Torah Study and the IDF - A Response to Rabbi Yair Hoffman
(Thanks to the many people who commented at Cross-Currents and from which much of the material here is drawn. I plan to update this post as further input is received.)
Rabbi Yair Hoffman has published a lengthy article, in both the Five Towns Jewish Times and Cross-Currents, arguing that Torah students should not serve in the IDF. This response is an explanation and a historical overview about the confluence of army service and Torah study. Not everyone, of course, will agree with the explanations and positions set forth here. However, those that do not agree must realize that they do come from a very different socio-religious milieu than those in the Religious Zionist world who have been brought up with and raised with a deep appreciation of Torah values being the only definition of true Jewish life.
Serious-minded Religious Zionist Jews do not merely read the Torah perfunctorily. No. When they read Moshe Rabbeinu's words, “Shall your brothers go out to war, while you remain here?” – they take him seriously. They view the notion of Charedism as a non-traditional and selfish way of life, and not as the fulfillment of any religious ideal.
The previous two paragraphs were arrogant, condescending and offensive. But they were a satire of Rabbi Hoffman's opening paragraphs, which I simply cut-and-pasted and then switched around the relevant terms. Now let's deal with the actual arguments.
II. Crucial Security
Rabbi Hoffman argues that according to Chazal, the full-time Torah study of charedi yeshivah students is crucial in saving the Jewish people, and they therefore should not enter military service. However, Chazal say nothing of the sort. There are indeed scattered statements in Chazal about Torah scholars providing protective merit - but this by no means translates into the claim that every charedi yeshivah student provides crucial merit, much less translating into their being exempt from military service.
First of all, Chazal say nothing about "crucial" protection being provided by "full-time Torah study of yeshivah students." They talk about Torah scholars, not yeshivah students. And who says that a Torah scholar cannot have spent some time doing other things? Nobody is prohibiting boys from returning to yeshiva after army service!
Second, most such statements make it clear that the protection is concentrated in the area where the Torah scholar is. Yet during the Gaza war, charedi leaders ordered yeshivos located in the South to flee for safer towns, abandoning the residents of cities where they were studying. Soldiers don't go where it is safest - they go where their protective abilities are needed! If charedim consider yeshivah students to be soldiers, then they are deserters.
Third, most such statements are referring to protection from all kinds of harm - economic harm and disease as well as military threats. Yet one never sees that the charedi world considers themselves less requiring of help in these areas; if anything, the opposite is true!
Fourth, it's just plain silly to claim that we would lose "crucial protection" if some (and not all) yeshivah students spend some time in the army. Israel triumphed in several wars with only a fraction of the number of yeshiva students that there are today. Yeshivos give their students a month off in Nissan, three weeks off in Tishrei, and three weeks off in the summer - and did so even during the war in the North. If that’s good enough for a fifth of the year, it’s hard to believe that a couple of thousand young men in the army at any given time, while there are tens of thousands still in yeshivah, can cause a crucial security problem.
III. The Sin of Drafting Torah Scholars
Rabbi Hoffman refers to the Gemara in Sotah 10a, Sanhedrin 49a and Nedarim 32a, which speaks about the wrongfulness of drafting Talmidei Chachamim into the army.
First of all, some commentaries explain those cases of wrongfulness of drafting Talmidei Chachamim as being cases of milchemes reshus. Rashi, as Rabbi Hoffman acknowledges, holds that in any milchemes mitzvah, even Torah scholars go to war. It is not clear to me why Rabbi Hoffman tosses Rashi aside.
Second, the sources from the Gemara that Rabbi Hoffman quotes are all aggadata. We do not pasken based on aggadata. In the Mishneh Torah, there is no halachic exemption for Torah students from a milchemes mitzvah.
Third, Rabbi Hoffman is again conflating the term talmidei chachomim with stam yeshiva students. Many yeshiva students, and certainly many charedim, do not spend their entire lives learning Torah. Why can't they spend some time in the army?
Fourth, and relating to the above points, these sources in the Gemara simply could not mean that people studying Torah are exempt from serving in the army. If that was the case, the Torah and the Mishneh Torah would have mentioned such an exemption!
IV. Distorting the Views of Zionist Gedolim
Rabbi Hoffman cites Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook's plea to Rabbi Hertz to secure an exemption for yeshiva students from military service, claiming that "the plea was nearly identical with the pleas of the Chareidi spokespeople today." But nothing could be further from the truth. Rabbi Hoffman neglects to mention that Rav Kook was asking Rabbi Hertz to secure an exemption for yeshiva students from the British army defending Britain, not the Israeli army defending Israel! Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook described such misappropriations of Rav Kook's position as “a distortion and utter falsehood.” He explained that "whereas in England, the demand was that the yeshiva students fight for a foreign army, here we are fighting for our hold on the land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. This is undoubtedly a milchemet mitzvah."
Rabbi Hoffman quotes Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook's support of top-tier yeshivos in which students do not serve in the army. But using that to argue in favour of the current Charedi system is akin to claiming that since Harvard produces the best academics, then everyone, including those with no academic aptitude, should not only attend it, but stay in academia forever.
Rabbi Hoffman quotes Rav Shaul Yisraeli regarding the protective value of Torah study. But Rav Yisraeli did not see the protective value of Torah study as ending the argument. He felt that it was unacceptable that an entire sector would not participate in the task of the mitzvah of defending Am Yisrael. Rav Yisraeli felt that this was especially important for people in positions of leadership - which is why his Kollel, Eretz Chemdah, only accepts people that have served in the army.
