Does Torah Study Trump Fighting Israel's Enemies?
This article is the first installment of The Jerusalem Herald's ongoing series excerpted from the author’s book, Go Up Like a Wall, which discusses modern events in light of the Ingathering of the Exiles and the Redemption. To read other selections from the series, click here.
Illustration: IDF Soldier at the Western Wall by alex de carvalho, [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via Flickr
One of the major controversies in modern-day Israel is whether or not men who study Torah on a full-time basis (or purport to) should be exempt from military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
It is understandable that a Torah-observant Jew can have serious reservations about joining the army. In recent years the IDF has acted against its own people to expel Jews from their homes and destroy Jewish cities. To this day, the greatest threat to many Jewish neighborhoods in Israel is the very military charged with defending them from Arab enemies.
Indeed, in the entire history of modern Israel, with all its wars, the Arabs never succeeded in destroying or capturing a single Jewish city. Only Israel's own government and military carry that distinction.
Another serious issue with the Israeli army is that it is often handcuffed by the government. Due to the current political culture of capitulation, Israeli soldiers face severe restrictions on their use of force against enemies. Soldiers who fight to win, instead of merely trying to stay alive, risk prosecution. It is hard to blame someone for being unwilling to risk his life for the foolish, world- pleasing agendas of politicians.
Of course, this same army continues to fight against our true enemies, and it is an incredible merit to participate in this holy work. All those who are capable should be honored to share in this tremendous mitzvah.
If someone objects to joining the army based on the above considerations, he should not be condemned, as this is a legitimate perspective. The abuses of the government and the army against their own people should not be callously disregarded just because in principle we support the government and the army. Those who grant pardon to them share in their crimes.
However, the current controversy in Israel does not center around conscientious objection to the expulsion and ongoing harassment of our finest citizens. It centers around the belief of many that people who engage in serious Torah study (or purport to do so) have better things to do than fight for the land of Israel. They believe that they are so holy that they already contribute their share to Israel's military protection. They believe that they should not “waste their time” in the army when others, whose time is less sacred, can serve on their behalf.
How incredibly arrogant for anyone to express such sentiments! No true Torah leader would ever express such opinions about himself, let alone about a large society of people who are, for the most part, nothing special.
We should not blame anyone who has an issue with military service on certain ideological grounds that are hopefully temporary. However, those who are against military service in principle are terribly, terribly misguided — and must distort the Torah to find support from it.
Those who consider themselves “holier than thou” portray themselves as the only authentic students of Torah, and they portray the matter of serving the country as an attack on Torah. Not only is this a sinister propaganda tactic to demonize those who disagree with them — it is a distortion and terrible affront to the very Torah they claim to protect. Lest we get bogged down in an unnecessarily exhaustive treatment of the topic, we will mention only a few sources from the Book of Yehoshua (Joshua) that are particularly relevant.
One of the sources they are most fond of citing is a midrash (biblical exegesis) based on Yehoshua 5:13. As the Jews camped outside Yericho, preparing for their first major battle to conquer Israel, an angel appeared to Yehoshua with his sword drawn. According to one midrash, this was meant to signify that the Jews were guilty for being lax with their Torah study. Of course, they will never cite the comments of Rabbi David Kimchi (the RaDaK) — since his words do not suit their agenda, they do not exist: “This midrash is far-fetched, for wartime is not a time for Torah study.”
But of course. This is something we should not even need to be told. Suggesting that even Torah scholars — perhaps especially Torah scholars — participate in the fight for Israel is not an attack on Torah, but a fulfillment of it. Naturally this participation will require a compromise on the amount of time one can study Torah. So what?
The RaDaK further writes that the author of this midrash is “mistaken,” because his midrashic narrative with Yehoshua and the angel is based on a similarly worded verse from a different chapter that has nothing to do with this episode.
In essence, the point that Torah study is very, very important is indisputable. But that Torah study should trump fighting a war against Israel's enemies is baseless. The same G-d who gave us the Torah will make sure that there is ample time for both holy pursuits. No less a figure than Calev expressed his ability to fight at the age of 85 (Joshua 14:10-11). If he wished to retire after an illustrious military career and study Torah all day, no one would have had any complaints against him.
In Joshua 15:16, Calev offered his daughter in marriage to the man who would conquer Kiryat Sefer. Otniel ben Kenaz stepped forward and conquered the city — the same Otniel ben Kenaz who was such an outstanding Torah scholar that he deduced numerous Jewish laws that were forgotten after the death of Moses.
Anyone with even a moderate background in Torah study will know that our history is filled with outstanding Torah scholars leading the way into battle. Their scholarship and love for Torah is never used as an excuse for them to refrain from participating — not once. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of the righteousness of the soldiers being a vital requirement for participation in war, to the extent that those who might be referred to as “secular” are told to go home! See Shoftim (Judges) 7:1-8, where G-d repeatedly commands Gideon to whittle down the size of his army to a skeleton crew of righteous men.
Based on these and numerous other sources, those who consider themselves guardians of the Torah should be asking everyone else to stay home while they alone fight for Israel!
There is much more that can be said on this topic, but what this controversy really boils down to has nothing to do with Torah-based arguments. It has to do with many people refusing to accept that G-d loves the very Jews they reject, and loves the country even though they don't control it.
This is a bitter pill for them to swallow, one that would require serious soul-searching, fundamental changes to their philosophy and lifestyle, and a reduction of the power and control their leaders have over them. Ultimately these developments would lead to greater brotherhood and a greater love for Torah among those who are turned off by the hatred and hypocrisy of these fringe elements masquerading as torch-bearers.
We hope and pray that this will somehow happen in our days.
Rabbi Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness and the author of seven books, including “Go Up Like a Wall” and "How to Not Get Married: Break These Rules and You Have a Chance," an illustrated book that is humorous yet serious in its examination of the issues facing singles. Many of his writings are available here. He is also the director and producer of a documentary on the shidduch world, “Single Jewish Male”, available by clicking here and “The Shidduch Chronicles” available on YouTube. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org