Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
The Importance of Torah Study vs. IDF service
Is this the reason why charedim don't serve in the army?
In a previous post, Do Charedim Really Believe that Torah Protects?, I discussed the claim that charedim don’t serve in the IDF because they believe that learning Torah is of greater protective value. I brought a wealth of arguments to show that they are not serious about that belief, and thus it cannot be the real reason. But before moving on to the real reasons why they don’t serve, there’s another fake reason that needs to be gotten out of the way. First I will present the argument and explain why it actually does have a degree of validity; then I will explain why it is not applicable today; and finally I will explain why, just as with the notion that “yeshiva students protect,” it’s not even their real reason.
The argument is the one presented by United Torah Judaism in a proposed “Basic Law” to enshrine a permanent legal exemption for yeshivah students as an equivalent to army service:
"Torah study is a supreme value in the heritage of the Jewish people. The State of Israel as a Jewish state views the encouragement of Torah study and Torah students with utmost importance, and regarding their rights and obligations, those who dedicate themselves to studying Torah for an extended period should be viewed as having served a significant service to the State of Israel and the Jewish people."
This argument is that learning Torah is an incredibly important activity, and we need people who take it very seriously. Not because of any alleged defensive benefits, but rather simply because having such people is incredibly important to the Jewish nation.
Now, under certain circumstances, this argument actually has validity. None other than Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, used it to obtain deferrals for yeshivah students from army service. In a letter to Ben Gurion, he wrote as follows:
“After suitable study and contemplation from the perspective of the survival of our Holy Torah after the terrible Holocaust, in which tens of thousands of yeshivah students, their heads and scholars in Europe were annihilated, and only a tiny remnant survived… It is my opinion that we should provide exemptions from army duties to enable these few to continue their studies of our Holy Torah, which is also part of the requirements and the glory of our state.” (Reprinted in Giyus K’Halacha, p. 28)
And in a later halachic responsum:
“I have already expressed my opinion that this is a milchemet mitzva, and for a milchemet mitzva even a bride and groom are called up. [However, regarding bnei yeshiva, in order that Torah should not, forfend, be forgotten from Israel, for these ones in Israel are the surviving remnant - let us make special arrangements].” (ibid.)
In other words, while the letter of the halacha makes no exemption for yeshiva students, Rav Herzog believed that the halacha must be put aside. How could he suggest such a thing? Because of the principle that “it is a time to act for God; overturn the law.” Desperate times require extreme measures. Specifically, after the Holocaust, there were hardly any Torah scholars left. There was a concern that drafting everyone would mean that “Torah would be forgotten from Israel.” And hence it was necessary to ignore the strict halacha and allow these few hundred survivors to continue in yeshiva.
However, it’s equally clear from R. Herzog’s words that no such override of the halacha is relevant today. The world of yeshivos has increased far beyond what existed in Europe or indeed at any other point in Jewish history. There is not the slightest, tiniest chance that “Torah will be forgotten from Israel.” You could exempt ten times the number of of yeshivah students that lived in Rav Herzog’s generation, and that would still leave 140,000 charedim who could be drafted. There is no longer any justification for overriding the basic halacha.
The nation needs community rabbis and dayanim and Torah teachers and towering Torah giants to inspire and shed light on complex topics. Such people are indeed performing a public service. But only a relatively small number of people are needed for such roles, not hundreds of thousands! (And certainly there is no need for them all to be fully exempted from military service for this. Taking out some time out to serve in the army does not prevent people from becoming Torah scholars, as demonstrated by the existence of countless Dati-Leumi rabbanim and dayanim who did army service and went straight back to yeshivah.)
Thus, while this argument for exempting yeshiva students from army service had validity in the past, it doesn’t anymore. But moreover, when charedim present this argument, they don’t even believe it themselves. I will demonstrate this in two ways.
First is with regard to numbers. When people are exempted from army service due to some other significant contribution that they are providing, then consideration is given to how many such people are needed for that contribution. For example, it’s important to Israel to have athletes who represent Israel internationally, and so they get a more convenient and shorter service. But nobody would demand a blanket exemption for hundreds of thousands of athletes! With charedi yeshiva students, on the other hand, the exemption is demanded to be open-ended, not matter how many hundreds of thousands of yeshiva students there are, and no matter what percentage of the population they are.
Second, and even more powerfully, who does it apply to? The charedim are not arguing for dati-leumi (National-Religious) yeshiva students not to serve in the IDF, and they would not try to talk them all out of it. They wouldn’t want the IDF to be weakened by being deprived of many of its most important personnel. And they certainly do not want everyone to become religious and learn in yeshivah and be exempt from IDF service and require financial support! They know full well that the economy and the security of the country wouldn’t last a week. They want only charedi young men to receive these exemptions (and they prefer not to think about how the growing numbers of such people will indeed threaten the economy and national security).
Moreover, in order to receive an exemption as an artist or athlete, you have to prove that you really qualify. But the charedi world is adamantly against any such requirements for yeshivah students. You don’t have to prove any excellence in Torah study or even any special dedication or commitment to it. You just have to register in a yeshivah, which is what charedi society wants everyone to do. Nobody in the charedi world is interested in actually checking on who is not learning well and turning them in for army service.
Charedim do not demand an exemption because they believe that learning Torah is a “significant service to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.” It’s for different reasons, relating specifically to charedim, which I will discuss in another post.
Rationalist Judaism is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.