(This appeared first in a condensed version as an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press of May 25, 2012.)
The forthcoming debate over an updated Tal Law – that defined the parameters for service by Haredim and others in the Israel Defense Forces – is liable to become heated and nasty. Mutual accusations will be hurled, with one group asserting that a demand for mandatory service is part of an ill-disguised war against Torah and the other side seeking an equal sharing of the defense burdens that fall on most other Israelis. The debate will feature arguments that are both somewhat compelling and somewhat misleading: that Torah study is the defining mitzvah in Jewish life, comparable to no other; that the IDF has a manpower surplus, not a manpower shortage; that it is unfair that some young men risk their lives for the safety of the Jewish people, while others sit in the comfortable confines of the Beit HaMidrash – and are supported (through government funds) by the families of those who are serving; that military service is often a prerequisite to entering the Israeli workforce and will resolve many of the financial struggles that beset Israel’s Haredim; and that Haredi opt-outs from the military are a small percentage of the total number of Israeli youth not serving in the military, a number buttressed in recent years by hundreds, if not thousands, of secular Israelis (often from the Tel Aviv suburbs) who receive medical and/or psychological deferments from physicians all-too-willing to sign them.
The proponents, both secular and religious, will struggle to distinguish between Israeli citizens who are Haredim whose service is compulsory, and Israeli citizens who are Arabs who – as Israeli citizens – should be just as required to defend their country but whose widespread service in the IDF would be problematic, to say the least.
Undoubtedly, the dispute will become embroiled in coalition politics of the most sordid kind. Although the current government no longer needs the votes of the religious parties to survive, future governments surely will and the horse-trading involving prospective support will be typical and distasteful politics. The Torah itself will be unnecessarily dragged through the mud. While certainly Torah protects those who study and uphold it, it does not exempt the sick from seeking medical assistance, the hungry from eating food or the destitute from finding gainful employment. The Torah still demands that we live in reality – after all, the Torah is the book of the Source of ultimate reality – and therefore not make national defense the only realm (if, indeed, it is the only realm) in which mystical considerations dominate our decision-making.
Nonetheless, understood properly, this controversy affords a wonderful opportunity to re-define the terms of the debate in a way that can revolutionize Jewish life and restore the crown of glory as of old.
There have been many dramatic transformations that have occurred in the Jewish world since the re-establishment of the State of Israel. Obviously, the highlight is the regained Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel for the first time in nineteen centuries and the reborn capacity and willingness of the Jewish people to provide for our own self-defense. But something else changed in the Jewish psyche – if not in the Jewish people itself: the renaissance of the scholar-warrior, what Rav Eliezer Shenvald, the distinguished Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivat Hesder Meir-Harel in Modiin, and Colonel in the IDF, called tzva’iyut and yeshivatiyut – the fusion of the military and the yeshiva. In the exile, we grew accustomed – even to think it natural and proper – that, in the language of the Talmud (Masechet Avoda Zara 17b) “either the book (safra) or the sword (saifa),” but never both, and certainly not together.
Not only is that wrong, but it is detrimental to the Jewish people.
It was not always like that – in fact, it was never like that. The giants of our nation went to battle. Avraham went to war, Moshe himself went to war, David famously went to war. None of this was considered out-of-character or a concession to the times, but rather a natural part of serving Hashem. The Netziv wrote in his commentary to Shir Hashirim (4:2) that “your teeth are like the counted flock that has come up from the wash,” i.e., your teeth, that consumes anything before them, are the warriors who triumph in battle, who are pure, carefully- groomed, all righteous, meticulous even of their observance of simple mitzvot. It is the righteous who are supposed to lead the Jewish people into battle.
Many justify prioritization of Torah study over military service by referencing Rabbi Elazar’s statement (cited by Rabbi Abahu) in Masechet Nedarim 32a that Avraham was punished and his descendants enslaved in Egypt because “he conscripted the Torah scholars” who lived with him when he went to battle against the four kings to rescue his nephew Lot. Besides the facts that this point is not cited as normative halacha by the Rambam or Shulchan Aruch, we generally avoid deriving normative halacha from Agadic statements, and there are other interpretations of that Gemara (Shitah Mekubetzet understands Avraham’s mistake as not rewarding them for their service), this opinion is even cited in the Gemara as a solitary view with which others disagreed. The Ralbag explained the verse as praising Avraham for taking with him into battle “chanichav yelidei beito,” those raised in his home and educated by him, saying that it is appropriate to take into battle only those “who were trained in Avraham’s ways and values since their youth.”
