Antique swords from ancient Israel. .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The reactions of Arye Deri, Ya’acov Litzman and the other leaders of haredi Judaism to the High Court’s decision calling for equal army service for haredim and voiding their exemption from the draft are outrageous but not unexpected.
They claim that this ruling is in violation of Jewish law and tradition, that it shows a lack of understanding and respect of what Judaism is all about and will destroy the “holy group of yeshiva students who are sacrificing themselves on the altar of Torah studies.”
This is utter nonsense and it will be unfortunate if it is bought as truth by the general public. The truth is the exact opposite. Those who are distorting Jewish tradition and violating Jewish law are those who teach that yeshiva students must not serve in the army. This is a reform of Jewish law that goes against every mitzva in the Torah and every decision in Jewish law that was made by the Sages of Israel long ago and constantly reaffirmed through the ages. To call this Jewish law is to make a mockery of Jewish teaching.
Several years ago I wrote a Teshuva for the Committee on Jewish Law of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel on this very question: Is service in the IDF today an obligation for every Jew in Israel, or may one engaged in sacred studies request an exemption in order to devote all his time to such studies? (The Rabbinical Assembly Law Committee – Responsa 5747 Vol. 2).
The Teshuva demonstrated in detail that yeshiva students are in fact required to serve. This is based first of all on what the Torah has to say. It might be summed up by the words of Moses to the two and half tribes when he thought they did not intend to participate in the war for the Land of Canaan. He said to them, “Shall your brothers go to war and you sit here?!” (Numbers 32:6). In the laws of warfare in Deuteronomy 20:1-9, every male was required to serve except for those in a new situation such as having just been married and those who were afraid and might therefore discourage others. No exception is made for students of Torah.
The Sages went even further and said that even those who were temporarily exempt had to perform what we would call civilian service such as supplying water and food to the army (Sotah 8:2). Furthermore, they ruled specifically that “everyone must go forth to war, even the bridegroom and the bride” when the war is not one of choice but rather a required war or a war of mitzva, such as defending the land and the people (Sotah 8:7). Other proofs of the requirement are in the command not to stand by when your brother’s blood is being shed (Leviticus 19:16) and the general Jewish rule of saving lives – pikuah nefesh.
These principles were upheld by the Medieval authorities such as Maimonides and by teshuvot written by rabbis of the National Religious camp as well. How can one ignore all of this and justify it in the name of Torah?
It is understandable that Jews would do everything possible to avoid serving in the army of Tzarist Russia. But to then apply that to living in a free Jewish state is an insult to Judaism. Jews had no allegiance to the tzar and he deserved none, but being a citizen in a free land and a Jewish state at that, requires one to defend that land. One cannot claim all the benefits of citizenship and deny all of the obligations. It is time that even the haredi politicians and leaders understood that simple truth.
The conclusion of the Teshuva remains valid today: Service in the IDF is a halachic duty incumbent upon every Jew living in the State of Israel. Whoever sees himself as engaged in important religious work has an even greater obligation to set an example by military service. Only in that way can he be properly prepared to effectively participate in a commanded war for the safety of the State of Israel. Not to do this involves violation of three major mitzvot: Participation in a commanded war for the defense of the State of Israel; “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor;” the saving of human life. To shirk this duty is to violate the Halacha.
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.A prolific author, his most recent book, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS), will be published in Hebrew in November by Yediot Books and The Schechter Institute.