V. The Manhattan Project Analogy and its Flaws
Rabbi Hoffman presents a lengthy discussion of the Manhattan Project. He claims that just as people involved with the project were not in the armed forces yet provided a crucial protective role, so too yeshivah students provide a crucial protective role without being in the armed forces. But this analogy is seriously flawed.
First of all, it is simply not the case that all charedi yeshivah students are needed to provide a crucial protective role. There is no source for that in Chazal, as discussed above. And charedim do not act as though they are providing a crucial protective role. As discussed above, they don't consider that their Torah study lessens their need for economic aid or military care. And as discussed above, they pull out their troops from the cities where they are needed, and they take vacations even during wartime.
Second, the Manhattan Project was not staffed with simply anyone wanting to join it. The leadership of the country made informed decisions as to which human resources were required and how they were allocated. The charedi community, on the other hand, claim that anyone enrolled in a yeshiva should be exempt from the army - and they show no signs of wanting to draft even those not in yeshiva.
Third, the people working on the Manhattan project were not self-selected. It would have been an unthinkable for an entire state in the US to declare that they were not going to provide any manpower for the army, and would only be prepared to help with the Manhattan Project!
VI. Milchemes Mitzvah and the Issue of Fairness
In a milchemes mitzvah which is a national emergency, everyone goes to war - even a groom from the chuppah, and certainly a Torah scholar. Rabbi Hoffman agrees to this. However, he argues that today we have a different situation - Israel is indeed in a milchemes mitzvah for its ongoing survival, but there is no pressing emergency that requires everyone. As such, he argues, yeshivah students should not go to the army.
But this is wrong on two counts. First of all, although there is no national emergency that needs everybody right now, there easily could be one in the future. It is important to have large numbers of people that have been trained as soldiers and can be mobilized in times of need. One cannot wait until the emergency to train everyone!
Second, even if the current security situation does not require everyone to be drafted, it certainly requires a lot of people to be drafted. It is unacceptable for the charedi community to declare that this manpower should only be drawn from other communities and not from its own.
Rabbi Hoffman quotes an assessment from the top IDF experts that there is no manpower shortage. Well, there is also no shortage of dollars in the Jewish people, but that doesn't mean that when someone comes collecting, you can simply avoid doing your part and rely on the dollars coming from others. The IDF has to recruit a certain number of people every year. Why should only non-charedim make up this manpower?
Let us return to Moshe Rabbeinu's words, “Shall your brothers go out to war, while you remain here?” He does not allow for these tribes to stay beyond the Jordan and learn Torah. And nor does he say that the extra manpower is needed. Rather, Moshe Rabbeinu makes a simple argument from fairness.
VII. Hakaras HaTov - And The Lack Thereof
Compounding the problem of charedim not sharing in the burden of military service is that they do not even show concern or appreciation to those that do serve. Rabbi Hoffman concedes that there should be hakaras hatov to those who serve in the army:
There is no question, of course, that the soldiers who are protecting the nation against the enemies of the Jewish people are fulfilling a remarkable task and are playing a holy role. Certainly, all of us, who are beneficiaries of their bravery and dedication, should express our sincere hakaras haTov and pray for their welfare and well-being. It is unfortunate that some do not.
Let's be honest here. It's not "some" who do not. It's the entire charedi world. Charedi yeshivos and shuls do not recite a Misheberach for the IDF. They call for the recital of tehillim for success in the Beit Shemesh elections, for avoiding going to the army, but they do not recite tehillim for the safety of soldiers in the IDF. They call for the recital of tehillim for yeshivah students imprisoned in Japan for smuggling, but not for IDF soldiers captured by Hamas. They do not dedicate their prayers or learning for the IDF. They do not make any expression whatsoever of hakaras hatov to the IDF.
How are we to explain such a blatant deficiency of hakaras hatov and concern? Beyond sheer ingratitude and selfishness, I can only think of a partial explanation - that the charedi world simply does not see itself as part of the same entity of Am Yisrael as the IDF. Perhaps that is the fundamental problem.
VIII. Conclusion: The Importance of Unity
Rabbi Hoffman concludes that "The month of Adar should counter the spirit of disunity and contribute to family love." But it's difficult to have unity when a community of Jews protests against the Government of Israel with the words, "G-d, nations have come into Your portion, defiled Your holy Temple… Pour out your anger on the nations which do not know you, and on the kingdoms which do not call out in Your Name” (Tehillim 89:1,6). It's difficult to have unity when a community of Jews demonstrates against the Government of Israel not in Brooklyn or Lakewood, but in front of the non-Jews of Manhattan. It's difficult to have unity when a community of Jews compares the Government of Israel to Amalek and Haman, even though the government has no desire to harm Jews, only to reduce the unfair inequalities in Israeli society. It's difficult to have unity when a community of Jews has no hakaras hatov for the sacrifices that they demand others to make, and when they have no intention of sharing in this burden.
So please, Rabbi Hoffman, spare us your call for unity, which is just a fig leaf for asking people to drop their objections to the charedi system. Please address your call for unity to the charedi community instead, and ask them to unify with the rest of Israel in its responsibilities and concerns.