Must Yeshiva Students Enlist?
Following is a recent essay by Rav Eliezer Melamed, translated in English and published on the Revivim website. Rav Melamed, author of the Peninei Halacha series, is one of the most prominent and important rabbinic voices in the Dati-Leumi community. There are some sentences and phrases that are particularly significant, and I put those in bold.
Must Yeshiva Students Enlist?
Recently, the issue of recruitment of yeshiva students into the army has come up once again. It was disclosed that, in general, the Haredi public avoids enlisting in the army. Almost all recruits counted as being Haredi are either young men who left Haredi society, and usually religion as well, or older men who find their livelihoods in the army; men who grew up in marginal communities of Haredi society, such as baalei teshuva and olim chadashim (new immigrants) who have not adopted the full views of Haredi society, or young men from the Torani-Leumi public (Chardal).
At the same time, it was revealed that army authorities, maliciously or inadvertently, distorted the recruiting data, creating a misrepresentation as if the Haredi public was in the process of joining the army.
The Mitzvah to Serve in the Army
A question repeatedly asked: Are yeshiva students studying Torah exempt from enlistment in the army? Before addressing the very question, first, it must be clarified that it is a great mitzvah to serve in the IDF, and this mitzvah is one of the greatest and most sacred mitzvot of our generation, and is based on two mitzvot: saving Israel from the hand of her enemies, and settlement of the Land.
Saving Israel from the Hand of Her Enemies
Concerning saving the life of a single Jew, we are commanded: “Do not stand aside when trouble befalls your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). To rescue someone, Shabbat is desecrated, as our Sages said in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4: 5): “Anyone who saves the life of a Jew, it is as if he saved an entire world.” How much more so is the great obligation to save an entire Jewish community, and in order to do so not only is it a mitzvah to desecrate Shabbat, but it is even a mitzvah to endanger lives, as we have learned that in order to save even the property of a community on the border – Shabbat is desecrated, and lives are endangered (S.A., O.C. 329:6). All the more so that this must be done to save Clal Yisrael. And this is a clear milchemet mitzvah (a war commanded by the Torah), as Rambam wrote (Laws of Kings 5: 1): “Which is a milchemet mitzvah? … and saving of Israel from those who rise up against her.” This mitzvah obligates mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), and overrides the individual’s obligation to guard his life (Maran Rabbi Kook, Mishpat Kohen 143; Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 13: 100).
The Mitzvah to Settle the Land of Israel
The second mitzvah is the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (the commandment to settle the Land of Israel), as written (Numbers 33: 53-54): “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. You shall inherit the land…” Our Sages said this mitzvah is equal in weight to all the mitzvot (Sifri, Re’ah 53). This mitzvah overrides pikuach nefesh (saving life) of individuals since we were commanded to conquer the Land, and the Torah did not expect us to rely on a miracle; since in every war there are fatalities, it is clear the mitzvah of conquering the Land requires us to risk lives (Minchat Chinuch 425 and 604; Mishpat Kohen pg. 327). All the more so must we fight to protect parts of the Land we already possess, and every soldier serving in the IDF takes part in this great mitzvah.
The mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is incumbent upon the Jewish people in every generation, as Ramban and many other poskim have written. Only due to oh’nes (forces beyond our control), seeing as we lacked the military and political capability to settle the Land, were we unable to fulfill this mitzvah throughout our long exile. Indeed, some poskim believe that in the opinion of Rambam, following the destruction of the Holy Temple, there is no mitzvah to conquer the Land, nevertheless, all agree that in Rambam’s opinion, there is a mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael, and thus, if after Jews are already living in Eretz Yisrael enemies come to conquer parts of the Land in our possession – the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz obligates us to fight in order to protect them, since it is forbidden to relinquish parts of Eretz Yisrael to non-Jews (D’var Yehoshua 2, O.C. 48; Milamdei Milchama 1; Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve Ha’Aretz 4:2).
Conflict between Talmud Torah and Enlistment in the Army
With all the immense importance of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (Torah study), it does not override the mitzvah of enlisting in the army. This is not only because of the well-known halakhic rule that any mitzvah that cannot be carried out by others overrides Talmud Torah (Moed Katan, 1), as this rule also applies to individual mitzvot, such as the mitzvah to pray, to build a sukkah, to give a loan, and providing hospitality to guests. However, the mitzvah of enlisting in the army is far more important because all of Israel’s existence depends on it.
We have also found that the students of Yehoshua ben Nun and King David went out to war and were not concerned about bittul Torah (the neglect of Torah study). Moreover, Chumash BaMidbar (Book of Numbers) is called Chumash HaPikudim (The Book of the Two Censuses), because in it, all the soldiers who were about to conquer the Land were counted.
And regarding what our Sages said (Baba Batra 8a) that Torah scholars do not need guarding, the meaning is that they are exempt from the type of guarding primarily intended for prevention of theft. But when Jews needs to be protected, then there is a mitzvah to save them, as the Torah says (Leviticus 19:16): “Do not stand aside when trouble befalls your neighbor”, and in a situation of pikuach nefesh, the mitzvah is first incumbent on Talmedei Chachamim (M.B. 328:34).
