Civil, Jewish law agree: Equal service for all

We again call upon the Knesset not to look for ways around this issue so that we will no longer have the situation in which some brothers go to war, while others sit idly by, rather all will share the burden, as the Torah envisioned.

Haredi combat soldiers 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi combat soldiers 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It has taken 25 years, but the Supreme Court has finally caught up with the rulings of the Law Committee (Vaad Halacha) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel regarding service in the IDF.
In 1987 the Law Committee issued two responses, one authored by this writer concerning yeshiva students, and one by Rabbi Rafael Harris concerning women, requiring all eligible men and women to serve in the defense of their country, with no exceptions because of Torah study or religious observance. Now the court has adopted that same position from the point of view of civil law, ruling the Tal Law unconstitutional and discriminatory for allowing yeshivah students to receive permission not to serve.
Why did it take so long for Israeli civil law to catch up with religious law? It is sad and ironic that that those who claim to be the most observant of Jewish law are those who are blatantly in violation of it.
These religious rulings were based on Jewish law, beginning with the Torah itself. The Torah is very clear on this matter. It contains the story of the tribes that wanted to remain on the other side of the Jordan and not settle in Canaan itself. Assuming that they did not intend to participate in the struggle for Canaan, Moses angrily said to them, “Shall your brothers go to war and you remain here?” (Numbers 32:6). Only when they volunteered to be at the forefront of the battle and return home only afterwards did he permit them to settle there (Numbers 32:17-27).
Furthermore, the book of Deuteronomy makes it very clear that the only exceptions to army service were very specific and only temporary. They were for those who were at a particularly sensitive point in their lives and had not had the opportunity to savor major personal developments, such as those newly married. Included also were those who were psychologically unfit because of excessive fear and who would have a bad effect on their compatriots (Deut 20:1-9). Torah study is not mentioned.
The rabbinic authorities tended to reduce even those exceptions, saying that in any case they applied only to optional wars, while in wars that were commanded or necessary, wars of defense, all exemptions were void. Indeed the Mishnah, the authoritative code of Rabbinic Judaism, goes so far as to state that in times when there is danger to our existence, “even the bridegroom and the bride must go to war” (Sotah 8:7).
The conclusion of the Rabbinical Assembly rulings was: Service in the IDF is a halachic duty incumbent on 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 this way can he be properly prepared to participate in these obligatory wars commanded for the safety of the State of Israel and its inhabitants.
Not to do this involves violation of three major mitzvot: Participation in a commanded war for defense; violation of the command “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” (Lev.19:16); pikuah nefesh – the saving of human life which takes precedence over other commandments (see Tos. Shabbat 15:16-17). To shirk this duty is to violate the Halacha.
When the Tal Law was first proposed, the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel called upon the Knesset to “totally reject the Tal Commission Report and to immediately enact legislation which will mandate equal military service for all sectors of the Jewish population. We are shocked that the Tal Commission has recommended continuing an intolerable situation in which one section of the population sits peacefully in halls of study while others endanger their lives in defense of Israel. This stands in complete opposition to Jewish law which unequivocally requires every eligible person to come to the defense of the nation in times of danger.”
Now that the Court has endorsed this position, we again call upon the Knesset not to look for ways around this issue, not to introduce legislation that will somehow permit this shameful situation to continue, but to finally act responsibly and bring about this long needed change so that we will no longer have the situation in which some brothers go to war, while others sit idly by. Rather all will share the burden, as the Torah envisioned.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).