The tribes of Gad and Reuben are so taken with the grazing potential of the land
east of the Jordan River that they request permission to remain there and
establish their settlement.
Moses rebukes them, insisting that they must
first join the other tribes in battle, and only once the entire land is
conquered, “may you return, so that you come out pure in the eyes of God and of
Israel.” (Numbers 32: 22) Last year, Rabbi Shaul Robinson (who is now my
successor as rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, and a very beloved student) was
surprised on entering a Satmar bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a large
Hebrew sign which read, “Shall your brethren go to war while you settle here?”
He immediately asked the owners, “Can this be true? Are you encouraging young
haredi men to join the IDF? Have you really joined the ranks of the religious
Zionists?” The owner of the bakery pointed out that the verse was actually being
cited by the Satmar Hassidim to encourage participation in demonstrations in
favor of Sabbath observance. Unfortunately, the hassidim did not understand the
irony in the verse whose meaning they were distorting for their
Israeli haredi (ultra-Orthodox) society is currently going
through a cataclysmic shakeup. Until now, virtually all of their young men lived
a life of exclusive Torah study. This is a result of David Ben-Gurion’s
agreement with the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, to fill the ranks
of Torah scholarship which had been so decimated by the Shoah.
now a strong likelihood that a great many, if not all, haredi young men will be
called up for several years of national service. At Ohr Torah Stone educational
institutions, we are even involved in accepting a group of 30 haredi young men
who wish to study Torah for one year before entering combat units of the
Interestingly enough, even before the present political
constellation enabled the possibility of a haredi draft, many haredi young men
were showing interest in joining the IDF, sharing the burden of military service
and integrating themselves into the workforce.
There was never a halachic
justification for military exemptions for those studying Torah. Our sages
declared that if Israel is under threat of attack, “Even a groom must leave his
bridal chamber and even a bride must leave her nuptial canopy in order to
protect our land and its citizenry” (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 7:4).
great hassidic authority, Rabbi Isaac of Karlin, writes in his talmudic
commentary Keren Orah that, “In an obligatory war everyone goes to battle, and
so even Torah scholars must be freed from their studies” (Commentary to
The ultra-Orthodox decisors base their insistence upon exemption
on two major sources. They cite the Sifrei (Numbers, Parshat Matot, 157), which
comments on the biblical text enjoining universal military conscription: “With
the exclusion of the Tribe of Levi” – implying that the tribe of Levi was
exempted from serving in the army.
However, there is an alternative
manuscript of this midrash which reads, “with the inclusion of the tribe of
Levi.” This reading is preferred by Rashi, who insists that the tribe of Levi
went out to battle against Midian – even though that battle was not an
obligatory war in the classical sense (Numbers 31:4).
The second text
they cite is the talmudic ruling that the righteous deeds of Torah scholars
guard them against attack, and thereby exempt them from sharing in the cost of
defensive city walls (Bava Batra 7b). But the Tosafot (ad loc) and the Hazon Ish
(on Bava Batra 5:18) limit this exemption to defenses against robberies –
protection of property. If the wall is to be erected for the protection of human
lives, even Torah scholars would be expected to contribute! After all, we dare
not rely upon miracles when lives are at stake.
Even within our talmudic
passage (Bava Batra 7b), there is a fascinating difference of opinion between
Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish as to whether it is the Torah study or the
righteous deeds which bring protection.
This question was seemingly
resolved in an earlier generation in favor of righteous deeds. The discussion
took place between two rabbis imprisoned during the Hadrianic persecutions.
Rabbi Hananya ben Teradion noted that while he stood accused of only one crime
he would receive the death penalty, his colleague Rabbi Elazar ben Parta would
survive despite having five accusations against him. Rabbi Hananya ben Teradion
explained his colleague’s special fortune thus: “Because you occupied yourself
with the study of Torah as well as the performance of good deeds, whereas I
occupied myself exclusively with the study of Torah. And it has been taught: He
who only studies Torah is compared to someone who has no God” (Avoda Zara
In the present Israeli climate, when businessmen – if they work
alone – must simply close their shops and somehow absorb the loss of clientele
for 30 to 90 days of reserve duty a year, and young husbands must leave wives
and fledgling families for the same period, what greater “good deed” could there
be than lessening this pressure and sharing in this national obligation? What
better way can there be to remove the resentment against the ultra-Orthodox and
pave the way toward a united Jewish nation than by a united sharing of the
burden and merit of protecting our future?
The writer is the founder and
chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of