Should Yeshivah Students Serve in the Israeli Army? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Editor’s Note: In our previous two issues, we included a Hespeid for Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, in honor of his first Yahrzeit. This week’s as well as next week’s article are in his honor.

Throughout the State of Israel's short existence, it has granted military exemptions to full-time Yeshivah students. These exemptions and the decision by some Yeshivah students to serve in the army nonetheless have both generated much debate and discussion.

Should a Spiritual Person Serve in an Army?

People often ask, how can someone thoroughly engrossed in spiritual matters serve in the army, a rugged and physically intense experience? Our own male role models answer this question. Avraham, Moshe, Yehoshua, and David all scaled the heights of spirituality, yet they excelled at waging war. The Gemara (Mo'ed Katan 16b) describes this phenomenon: "David would soften himself as a worm when he studied Torah, but he hardened himself like wood when he fought in war."

Rav Yehuda Amital (HaMa'alot Mima'amakim, pp. 62-63) cites David's model as a paradigm for hesder students. They grapple with the subtlety of a great Talmudic commentary, such as "Ketzot," "Netivot," or "Reb Chaim," while on the other hand serving with great distinction in the Israeli army. Indeed, it is widely reported that religiously observant soldiers comprise a significant percentage of the junior officers in certain Israeli army units (although these officers do not necessarily participate in the Hesder program).

Other sources similarly describe holy people as potent warriors. Rambam (Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 11) presents a profile of the Messiah. He studies Torah and is devoted to the Written and Oral Torah. He will compel the entire Jewish people to follow the Torah, and he will lead the nation in battle. Ramban (Bereishit 26:29) explains what motivated Philistine kings to make covenants with our forefathers, who led a small nomadic tribe, seemingly posing little threat to the Philistine emperor:

Avraham was very great and mighty, as he had in his house three hundred sword-bearing men and many allies. He himself was a lion-hearted soldier who pursued and vanquished four very powerful kings. 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 [Avraham], and the king was afraid to fight him, lest [the king] be driven from his land.

Aside from these individuals, the Bible contains other examples of wars where the spiritual elite fought. Rashi (BeMidbar 31:3) asserts that the soldiers in the wars against Amaleik (Shemot 17:8-16) and Midyan (BeMidbar 31) were specifically chosen based on their religious piety. The Radak and Malbim (Shofetim 5:14) explain that, after defeating the army of Canaan, the prophetess Devorah gave special praise to the people of Machir and Zevulun precisely because their religious leaders fought in the battle. All of these sources clearly teach that no fundamental problem exists with spiritual leaders serving in an army. The advisability of their service in the Israeli army today, however, remains to be determined.

The Model of the Tribe of Levi

Some point to the tribe of Levi as a model for those who study and teach Torah full- time, while never serving in the army. Indeed, Rambam's concluding remarks in Hilchot Shemitah VeYoveil (13:12-13) depict the tribe of Levi in this manner, "They do not wage war like the rest of Israel, nor do they inherit land in Israel." Moreover, Rambam writes:

[Being a part of the spiritual elite] applies not to the tribe of Levi alone, but to 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 Holies, and the Lord shall be his portion... forever and ever, and shall grant him adequacy in this world, as he has granted to the Kohanim and the Levites. As David... says, "Oh Lord, the Portion of my inheritance and of my cup, You maintain my lot."

This passage is often cited to excuse contemporary Yeshivah students from serving in the Israeli army. This application, however, contains several possible problems. Rambam often ends sections of the Mishneh Torah with aggadic (non-legal) statements. Thus, perhaps he does not intend his comments at the end of Hilchot Shemitah VeYoveil, which conclude Sefer Zera'im, as a technical legal assertion. Furthermore, Rambam points to King David, one of our greatest military leaders, as an example of such a spiritual person, so Rambam might not intend to apply the parallel with Levi to military exemptions. Even if one does accept such an application, it remains unclear to what percentage of the population such a grand description applies.

Did Levites Actually Serve in the Army?

The Talmud never states explicitly that the Levites did not serve in the army. The Sifrei (commenting on BeMidbar 31:4) addresses this issue regarding the war between the Jews and Midyan, but textual variants lead to opposing conclusions. Rashi's text of the Sifrei (in his commentary on that verse), understands that the Torah includes ("lerabot") Levi in the army that fought against Midyan. However, the Gra's text of the Sifrei reads "to exclude (Lehotzi) the tribe of Levi" from that war. This passage in the Sifrei thus proves nothing about Levi's role in the army.