The Importance of Torah Study of Yeshiva Students
With that being said, it is essential to know that the most important mitzvah is Talmud Torah, and there is no mitzvah that guards and sustains the People of Israel in the long run more than Talmud Torah. Therefore, together with the mitzvah to serve in the army, it is imperative to incorporate in the order of life of every Jew a number of years in which he devotes himself, to the best of his ability, to Torah study. And this is what our Sages said (Megillah 16b): “Talmud Torah is greater than saving lives,” because saving lives involves the momentary rescue of a physical body, while Talmud Torah revives the Israeli nation’s soul and body for the long term.
The Mitzvah to Enlist and the Mitzvah to Develop Torah Scholars
In practice, the mitzvah to enlist in the army applies to all Jewish men, including those who wish to study Torah in yeshiva. However, when it is not a security necessity to recruit all young men without exception, as was the case in the War of Independence, it is a mitzvah to postpone the enlistment of those interested and suitable for rabbinical and educational positions, so they will be able to study diligently and excel in Torah – and when they are rabbis and educators, contribute from their education and Torah knowledge to strengthen Jewish awareness of Israel’s security, and yishuv ha’aretz. And although there are genuine Torah scholars who combined enlistment into the army during their first years in yeshiva, nevertheless, many of those who are worthy of being rabbis can contribute more from their Torah knowledge to Am Yisrael if they postpone their enlistment, as long as they continue developing in their yeshiva studies. This was the role of the Tribe of Levi, who learned in order to teach, and were exempt from enlistment in the army. They did not receive a portion in the inheritance of the Land, so they would be unhampered and readily available for service in the Temple, and to educate and instruct. Only in a case of national pikuach nefesh did the Levites and Kohanim (priests) enlist in the army and, when necessary, even led the army as in the days of the Hasmonean priests.
It is important to point out: this contribution of Torah students can ensue provided the students treat the mitzvah of soldiers guarding our nation and land with great respect. Only Torah study stemming from this viewpoint can contribute to elevating the spirit and heroism of Clal Yisrael. On the other hand, Torah study that denies the sanctity of a soldier’s mitzvah is inherently absurd, similar to the study of someone who denies the mitzvah of Shabbat.
Consent and Criticism of the Haredi Position
In light of this, we do not have a fundamental disagreement with the Haredi public about the need to postpone enlistment of diligent yeshiva students who will become rabbis and educators – with teachers postponing enlistment for a few years, whereas rabbis should be able to postpone for several years, without restriction.
The criticism is in two areas: one – that those studying in yeshivas must learn Torah properly, and thus, respect the mitzvah of enlistment to the army. Second – the majority of yeshiva students who are not going to be rabbis, even if they are studying well and diligently, must fulfill the mitzvah of enlistment.
The Haredi Explanation for Not Enlisting
Nonetheless, the position of the Haredim is understandable, for they fear that army service will a cause spiritual decline, to the point of abandoning Torah and mitzvot. If this is the case, then this is an existential problem that cannot be compromised. Spiritual pikuach nefesh.
In practice, there are two parallel processes occurring in the army. On the one hand, over the last few decades the ability of an observant soldier to keep mitzvot, such as kashrut, prayers, Shabbat and holidays has improved. On the other hand, as the result of the mixing of male and female soldiers in the various units, the general atmosphere has become extremely immodest, such that a young man who grew up in religious circles, and all the more so Haredi, is faced with difficult challenges. In such a situation, the position of Haredi rabbis is that the promise of the young men’s spiritual future is preferable to the mitzvah of military service. Although the army is ready to create for Haredi recruits a framework suitable to their lifestyle, they are still concerned that over time, military service will cause them to become less religious.
Instead of Avoiding – Strengthen the Army
However, halachicly and in practice, their position is wrong. Instead of avoiding enlistment, they should be vigilant, and make certain the atmosphere in the army is as it should be for a machaneh kadosh (holy military camp). Already today, Hesder yeshiva students have reasonable conditions, adapted to the lifestyle of the national-religious public.
Incidentally, in recent years, I have consistently asked the young men returning to yeshiva after their military service in the Hesder framework, whether, as a result of army service, they have become religiously weakened, or strengthened. Almost all of them responded that they got stronger. It is important to note that in contrast, of those who went into regular army service, at least half responded they had weakened, and needed strengthening.
Effort must be made to Fulfill Mitzvot
The general rule is that one must make an effort in order to fulfill mitzvot, and not give up in advance for various reasons.
Suppose, for example, it turned out that Shabbat observers, seeing as on Shabbat they don’t have to work, are lured to indulge in drunkenness, drugs, and other abominations. Would we stop observing Shabbat? God forbid! We would struggle to find ways to prevent them from such activity (incidentally, this is one of the explanations for the takanah (ordinance) of reading the Torah at Mincha on Shabbat; see, “Peninei Halakha: Shabbat” 5:8).
Similarly, an effort must be made to regulate the fulfillment of this great and holy mitzvah. With half the effort Haredi public representatives invest in exemption from enlisting, they could successfully regulate the terms of religious observance of army service for the members of the Haredi public, and Clal Yisrael.