Haredi soldiers in prayer (Image credit: Israel Defense Forces [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons)
The reason a Jew will join or not join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) should not be based on the Israeli government's right to enforce a draft. Instead it should be based on the halacha (Jewish Law).
Before I discuss the issues from a halachic point of view, one should know that the Israeli government is not considered a legitimate form of Jewish governance, and therefore it has no right to enforce a draft on any Jew, secular or religious. While this statement may satisfy the Neturei Karta and the anti-Zionists, it should be known that those groups are against halacha — and not just the state of Israel in its current form. The IDF from a halachic point of view is not a holy army in the way it is currently run; the question is: does it have to be? Those who love Israel truly want the army to be holy, but it is not. Does this fact nullify or override the many halachot in the Shulchan Aruch that require a Jew to defend Jewish life or not? The answer today is no. Possibly many years ago the answer might have been different. Today there is no force compelling a Netzach Yehuda/Nachal Haredi soldier to fall away from Torah, even though an army is a challenging environment to keep hours of traditional Torah learning and davening (prayer).
An army is not a yeshiva and an army base is not a shul. We don't daven against our enemy and he falls down. We shoot our enemy. Which means we must train how to shoot and train how to patrol and go out and seek to battle the forces of evil that wish to uproot all of us from eretz hakodesh (the Holy Land).
The Army of Shmad
What is preventing average Haredim from joining the army? It is cultural, not halachic. The so called “Army of Shmad” — a military which leads to abandonment of Torah and mitzvot — exists on regular bases; however, it is not required, even though it is available for those who wish to fall.
I have personally investigated many Netzach Yehuda bases, as well as regular bases. The Netzach Yehuda bases are holier than the mall, the shuk, and every other venue where you will find Haredi youth. I am surprised you do not find the Neturei Karta on Thursday night screaming, “Gzeirat shmad” (a decree forcing conversion away from Judaism) in the shuk and on Yafo Street in Jerusalem, where more than one Haredi youth can be found, both male and female. The Haredi youth belong in the beit medresh (study hall), the indignant non-thinking Jew screams! So, whom may I ask, should go and die in Gaza — a non-religious Jew? Shall we split the Shulchan Aruch among our nation, since the Haredi Jew refuses those halachot which obligate the Jew in eretz Yisrael to stand up and fight for Jewish life (Orach Chaim 329, Choshen Mishpat 425 and 426)?
Were these rulings written only for secular Jews? Obviously not. The Shulchan Aruch does not distinguish, and even states that every Jew has the obligation to save a life (Orach Chaim 329:6, s’if katan 15). The Haredi Jew does not believe in the halachic legitimacy of the modern state, and in that aspect he is right. However, does the Haredi Jew no longer believe in Mishna Berura (329:6, s’if katan 15), on which the Or Zarua mentions that we are not exacting on small details when it comes to saving a Jewish life? That means we do not look for excuses not to save Jewish life. A Jew who is at the peak of his physical strength should be running to the IDF offices and joining Netzach Yehuda. Does it mention anywhere which Jews are to be among the lomdei Torah (students of Torah) and which Jews are to be the warriors? Even in the times of David HaMelech, over 1.3 million men (1 Chron. 21:5) out of a population of 5 million Jews served in the army. According to Rav Shlomo Teichtal, author of the famous Eim HaBanim Smeicha, the second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because Jews did not learn the art of war. Are we not making the same mistake in today’s beit medresh?
Netzach Yehuda/Nachal Haredi
Netzach Yehuda was born out of a necessity to allow Jews who follow the Shulchan Aruch to join the army as Torah-observant Jews — and to leave the army equally Torah-observant. It is a place where an average soldier is as righteous as the gadol hador (a great one of the generation), and one should not err and think otherwise.
I stood in awe of the golden Jews running around on Netzach Yehuda bases. Go there before you condemn the entire IDF as a gzeirat shmad. Go there and see with your own eyes if the lies are true. People do not actually investigate the issues first-hand; they simply rely on others to form their opinions. The same thing happens in the study of halacha: the average yeshiva bachur (yeshiva student) has no clue what is stated in the Shulchan Aruch regarding war and the obligation to fight to save Jewish lives.