While Rambam does mention Levi's military exemption at the end of Hilchot Shemitah VeYoveil, it is uncertain how much weight this carries, because he does not present this rule in Hilchot Melachim, where he discusses military exemptions at length. In fact, the Radak (II Shmuel 23:20) claims that in wars against the enemies of Israel, even the Kohanim (the most sanctified part of the tribe of Levi), who ordinarily avoid contact with dead bodies, must take an active part in killing the enemy. David's great warrior, Benayahu ben Yehoyada, exemplified this practice. Despite being a Kohein, he served as a high-ranking officer in King David's army and eventually became the head of King Shlomo's army. Moreover, the Gemara (Kiddushin 21b) and Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 8:4) discuss the laws of a Kohein who fights in wars, indicating that this was done in practice.

On the other hand, whenever the Torah takes a census of those who are fit to wage war ("kol yotzei tzava"), it excludes the tribe of Levi, implying that this tribe does not fight in the army. The Rashbam (Bemidbar 1:47) even refers explicitly to their exclusion for the army. Hence, using the Levites as a paradigm for excusing Torah scholars from serving in the army remains debatable, for the status of Levi is itself uncertain.

Milchamot Mitzvah

In Halachah, there are two types of wars (see Sotah 44b). One type, Milchamot Reshut ("discretionary wars"), consists of wars fought to enlarge the borders of Israel and wars fought to bring glory to its king. The other type, Milchamot Mitzvah, includes wars against Amaleik and the seven Canaanite tribes. Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 5:1) also categorizes "saving the Jewish people from enemies who have attacked them" as a Milchemet Mitzvah. It follows from Rambam that all the wars that the State of Israel has fought should be classified as Milchamot Mitzvah, for almost everyone regards them as saving Jewish people from enemies who have attacked them.

While the Mishnah (Sotah 43a) lists those people who need not fight in battle, it later (44b) limits these exemptions. The Mishnah rules that they only apply to a Milchemet Reshut, "but in a Milchemet Mitzvah everyone must go fight, even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy." In fact, the Keren Orah (Sotah 44b) writes explicitly, "Everyone must participate in a Milchemet Mitzvah. Even Torah scholars must interrupt their studies."

Preemptive Strikes

As we have already noted, Rambam considers defensive wars to be Milchamot Mitzvah. It is unclear from his language if this includes preemptive strikes to deter a threatening enemy. Determining the status of such wars is critical for establishing whether those who are exempt from Milchamot Reshut must take part in such attacks.

In order to understand the status of preemptive attacks, we must first solve a more basic problem. Rambam's categorization of a war to defend the Jewish people as a Milchemet Mitzvah appears to contradict the Gemara (Sotah 44b). The Gemara considers attacking a nation to prevent it from eventually attacking Israel a Milchemet Reshut. Explaining Rambam's ruling in light of this passage in the Gemara determines the status of preemptive attacks.

The Lechem Mishneh (Hilchot Melachim 5:1) claims that a battle fought purely to intimidate an enemy (so that it will not dare to attack Israel) is in fact a Milchemet Reshut (as indicated by the Gemara). When Rambam describes a Milchemet Mitzvah, the Lechem Mishneh implies, he only includes military activities that respond to an actual enemy attack. It seems that according to the Lechem Mishneh, preemptive strikes might not be Milchamot Mitzvah, although it is not entirely clear where he draws the line between offensive and defensive battles.

The Aruch HaShulchan HeAtid (Hilchot Melachim 74:3-4) strongly disagrees with the Lechem Mishneh and writes that "it's obvious beyond any doubt" that a king must preemptively attack anyone who poses a threat to the Jewish people. The Aruch HaShulchan asserts that Rambam describes even offensive strikes to save Jews as Milchamot Mitzvah. However, the Aruch HaShulchan suggests, all defensive wars differ from wars against Amaleik and the tribes of Canaan. A nation can usually launch strikes to enhance its security without the entire nation's participation, so the standard exemptions from the army apply to such a war. In this sense, defending Jews is like a Milchemet Reshut, as the Gemara indicated. 

Should Yeshivah Students Serve in the Israeli Army? – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Hespeid for Mori VeRabi HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter