(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Last week, I proudly accepted an award from the honorable Ehud Barak, our minister of defense. For me, it was a profoundly moving occasion, marking the success of Neveh Shmuel High School, the first of the Ohr Torah Stone institutions in Israel. It ranked fourth of all of the Israeli Secondary Schools in motivating students to enlist for elite combat units in the Israeli Defense Forces.
But while I celebrated this accomplishment with our staff and pupils, others were cynical. One columnist described the celebrations as a sign that our country had turned into "Fascistan" - a place where military might takes precedence over the liberal education valued by more civilized countries.
His comments come at a time when almost one third of eligible young people are shirking their national responsibilities, avoiding the IDF; it is left to religious schools like my own to shoulder the burden of producing a disproportionate number of Israel's soldiers.
Our success in creating these idealistic young men and women stems from our Religious Zionist ideology, which stresses the strong bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. But, contrary to the view of our critics, Religious Zionism does not see a contradiction between nationalism and motivation on the battle field on the one hand, and compassionate sensitivity for all people on the other. Our schools excel precisely because we believe in combining these values to build a strong Jewish State which will hopefully serve as a light to the nations.
WHILE THE Torah speaks of conquering the Land of Israel, settling and defending it, our rabbis were well aware of the moral dilemmas and dangers that face all battlefield soldiers. The biblical commentator Nahmanides explains that the significance of the biblical command to keep the "military encampment physically and spiritually pure" lies in the fact that "even the fairest of men by nature comes to be possessed of cruelty and fury when the army advances against the enemy" (Commentary to Deuteronomy 23:10). A Jewish army must be trained to fight as effectively as possible, but it must also stick to the highest standards of discipline and ethics. Were these to falter, we would be no different from our enemies and would no longer deserve divine protection.
Our students take pride in the fact that our army is the most moral in the world - and they also understand that war is not the ideal. As Maimonides explains in the Guide for the Perplexed, wars come about from a failure to recognize that all of mankind are children of God. All of us are intimately connected to one another, and all of us should strive to live peacefully together.
Thousands of years ago the rabbis of our Mishna debated whether arms could be carried on Shabbat as an integral part of one's apparel, as an adornment, or whether they were a burden which could not be carried other than to save a life. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the sword (or Uzi) may indeed be proudly worn, while the sages insist that armaments are a disgrace; after all, it was the prophet Isaiah who established the goal that "(All peoples) shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2: 4) . . ."
Yes, waging war against an enemy who rises to destroy you is a mitzva, a divine commandment, but it must always be seen as a necessary evil in order for Good to ultimately triumph in the world.
AND SO our schools do not focus on the military. The highest commitment to the Jewish people is the building and developing of the civil aspects of this country. We want our students to excel in the arts and sciences so that they can make the greatest possible contribution. We want them to become Torah scholars so they will build our country on the highest Jewish values of divine service, loving kindness and compassion. Our motto is "Torah im Tikkun Olam - Torah and healing the world," which is why all our students volunteer with disadvantaged children, the handicapped, the old and the infirm. Likewise, we offer the fullest possible curriculum in ecology - teaching our students how to care for the world.
Judaism teaches that peace is one our highest values, for which we must be willing to make huge sacrifices. We long for the day when there will be no need for an army because Israel will be at peace with all her neighbors and "no one shall hurt or destroy in all of My holy mountain".
But until that day comes, while murderous suicide bombers attempt to blow up our citizens and missiles are fired at our cities, we cannot afford to be complacent.
So I am proud that my students, with their outstanding success in Torah and academic studies, live lives of humanity and compassion and go out with courage and determination to protect Israel and the world against terrorism. As Seneca taught, "if you truly wish for peace you must prepare for war."
The writer is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and the chief rabbi of Efrat.