Jewish law in general was not applicable in the galut (exile); these issues were meant for the times of the mashiach (Messiah). And now the geula (redemption) has begun, the ingathering of the exiles has begun, and the exile is ending. After 2,000 years we have an army, but it is the product of secular atheists and feminists — which is why there is such resistance to joining it.
No Binding Halachic Authority To Decide Who Studies/Who Learns
Does a yeshiva bachur have a Torah obligation to put down his studies for three years and join the army? If yes, why; and if no, why not? Do we have a binding halachic authority across all of Israel that is the sole halachic authority of the nation that can answer these questions? Clearly, the answer is a resounding “No.” In the Haredi bubble, people strongly believe that their gadol hador is the sole "gadol hador" and all others are imposters. Today, the Satmar Rebbe gives psakim (rulings) to the Satmar, the Boyaner Rebbe to the Boyaners, the Karlin-Stolin Rebbe to his chassidim, and the Litvish roshei yeshivot (heads of the yeshivot) to their talmidim — it is all split, distinct, and non-binding on the klal (general community).
Yet, as the Sma, Rabbi Joshua Falk, on Choshen Mishpat 1:1 clearly states, we are not smuchim (those who were ordained in a direct chain of authority back to Moshe Rabbeinu) and cannot judge according to Torah; we can only fulfill the mission of those who were smuchim in eretz Yisrael. Although we have great rabbanim who are so respected that they have become normative, do we have anyone today that can truly argue with the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Yosef Karo, or the ReMa?
What if these poskim said it’s obligatory to save Jewish life and they never made the exception that b’nei Torah (those who study Torah) should not keep this halacha? When studying halacha, we do not rely on 'feelings' to state ideas such as “every Jew is equal in the eyes of the law;" one must quote specific sources to show whether halacha obligates everyone equally. Who today decides which bachur will be among those who save the nation with their study of Torah? Did not each and every one of Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students go out to war to save Jewish life? Who makes the decision which son will die and which will live, which son will risk his life for the nation and which one will not? Who is qualified today to decide for the entire nation? We are a weak, fragmented nation. Our unity has been decimated. Our desire for the third Beit Hamikdash (Temple) has been modified to accept the basement level; there is no call among our "gedolei hador" to take back the Temple Mount from the enemy. Where is that undisputed leadership that can decide who will sit and who will stand up for the nation?
When there were only 14,000 yeshiva bachurim and 400,000 soldiers, it was clear that the 14,000 were needed to carry the torch of Torah for the nation. Now, with nearly 80,000 Haredi yeshiva students — soon to be the majority in the coming decades — we can no longer sit by and use the same logic.
At what point will the desire to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash bring responsibility to the religious Jew for eretz Yisrael? The time has come for this and all the requirements brought down in halacha are now incumbent upon at least half of those who are learning.
Although we do not have a Sanhedrin (halachic court of law), the halacha is clear (Orach Chaim 329:6, Choshen Mishpat 425 and 426) that Jews are required to band together and save Jewish life from invaders.
The position of the one who exempts himself from army service is not a simple one. We do not have the undisputed leadership to decide who will wage war and who will not; no one in this generation can absolve any one individual and say: “You sit and others shall die and you shall live.”
The great hatred that this position creates — and rightfully so — among the non-religious cannot be understated. They hate the religious Jew who refuses to fight; and this hatred fuels the atheist appetite and leads to the desire to be a nation like all others.
The Jewish People's Future Rests In The Hands Of The Haredim
But what was is no longer; the future of the Jewish people rests in the hands of the Haredim, who are soon to become the majority of the nation. There is no more room for 80,000 bachurim carrying the torch of Torah by learning and not joining the IDF — new answers to new realities must be offered for the problems.
Those who have never stepped foot on a Netzach Yehuda base condemn the entire army because they "heard" from a "reliable source" that the army everywhere destroys a Jew and turns him into a non-Jew. Their narrow hateful eyes — that never once saw an army base — take this as an indisputable "fact."
Yet, there is no shmad in the Netzach Yehuda bases; the rabbis encircle the bases constantly, almost daily, creating a supervised environment with no women and true b’nei Torah. It is not shmad — it is beautiful.
And what of the army with its paper generals who focus more on integrating women into tank battalions than on how to win wars? The army that is sometimes used to bulldoze Jewish houses in the Shomron (Samaria)? The one that constantly wastes G-d given opportunities to defeat our enemies, one after another? Because of this army, our enemies are never defeated but keep multiplying and demanding more and more of our land to “drive us into the sea.”
