Divine Draft Dodgers
From: Terry in London
There is a lot about Judaism that makes sense to me. However, there is one thing that I just don’t understand. Why don’t religious people serve in the Israeli Army? Isn’t it a mitzvah to protect the Jewish people and maintain control over the Land of Israel?
Religious people do in fact serve in the Israeli Army. Plenty of nationalistic-religious and even ‘charedi’ Jewish men serve as regular duty soldiers and in the reserve.
If you mean to ask why many yeshiva students and Torah scholars don’t serve (some do), that is a complicated question which needs much study. The following is not an exhaustive explanation, but rather a general overview.
Ideally, there should be no need for war and armies, as in the verse: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore”. Unfortunately, humankind has yet to be unified in their service of G-d and thereby reach this ideal state of peace. Until then, war and conflict will continue to be a paradoxically painful part of life.
Within this context, Judaism recognizes the unfortunate need for self-protection that may involve both defensive and offensive war. There are many examples of this in the Torah involving such righteous individuals as Abraham (Gen. 14), the sons of Jacob (Gen. 34), Moses (Ex. 2:12), Joshua (Ex. 17), Saul and Samuel (I Sam. 15), David, Solomon and many more. However, just as the Torah regulates other physical needs such as eating, working, procreation etc., G-d delineates a particularly Jewish way of warring.
The first principle is that a Jewish army, including every soldier, must place its trust in G-d for success. The Torah relates, "Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, Pick men for us, and go out and fight against Amalek...When Moses would raise his hand, Israel would prevail, and when he would lay down his hand, Amalek would prevail" (Ex. 17:8-11). Our Sages remarked, do Moses’ hands make or break war? Rather, when he would lift his hands, the soldiers would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven and they would succeed (Rosh Hashanah 29a).
A second principle is that Torah learning is vital for military success: “If you toil in Torah study [see Rashi]…you will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will pursue a hundred, and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you” (Lev. 26:3-8). Furthermore, the Talmud relates that the captain of the host of G-d appeared to Joshua criticizing him for having had the soldiers sleep on the night before the battle of Jericho instead of learning Torah. Joshua later corrected the situation by having the soldiers learn all night before combat, resulting in their subsequent miraculous victories (Megilla 3a). Similarly, during the siege of Sancherib on Jerusalem, King Hezekiah placed a sword at the entrance of every synagogue and house of study saying, “Whoever doesn’t learn Torah will be stabbed with this sword” (Sanhedrin 94b). Afterwards the Jews merited a miraculous victory and the enemy was slain overnight.
A third principle is that the draft to the Jewish army must be based on the preceding ideas - namely that a portion of the eligible soldiers be drafted for the specific purpose of praying and learning Torah for the benefit of the combat units. This is derived from the following verse, "So Moses spoke to the people saying, 'Arm from among you men for the army...A thousand for each tribe, a thousand for each tribe, from all the tribes of Israel you shall send into the army'. From the thousands of Israel one thousand was given over for each tribe, twelve thousand armed for battle" (Num. 31:3-5). The Midrash (Mattot 22:3) explains that the three-fold mention of thousand indicates that in fact three thousand were drafted from each tribe: 1000 for combat, 1000 for logistic support and 1000 for Torah study and prayer.
This reveals that a full third of eligible soldiers occupied spiritual units that are considered no less important for the war effort than logistic and combat units. This inter-dependency is apparent in the teaching of our Sages (Sanhedrin 49a), “If it weren’t for David’s Torah study, Yoav would not have succeeded in war; and if not for Yoav’s effort in battle, David would not have been able to learn Torah, as in the verse, ‘David administered justice and charity for all his people, and Yoav was over the host' (II Sam. 8:15)”. In fact, the contribution of spiritual soldiers is considered so valuable that the exile in Egypt was blamed on Abraham’s mobilizing scholars for battle rather than for prayer and Torah study (Nedarim 32a). According to Rambam, the entire tribe of Levi was also exempt from combat for this purpose, and he concludes that anyone who dedicates himself to a life of Torah study is also in this category (Shemita 13:12,13).
A fourth principle is that the combat soldiers should be free of sin. In addition to those exempt from military service because of a new house, a new vineyard or a new wife, the Torah also exempts the “fearful and fainthearted” (Deut. 20:8). Our Sages explained that this includes a soldier who fears that his transgressions will hinder Divine Providence for success, and will adversely affect his fellow fighters. He is allowed to return with the others to save him embarrassment as a sinner. However, Rashi there (20:3) explains that merely saying the ‘Shema’ is enough to merit Divine protection.
Based on the above, the early founders of Israel and its military recognized the importance of full-time Torah study to Jewish survival and continuity. Although they didn’t draft soldiers for that purpose, they agreed to defer service to anyone who was committed to serving the Jewish people world wide and in Israel by learning Torah and praying, thereby fulfilling the Torah dictate for ‘spiritual’ units. Most observers of Israel’s military history, while considering the great effort, self-sacrifice, courage and perseverance of the nation, still consider Israel’s victories to be miraculous. This is a phenomenon that is unparalleled in history and is the result of the unique combination of David and Yoav - Torah and military prowess – in our days as in days of old. The yeshiva students and Torah scholars are doing their job. We await the day when all Jews will be committed soldiers in the army of G-d, free of sin and prepared to proudly proclaim, “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One!”