Know Comment: Embracing it all

On navigating dual commitments to military service and religious leadership.

February 18, 2016 20:37
HAPPY LONE SOLDIERS at Thursday’s ‘Yom Siddurim’ event sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh and Friends of t

HAPPY LONE SOLDIERS at Thursday’s ‘Yom Siddurim’ event sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh and Friends of the IDF.. (photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)


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One of the greatest points of pride in raising children in this country is the privilege of seeing them inducted into the Israel Defense Forces.

At the very same time, an utmost source of anguish in raising children here is the need to send them off to service in the Israel Defense Forces.

Pride and pain intermingle relentlessly.

None of this is news to readers of this paper, many of whom have seen their children devote years of their lives to military service, even to the toughest combat. Nor is it new to me. My eldest son fought in Gaza, and two sons-in-law are officers in Military Intelligence.

And yet I had a new experience this past week, when another son of mine was drafted into the IDF.

This son, you see, truly had other options. He was torn between important, good and noble choices, as was I.

His conflicting options drew sharply on tensions between his multi-layered identity as a passionate religious Jew, and as a staunch Zionist; between his ambitions to be a Torah scholar, and his abilities to be a great scientist; between writing scholarly works in Jewish thought, and driving the next quantum leap in life-saving technology.

I hope, eventually and G-d willing, that my son will do all of the above. But at this stage of his life, he had to make a dichotomous choice with a five-year, hard-and-fast, price sticker: Delve deeper into his yeshiva studies in an elite environment, or sign-on for a half-decade of service in an exclusive and demanding military-scientific milieu.

(There were other fine, blended army-yeshiva service options, such as hesder, but my son is an all-out type of guy.) It was difficult choice. My son was well-ensconced in one of the best yeshivas in the world, studying closely with a brilliant yeshiva dean, and absorbing Talmud, Bible, philosophy and Halacha from the most dynamic minds in the Torah world. He was good at it too.

So why “waste” time and effort in army service when a promising and potentially-important career in Torah scholarship beckons? The situation is complicated by the inevitable comparison to my son’s ultra-Orthodox cousins, who sit in yeshiva without contemplating army service at all. It doesn’t even dawn on them. It poses no intellectual, moral or patriotic challenge to them.

There is no doubt whatsoever that in their haredi world a young man capable of serious Torah leadership should and would remain in yeshiva, thriving uninterrupted in his Talmudic studies. There wouldn’t be any pangs of conscience. There swould be no dilemma.

Yet for my son, and for me, the dilemma was real. For multiple reasons: Because of the Zionist imperative to shoulder the national defense burden; because of the opportunity to advance professionally while contributing concretely to the country; because of the religious imperative to make best use of all intellectual faculties – which generally entails incorporating and encompassing more than Torah knowledge alone.

And then there is the powerful argument from history, about the privilege to be a participant in the grand return of the Jewish people to sovereign national life after 2,000 years of dispersion.

What greater expression is there of renewed Jewish sovereignty in this ancient homeland than service in the Israel Defense Forces? It is, in fact, an ultimate expression of our people’s renewal. How can you take a pass at that? In this situation of “conflict” between Torah study and army service, I admit that I was partial to the argument that, for this specific son, Torah study should supersede all.

Is there not room for an elite few – not an entire society and community, but a handpicked elite most suited for the challenge – to be discharged from army service for the purpose of producing the next generation of Torah scholars? This is done for athletes and other cultural heroes. Should it not be done for select Torah scholars? My answer to this is clearly affirmative.

Becoming a modern Torah leader, or at least seeking to do so, is a genuine way of serving the State of Israel. But for my son, bless him, the personal decision was clear.

After weighing all values and priorities, he decided to commit to fullfledged, long-term army service as an academic officer, and to lay aside for now full-time Torah study.

In the same breath, my son promised himself, and promised me, that he would make every effort to continue studying Torah at a high level throughout his years in the military, and ardently maintain his religious commitments too.

Although he didn’t articulate it this way, I sensed him saying: I can embrace it all! I can be a Torah scholar and a soldier-scientist simultaneously.

That is a beautiful and brave sentiment.

It’s a way of saying that one can successfully meet all obligations, exploit all competencies, fulfill all dreams, and synthesize all identities. It’s a very bold approach.

But I wonder.

Can we say with confidence that it is truly possible to “embrace it all”? Isn’t it likely that five years in the army, in a less-than-fully religious environment that doesn’t respect Torah study and which places real demands on a young man’s time, will change a person’s track? Surely military life will influence his worldview, affect his aspirations, and even, on some level, impact his spiritual capabilities.

Might “embracing it all” be risking it all? Well, so be it. I hope that after 20 years in his home cocoon, my son is up to challenge. I also believe that if and when this son becomes a scholar of Torah or a rabbi, he will be a better leader because of his service in the army and the lab, and his sacrifice for the country.

He will be a more complete religious person. His perspective on faith will be more profound, and he will be better placed to articulate the importance of sacred devotions to other Israelis.

And in the meantime, I believe that the few moments of Torah study that my son and his army buddies somehow manage to squeeze into their daily military schedule has incalculable value for the Jewish people.

It is certainly possible that 20 minutes of tenacious Torah study in the IDF is credited in the Heavens as equivalent to, or perhaps greater than, 20 hours a day of Torah study in the serene seclusion of the yeshiva.

For this, too, I salute our spiritually resolute soldiers. And I pray that they protect themselves and the country from all harm.

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