This is the army of shmad, but it is not Netzach Yehuda. When the time came to destroy the entire town of Amona — may the name of the wicked be erased for demolishing an entire village in Israel — the Netzach Yehuda battalion was removed from the area. Because they sanctify G-d's name they would never have agreed to destroy Jewish homes in Israel.
Today's army is weakened to unknown proportions when it lacks those who fear Heaven. Its strength is cut down, its desire to win is erased, and it becomes the tool of our enemies. Today, it is not considered treason to text-message an enemy’s phone and request that he leave his house before the IDF blows it up.
In every other country of the world, anyone who revealed the location of an airstrike to an enemy ahead of time would be tried for treason and hung. In Israel, we have fallen so far that this is considered humane and proper behavior. If those who fear Heaven were involved in running the army, there would never exist such treason. As the Eim HaBanim Smeicha states, abandoning Israel to those without the ruach (spirit) of Torah will only cause rot and decay in eretz Yisrael.
What is really accomplished by the Haredim disenfranchising? The hand of the wicked is strengthened. We already have an entire "people" — the so-called Palestinian Arabs — as a fifth column in our midst. The Haredi Jew is afraid to engage the world around him, preferring to bury his head in a sefer while terror strikes everywhere in Israel. And the great secular warrior dreams of being in hutz l’aretz (outside of Israel) instead of defending the Land.
Our Enemy Is Our Lack Of Concern For Each Other
No Jew should excuse himself from army service — no one. It is a purely halachic obligation to save Jewish life, and we are simply not in a position today to choose who will learn and who will fight. One should not join because of the government, but rather to ultimately bring about the needed changes.
We are a non-unified nation. We need to reverse this so as to complete the process of geula (redemption) — not just with the army, but in all areas. We must stop shunning our family — even our secular family — and avoiding the most critical mitzvot and obligations.
Instead of weighing the risk of joining the army’s Netzach Yehuda battalions for three years, every Jew should join in unity to defeat our real enemy. We have one enemy and one enemy alone — our lack of concern for one another.
To overcome this, we must conquer the frumkeit (religiosity) of the desire to learn instead of the desire to live Torah. This is the true enemy and the reason why we have orphans, widows and widowers, fathers and mothers who bury their children due to terror — G-d forbid! Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 426, states: "You should not stand idly by your brother’s blood"; this is as binding a mitzvah as keeping shabbat, sitting in a sukka and fasting on Yom Kippur.
Is Your Own House Worth Protecting?
To the Jew pounding his fist, saying, “The army is shmad,” I say: “Is your own house worth protecting? Are you also exempt from defending it? Shall other Jews be charged with defending your wife and children? If a terrorist comes charging at your house, are you absolved from defending it because you learn Torah?”
The answer — even to this Jew — is obviously no. If a terrorist is on the way to your house, you should be willing to respond and attack back. Surely we can agree that your house is worth saving and that you therefore have some responsibility in this world.
What about your holy neighbor that you are commanded to love as yourself (Lev. 19:18)? Should he be responsible only for his house and you only for yours? Or do you have a responsibility to save him too, so that you should be available to save his family as well?
And, if that is the case, why are you not at least part of the Kitat Konenut (Community First Response Team), who are on call to save you, your wife and family? Are you too busy learning to save your own family?
This is the greatest proof that you are mistaken. Your entire logic is fraudulent since you are not even a part of the team that saves your own family, and yet you expect them to die fighting for you. You have erred and have yet to understand what it means to be a halachic Jew.
There are no excuses — we have Netzach Yehuda, we have Kitat Konenut — there is no shmad at your doorstep. Preventing danger to life (Orach Chaim 329:6) applies to you and your house; how long will you live a life only for yourself? It is time to learn Shulchan Aruch with a different set of eyes. It is time to learn how to shoot and to take part in saving Jewish lives.
Before you take for granted that defending Jewish life does not apply to you, try learning halacha in a way that obligates you instead of absolves you. When you live by Torah and love Jewish life, Hakodesh Baruch Hu grants you a heart of flesh instead of stone (Ezek. 11:19), so that you begin to feel the pain of our nation. The love you feel will stand you up on your feet and you will run towards the mitzva and the halachic obligation to save Jewish life — one day, the life you save may just be your own.