Ask the Rabbi: May Israeli citizens flee war zones?

Spiritual leaders have a responsibility to both strengthen the faith of their followers and provide solace.

IDF ARTILLERY during Second Lebanon War 370 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IDF ARTILLERY during Second Lebanon War 370
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
May Israeli citizens flee war zones? During the recent Operation Pillar of Defense, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in the South were ordered by the Belzer Rebbe Yissachar Dov Rokeach, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, and other haredi decisors to flee northward toward cities such as Bnei Brak. By and large, their religious-Zionist counterparts in hesder yeshivot remained in cities like Sderot or Netivot, unless they were called up for active military duty. Now, in thankfully calmer times, it behooves us to contemplate the appropriateness of each response, as well as pray that this remains a theoretical discussion.
In addition to military action, the Torah commands a spiritual response to times of crisis: “And when ye go to war ... then ye shall sound an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the Lord your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies” (Numbers 10:9). In addition to prayers and fasting, Jewish law calls for certain restraints from lighthearted activity, including grand feasts, to reflect the gravity of the hour.
In one talmudic passage, the Sages called for sexual abstinence in times of famine. The medieval commentators debated whether this was an actual ordinance or mere pietistic recommendation.
Scholars further concluded that such piety was inappropriate for those who had not yet fulfilled the commandment of procreation for whom abstinence would cause excessive marital strain.
While Rabbi Moshe Isserles contended such piety was appropriate in other types of crises, including war, rabbis Haim Benveniste and Avraham of Buczacz argued that such abstinence only applied during famines, when one cannot properly feed newborns. Procreation, on the other hand, might be viewed as a central means of repopulation during war or oppression, as in the case of Moses, who was born despite the enslavement in Egypt. As such, during the Yom Kippur War, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg contended that abstinence was not mandated.
Upon going to war, the Torah calls upon the High Priest to rouse the courage and confidence of the soldiers by ensuring Divine support: “And it shall be, when ye draw nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people, and shall say unto them: ‘Hear, O Israel, ye draw nigh this day unto battle against your enemies; let not your heart faint; fear not, nor be alarmed, neither be ye affrighted at them; or the Lord your God is He that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you’” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4). Yet the Torah goes on to state that should any man still be fearful and faint-hearted, “let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart melt as his heart” (Deut. 20:8), even as Jewish law requires him to fulfill support functions such as manning food supply lines.
Many medieval commentators, including Maimonides, contended that the Torah views fear of the enemy as lack of faith in God. Later scholars asserted that this prohibition did not include the natural fear of the enemy, but rather incapacitating fright which harmed one’s battle readiness.
However, while the Torah remains unequivocal regarding soldiers, it does not address the propriety of noncombatants, including spiritual leaders, fleeing a war zone. In the early 19th century, the chief rabbi of Pressburg, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, fled the city upon the invasion of Napoleon. When he later returned, he expressed regret for leaving his congregants during a time of war. In his talmudic novella, he laid out two sides of the argument and gave historical precedent for both positions, without delivering an ultimate opinion.
On the one hand, a rabbi is responsible, like every human being, for his own safety and is therefore entitled to flee. At the same time, spiritual leaders have a responsibility to both strengthen the faith of their followers and provide solace.
This dilemma was faced during the Holocaust.
As has been well documented, some rabbinic leaders attempted to flee with their students or communities, while others stayed to support their flock and ultimately suffered the same tragic fate. In some controversial cases, various rabbinic leaders received special permits to daringly escape even as their communities were annihilated.
This phenomenon led to bitter condemnation, in posthumously published statements, of Rebbetzin Eva Halberstam and Rabbi Yissochar Teichtel, who themselves were killed during the Shoah. Others have defended the rabbinic refugees for remaining as long as they did, and for reasonably fleeing to save their lives and the ideals that they represented.
When Israel was attacked by Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991, many yeshiva students from the Diaspora fled to their homelands, in part at the behest of their parents, believing that their continued presence was an act of self endangerment not necessary to strengthen the country. This phenomenon was condemned by rabbis Ya’acov Ariel of Ramat Gan and Yona Metzger of Tel Aviv, who attributed unique responsibilities to yeshiva students in strengthening the home front and believed that fleeing the country caused a demoralizing effect.
In the same essay, however, Rabbi Ariel went on to argue that it remained permissible for citizens to decide for themselves to go to a safer location within Israel since such protective measures helped prevent unnecessary loss of life and the consequent demoralization of the war effort. This line of reasoning would also justify the temporary abandonment of several haredi yeshivot near Gaza in the recent operation, even as the actions of the hesder students to strengthen the morale of their southern neighbors remain commendable.The author teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for post-high school students.
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