Should Yeshiva Students Serve in the Israeli Army? - Part I by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


            In Parshat Vayigash (47:2) we find that Joseph presented only some of his brothers to Paroh upon the family's arrival to Egypt.  Rashi explains that Joseph chose only the relatively weak brothers to appear before Paroh, because had Paroh seen the stronger brothers he would have conscripted them as soldiers into his army.  It seems, therefore, appropriate to discuss this week the question of whether Yeshiva students should serve in the Israeli Army.  This essay is generally influenced by the ideas of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Israel's largest Hesder Yeshiva, where students enroll for a five year program of which fifteen months is spent serving in the army) whose essay on this topic appears in the Israeli Torah journal Techumim 7:314-329.


Can a Spiritual Person Serve in the Israeli Army?

            The question that people ask in this regard is not a strictly halachic one- How can a man who is thoroughly involved in spiritual manners serve in the army, which is a rugged and very physically intense experience?  An answer to this question is provided by looking at our own male role models.  Abraham, Moses, Joshua and David were men who scaled the heights of spirituality and yet excelled at war.  The Gemara in Moed Katan (16b) described this phenomenon in relation to King David as follows, "he was a delicate as a worm when he studied Torah but was as hard as wood when he fought in war and was able to kill eight hundred enemy soldiers in one blow." Rav Yehuda Amital (also Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion) often cites this Talmudic description as a paradigm for Hesder students, who on one hand grapple with the subtlety of a "Ketzot," "Reb Chaim," or "Chazon Ish" but yet serve with great distinction in the Israeli army.  Indeed, it is widely reported that at least forty percent of the junior officers of the Israeli army are religiously observant.

            Other sources also describe holy people as potent warriors.  The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 11:4) presents a profile of the Messiah- he studies Torah, he is devoted to the Written and Oral law, he will coerce all of Israel to follow the Torah, and will lead the Jewish People in battle.  The Ramban (Breishit 26:29) describes what motivated King Avimelech to make a covenant with our ancestors, who would seem to be a small nomadic group who posed no danger to a mighty king:

            "Avraham was very quiet and mighty, as he had in his house three hundred sword-bearing men and many allies.  And he himself was a lion-hearted soldier and he pursued and vanquished four very powerful kings.  And when his success became evident as being divinely ordained, the Philistine King feared him, lest he conquer his kingdom...  And the son emulated the father, as Yitzchak was great like his father and the King was afraid to fight him lest [the King] be banished from his land."


The Model of the Tribe of Levi

            Some point to the tribe of Levi as a role model for those who study and teach Torah full time and do not serve in the army.  Indeed, the Rambam's concluding remarks to Hilchot Shmitta V'Yovel 13:12-13 come to describe the tribe of Levi in this manner.  Moreover, the Rambam writes that, "And not the tribe of Levi alone but each and every person throughout the world whose spirit has uplifted him and whose intelligence has given him the understanding to stand before God, to serve him, to worship him, to know God; and he walks upright, since he has cast off from his neck the many considerations which people seek.  Such a person has been sanctified as the Holy of Hollies, and the Lord shall be his portion and his inheritance forever and ever and shall grant him sufficiency in this world as he has granted to the Kohanim and the Leviim.  As David, peace be upon him, says, O Lord, the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup, Thou maintainest my lot."

            The application of this passage to excuse contemporary Yeshiva students from serving in the Israeli army is often cited, but subject to debate.  First, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has written the following pragmatic point regarding the practical application of this section of the Rambam: "He presents and idealized portrait of a selfless, temporal, almost ethereal person - one whose spirit and intelligence have led him to divest himself of all worldly concerns and who has devoted himself 'to stand before God, to serve him, to worship, to know God'"...To how large a segment of the Torah community - or a fortiori, of any community - does this lofty typology apply?  To two percent?  Five percent?  Can anyone... confront a minor and tell himself that he ought not to go to the army because he is "Kodesh Kodashim," sanctum sanctorum, in the Rambam's terms?"

            Rav Lichtenstein also addresses the issue on a fundamental level.  He asks why does the Rambam not present in his Hilchot Melachim, where he discusses at length who is excused from war, that one who studies Torah full time is excused from fighting.  In fact, a number of great Achronim write that even a Torah Scholar ( ) is obligated to fight in an obligatory war ( ).  This is based on the Mishna that appears on Sotah 44b which states that "in an obligatory war everyone must go to war, even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy."  The Keren Orah (a great Acharon) comments (Sotah 44b) "that it appears from this statement that everyone must participate in an obligatory war - even Talmud Scholars must interrupt their studies."  The Maharsha commenting to Sotah 10a (s.v. Mipnei) also clearly indicates that a Talmud Chacham must interrupt his studies in order to fight in a Milchemet Mitzvah.  The Chatam Sofer (to Baba Batra 8b) also explicitly states that Torah scholars must participate in a defensive war. 

            It should be noted that it seems clear that all the wars that the State of Israel has engaged in should be categorized as "Milchamat Mitzvah."  The Rambam Hilchot Melachim 5:1 defines the category as follows:  "...obligatory war includes waging war against the seven [Biblically mentioned] nations, waging war against Amalek, and saving the Jewish people from enemies who have attacked them."  Israel's wars have been regarded by most as "saving the Jewish people from their enemies who have attacked them."

            Rabbi Uri Dasberg (note 1b to Techumin 7:326) adds that there is a serious flaw in the comparison between Levites and Torah scholars.  Those who make the comparison argue that just as the Levites did not serve in the army, so too Torah scholars do not serve in the army.  Rabbi Dasberg points out that  it would then be possible to say that the Rambam believed that just as the Levites did not have a share in the Land of Israel, so too Torah scholars do not have a share in the land.  Weren't Joshua and Kalev Torah scholar, and the Bible tells us that they were given a portion in the Land of Israel.  This point seems to prove the implausibility of the argument that the Rambam believes that Torah scholars have the status of Levites and thus do not participate in war.

            It seems reasonable to conclude that the Rambam's statement at the conclusion of Hilchot Shmitta V'Yovel should not be understood as a source for exempting Yeshiva students from serving in the army.  Rather, it should be understood as teaching that every individual (Rav Amital told this author that this refers to non-Jews as well) has the potential to reach great spiritual heights and that profound spirituality is not the exclusive domain of the Levites.  The fact that King David is cited as an example, proves this interpretation is correct.  Just as King David reached great spiritual heights along with his military achievements, so to do so many of today's students in Yeshivot Hesder excel in learning and in the military.

            Another problem with the analogy was pointed out by Rabbi Yuval Sherlow (a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion who currently serves as head of a Hesder yeshiva).  The arrangement that the Levites were solely preoccupied with serving God and studying His holy Torah and that they did not serve in the army was graciously accepted by the rest of the Jewish people.  Today, however, most of the Jewish people do not willingly accept that Chareidi Yeshiva students don't serve in the Israeli army.  Here we lack the necessary consensual social contract between those who are completely devoted to Torah and the rest of the Jewish people.  Rav David Tzvi Hoffman (a great Rav who was the leader of German Orthodox Jewry in the early twentieth century) writes (Teshuvot Melamed Lehoil 43-44) that Jews should not evade service in the German army (!) lest it cause a Chillul Hashem (desecration of God's name).  How much more so should we be concerned that Yeshiva students' avoidance of service in the Israeli army should not cause a Chillul Hashem, heaven forbid!  In fact, the Yeshivot Hesder and other religious soldiers have created a great Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name) that should make every Orthodox Jew throughout the world proud to be an observant Jew, despite the terrible act of one terribly irresponsible Hesder graduate.

            Rav Aharon Lichtenstien, however, points out that there is no explicit Talmudic source that states that the Levites do not serve in the army.  Moreover, the Gemara in Kiddushin 21b speaks about a Cohen who fights in war (the Talmud discusses whether he is permitted to take an "Eishet Yefat Toar").  Hence, using the Levites as a paradigm for excusing Torah scholars from serving in the army is questionable.  David Bass (a fine student at Torah Academy of Bergen County) adds that the fact that the  were Kohanim also seems to call into question the assertion that Kohanim and Leviim do not serve in the army (see Teshuvot Yechave Daat, where Rav Ovadya Yosef rules that a Kohen who killed people in battle may continue to Duchen - recite priestly blessings).

            Rav Lichtenstein writes that for a Hesder student, serving in the army constitutes an act of great kindness.  Protecting the Jewish people is certainly a great act of kindness and is fulfillment of the Torah's command "not to stand idly by one's brother's blood,"     .  In addition, they are also performing the great mitzvah of   - settling and developing the Land of Israel.

            Next week, God willing, we will complete our discussion of Yeshiva students serving in the army.  We shall focus on the issue that one who performs one Mitzvah is forbidden to do another Mitzvah, as well as Aggadic passages which scholars debate as to whether or not they serve as sources for exempting Yeshiva students from serving in the Israeli army.

Should Yeshiva Students Serve in the Israeli Army? - Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

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