the decisions of one person must be accepted, be they good decisions and be they poor decisions, in order for the community to function properly.  Sometimes the leader will be successful and sometimes he will not.  This, however, is far superior to strife and discord which causes complete destruction.

Accordingly, Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef seem to have been obviously correct in their urging soldiers not to disobey orders to evacuate the Jewish communities of the Gaza Strip.

Contrasting Gush Katif with Yamit

Rav Ariel notes that he heard the ruling regarding Yamit from none other than his Rebbe, Rav Avraham Shapira.  He notes that Rav Shapira issued this ruling despite his personal opinion that the withdrawal from Sinai constituted a Torah-level violation.  This is, indeed, shocking, considering how he insisted in the strongest of terms that soldiers disobey orders to evacuate the Jewish communities of the Gaza Strip.

The most compelling explanation of Rav Shapira’s stance regarding Gush Katif does not focus on the fact that the Jews were being evacuated from their homes in Eretz Yisrael.  Indeed, Rav Shapira ruled that soldiers were obligated to obey orders to evacuate Yamit since some rabbis permit exchanging land for peace.  The difference seems to be the planning on behalf of the evacuees.

The residents of Yamit were generously compensated for their homes and successfully relocated elsewhere in Eretz Yisrael.  However, there was not a proper plan for relocating the evacuated residents of the Gaza Strip.  Even if one were to agree that the withdrawal from Gaza was strategically necessary, it was highly questionable to evacuate more than eight thousand citizens without a proper plan for their relocation.  Thus, Rav Shapira’s argument for disobedience appears to have been reasonable.

Choosing the Less Problematic Option

I urged my students who were serving in the IDF during the summer of 2005 to obey orders to evacuate the Jewish residents of the Gaza Strip despite the cogency of Rav Shapira’s ruling.  This was due to the fact that even though the evacuation was conducted in a highly questionable manner, there is a bigger picture to consider.  During the summer of 2005, tensions were running extremely high between Jews in Eretz Yisrael who supported the disengagement and those who opposed it.  The disputes were ubiquitous, intense and, for the most part, ran along the religious-secular divide, a perennial area of serious tension in Eretz Yisrael.  Concern for violence was very real.  It seemed that massive disobedience on the part of religious soldiers might have, God forbid, sparked a serious conflagration.

The Gemara (Sotah 49a) notes that sometimes we have to make the decision not between good and bad but rather between bad and worse.  Although the evacuation was problematic, a civil war would have been far worse.  As we quoted from the Sefer Hachinuch, “strife and discord causes complete destruction”.

Conclusion – “The Jewish People Need a Strong Army”

In practice, only sixty nine soldiers out of an estimated twenty thousand religious soldiers who participated in the withdrawal refused to follow orders during this painful episode.  With the advantage of hindsight and perspective of four years, I suggest that the soldiers who participated in the withdrawal are to be applauded.  They did so with a very heavy heart and acted solely out of conviction, in the words of one student, that “The Jewish People need a strong army”.

The greatest heroes of this episode were the evacuated residents of the Gaza Strip who behaved (in the words of eyewitness Rav Shlomo Riskin, recalled during a speech at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in June 2006) like princes during the evacuation.  They placed the well-being of the nation over their personal needs and almost completely refrained from violence despite the government’s lack of planning.  The Jewish People owe these former residents of Gaza a large debt of gratitude and they deserve our generous financial support for their continuing resettlement and return to living as productive citizens of the State of Israel. 

Revoking Rabbinic Law – Part I by Rabbi Shmuel Kadosh

Disobeying Orders in Tzahal (Israel Defense Forces) – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter