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


            Last week, we summarized some of the issues concerning Yeshiva students serving in the Israeli army.  We will conclude our discussion of this topic this week by focussing on a number of issues.  First, we will discuss the relevance of the rule that one who is performing a Mitzvah is excused from performing another.  Then we will critically examine a number of texts cited to substantiate the view that Yeshiva students are excused from serving in the army.


העוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה

            The Talmud in a number of places (e.g. Brachot 11a and Sukkah 52a) posites the rule that העוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה - one who is engaged in performing one Mitzvah is excused from performing a second Mitzvah.  The Ra'ah and Ritva (Sukkah 52a) assert that not only is the one involved in performing a Mitzvah excused from performing a second mitzvah, he is forbidden to perform a second mitzvah.  Accordingly some argue that since Yeshiva students are involved in constant Torah study, they are forbidden to abandon their Torah study to serve in the Israeli army.

            This argument can be disputed on two levels.  Practically speaking, firstly, this demands that the Yeshiva student be fully immersed in Torah study in a virtually constant basis- the rule that עוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה applies only to one who is totally involved in a Mitzvah (see Tosafot Sukkah 52a s.v. שלוחי).

            The second is that just because someone is totally immersed in Torah study does not mean that they are excused from performing other Mitzvot.  The Gemarah in Moed Katan (9a-9b) provides guidelines for which mitzvot one who is engaged in Torah study is exempt from.  If others are not able to perform the Mitzvah, he must interrupt his studies to perform that Mitzvah.  On the other hand, if others are indeed able to perform the Mitzvah, then one is excused from performing the Mitzvah.

            Many argue that service in the Israel Defense Forces is a Mitzvah that others are able to perform.  One could argue against this point from two perspectives.  First, Rav Lichtenstein argues that a situation qualifies as "the Mitzvah can be performed by others" only if the others are willing to perform the Mitzvah while he studies Torah.  Second, the Jewish state and its army today, more than ever, requires the support, direction, and leadership of the religious community.  Indeed, the Torah wants those on the highest levels of piety to serve in the army, since they have a better chance of benefiting from divine assistance (see Sotah 44b).  The challenge to our community is to provide role models of spiritual and moral excellence and idealism, all of which are at a dangerously low level in Israeli society today.  Accordingly, one could argue that service in the Israeli armed forces is not a Mitzva that others can perform.


רבנן לא צריכי נטירותא

            Rav Yechiel Michal Tukachinsky (one of the greatest halachic authorities of the twentieth century, who lived in Jerusalem) wrote that Yeshiva students are exempt from serving in the Israeli army.  He writes (Hatorah Vehamidinah, reprint by Zomet Institute 3:212-312) that the source for this exemption is the Gemara in Bava Batra 8a which states that Rabbis are not required to contribute to the construction of a protective wall around the town.  The reason for this rule, says the Gemara, is that רבנן לא צריכי נטירותא - "Rabbis don't require protection."  Rav Tukachinsky argues that similarly Rabbis do not have to serve in the army since they do not require protection.

            Rav Yehuda Shaviv (a Rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion) cites (Techumin 1:73) the Chatam Sofer to Baba Batra 8b who explicitly states the Gemara only excuses rabbis from paying communal taxes, but rabbis nevertheless must participate as soldiers in a defensive war.  Rav Lichtenstein also points out that one would have to be on quite a high spiritual level to fall into the category of those who don't require protection.

            The aforementioned Gemara in Baba Batra 8a also states that Rabbis are not required to actively participate in communal construction projects.  This rule is also cited as support by Rabbi Tukachinsky that Yeshiva students are exempt from military service.  Rav Shaviv, however, points out that the Rambam cites this halacha (Hilchot Talmud Torah 6:01) but yet does not state that rabbis are also excused from serving in the military.  This seems to support the view that Rabbis are required to serve in the army.  The question whether or not someone who does not benefit from a communal activity is required to participate in that activity is quite complex (see Rabbi Lichtenstein's aforementioned article in Techumin for further discussion).


Aggadic Statements

            There are a number of Aggadic (non-legal sections of the Talmud) statements from the Talmud which are commonly cited as support for the opinion that Torah scholars are not required to serve in the army.  Before we begin our review of these citations we should cite a statement by Rav Yechezkel Landau (the great eighteenth century authority from Prague).  He writes (Teshuvot Nodah Biyehudah Yoreh Deah 2:16):

"Midrashic and Aggadic statements are intended solely to teach theology and ethics.  They are not written with the intention of deciding halachot, and therefore, one may not base a halachic ruling on these writings." 

Makkot 01a

            Rav Eliezer Waldenburg cites an Aggadic statement that appears in Makkot 01a (in his work Hilchot Medina- which deals with how to run the state of Israel in accordance with Halacha) as a primary source that Yeshiva students don't have to serve in the army.  The Gemara states:

"What is the meaning of the [Psalmist's] words "Our feet stood within thy gates, O Jerusalem'? It is this: What enabled us to "stand" in war?  The gates of Jerusalem- the place where students engaged in the study of Torah."

            Rav Waldenburg and many other cite this text as saying that Yeshiva students do not have to serve in the army, because it is their study which enables the soldiers in the Israeli army to be successful.  One could argue, however, that if that were the case then there should be an unambiguous halachic source which clearly states that Yeshiva students do not have to serve in the army, since their studying in Yeshiva is vitally important for the country's defense.  Instead, one could say that the Talmud's reference is to the study by Torah of those people who cannot serve in the army due to illness or advanced age or being below the age of army service.


Nedarim 23a

            Another frequently cited source supporting military exemption is Nedarim 23a, which states:  "Why was our father Avraham punished by having his descendants pressed into Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years?  Because he coerced Torah scholars into serving in his army."  A similar idea appears in the Gemara Sotah 01a regarding why King Asa was punished.  Rav Lichtenstein points out that this text teaches at most, that the Israeli Government should not coerce Yeshiva students to serve in the army.  It does not serve as a basis for Yeshiva students not offering to serve.

            Rav Yosef Blau (Mashgiach Ruchani, spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University) told this author an insight regarding this text, which truly penetrates to the core of this issue.  Rabbi Blau asks why doesn't the Gemara criticize Avraham for abandoning his Torah studies in order to fight a war to save his nephew Lot.  Apparently, there is nothing wrong with a Torah scholar fighting a battle which impinges upon him directly, such as saving a relative.  However, why should have Avraham forced his students to join him in battle to save his nephew?  After all, it was not their nephew and hence not their battle!  Avraham should have assembled people who were not Torah scholars to help him save his nephew.

            Similarly, the core issue of whether Yeshiva students should serve the Israeli army is whether there are committed to the existence of the State of Israel.  If a Yeshiva student believes in the importance of the State of Israel, however, then he is not being coerced to fight a battle not his own.  If one does not believe in the State of Israel then he is indeed being coerced to "fight someone else's battles."  The Maharsha to Sotah 01a (s.v. מפני) explains that King Asa was punished for coercing Torah scholars into a discretionary war (מלחמת רשות).  If it were a Milchemet Mitzva the Gemara would not have criticized King Asa for drafting Torah scholars into the military.  This explanation seems to fit in extremely well with Rav Blau's ideas.  A "Milchemet Reshut" should not be imposed on Torah scholars - it is not their battle.  Milchemet Mitzva is everyone's battle and Yeshiva students can be drafted to fight in such a war.  It also explains why Yosef used guile to avoid having his brothers drafted into the Egyptian army.


Chazon Ish - Sanhedrin 23b

            Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (known as the Chazon Ish, one of the outstanding luminaries of the twentieth century, who died in Bnai Brak in 3591) made the following argument to David Ben Gurion in their celebrated meeting, at which they discussed Yeshiva students being exempted from serving in the Israel Defense Forces.  He cited the Gemara in Sanhedrin 23b which stated that if two camels heading in different directions meet at a narrow road on which there is room for only one camel to pass, the camel carrying a load is allowed to proceed over the camel which is not carrying a load.  The Chazon Ish seems to have said that those who shoulder the burden of Torah tradition should be accommodated by those who do not shoulder the responsibility of the Torah tradition.  This accommodation refers to sparing Yeshiva students from serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

            This perspective on the relationship between observant and secular Jews is not shared by either Rav Kook or Rav Soloveitchik (see "Five Addresses" for the Rav's view of the relationship between religious Zionists and secular Zionists).  These great authorities believed that religious Zionists should cooperate with secular Zionists in building the State of Israel with the hope of inspiring our non-observant brethren to rejoin the Torah traditions.



            The Hesder Yeshivot have been successful in producing great Torah scholars, Torah teachers, and committed laymen.  As Rav Lichtenstein has written, the "Hesder Philosophy" is at the very least, as least as halachically valid as the view that Yeshivot students should devote themselves exclusively to Torah study.  It seems to this author that the future of the State of Israel depends to a great extent on the positive impact Hesder students specifically and religious Zionists in general, can have on the Israeli military and general populace. Let us hope we will be successful in inspiring our non-observant brethren to return to the lifestyle of our holy Torah which is the birthright of every Jew!

A Husband's Participation in Childbirth by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

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