In a similar context, Radak (Yehoshua 5:14) rejected the criticism of Yehoshua for abandoning his Torah study on the eve of battle as a “far-fetched exposition, for wartime is not a time for Torah study.” Indeed, Yaakov on his deathbed praised his sons Yehuda, Yissachar, Dan, Binyamin and Yosef for the martial abilities, however we wish to interpret his sublime words.
Furthermore, Chazal underscored that King David’s fighters – Benayahu ben Yehoyada, Adino HaEtzni, and others – were the Sanhedrin, they were the Torah Sages of the generation. As the Gemara notes (Moed Katan 16b) in asserting that King David himself was called Adino HaEtzni, that he was adin, in Torah study he was supple and flexible like a worm, but in battle he was an etz, hardened like a spear.
What happened to us, to the concept of the scholar-warrior, to the notion of the man of Torah leading the Jewish nation into battle? In short, the exile robbed us of that, and over the centuries we made – perforce – a virtue out of passivity, pacifism, and even surrender. We artificially created a division of labor in Jewish life between students and soldiers.
Who better to teach us this point than Yehoshua, depicted in the Torah (Shmot 33:11) as one “who never left Moshe’s tent,” the tent of study. Really? He never left Moshe’s tent, he was only engaged in the study of Torah? What about Moshe’s command to Yehoshua (Shmot 17:9), “choose men for us and go out to battle with Amalek”? The answer is that the battle itself is part of Torah.
Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote that “the Torah personality is the fighter who conquers the land of Israel, it is all the same matter.” Only the greatest in Torah study can fully conquer the land of Israel. Indeed, there are two defining statements about Yehoshua, Moshe’s successor: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua” (Avot 1:1), and the prophecy of Eldad and Medad in the wilderness, “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the land” (Sanhedrin 17a). The two statements are inseparable; that was Yehoshua. That was the essence of his Divine service, and that was normal. It was dedication to Torah and divine service that is comprehensive and not bifurcated. Such a personality, and such an endeavor, is not Bitul Torah (the nullification of Torah) but rather Kiyum HaTorah, the very fulfillment of the Torah. Who is more suited to conquering the land of Israel and investing it with holiness than people who love Torah, Divine service and the Jewish people!
“If the Jewish people had not sinned, we would only have been given the five books of the Torah and the book of Yehoshua, which contains the disposition of the land of Israel” (Nedarim 22b). The books of the prophets admonish us and keep us on the right path. If we were worthy, we would simply obey the Torah – and only require the book of Yehoshua for its description of the allocation of land to each tribe. But why would that be necessary beyond that generation? Once the land was apportioned, then even the book of Yehoshua should be finished. So why is it eternal?
The answer is that if we had not sinned, we would need only the Torah that tells us how to live and the book of Yehoshua that teaches us how to allocate the land – how to permeate it with holiness, how to implement the Torah and G-d’s will in it. All we would need would be the Torah for a healthy soul and the land of Israel for a healthy body. We would live a holy and holistic existence.
The exile took such a toll on us that we have had a hard time re-acclimating ourselves to the normalcy of Torah, with many still idealizing the division of responsibilities and incapable of merging the safra and the saifa, the book and the sword. Many persist in re-defining all the giants of Jewish life to make them conform to their pre-conceptions, to render them uni-dimensional figures that ultimately diminish their greatness – whether it is Avraham, Moshe, Yehoshua, David, Yehuda Hamaccabee, Rabbi Akiva and many others. They denude them of their military exploits and ensconce them in the House of Study, as if there is necessarily a conflict between the two or that the two are mutually exclusive. They once might have been – during the exile – but no longer. Today, the halls of the Hesder Yeshivot are populated with Roshei Yeshiva who were Captains, Majors and Colonels in the military – and who better to guide the Torah Jew through the maze of modern life than the contemporary scholar-warrior.
Rav Shlomo Aviner once identified three cardinal mitzvot that are fulfilled through military service in the IDF: saving Jewish lives, conquest of the land of Israel, and Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of G-d’s name that is engendered when the nations of the world see that Jewish blood is not cheap. There is another Kiddush Hashem as well – when all Jews see that the Torah can be the foundation of a modern state and that the Torah Jew can serve G-d in every sphere of life. Those mitzvot are certainly vital to an individual Jew’s self-definition as they are to the existence of a Jewish State.
For sure, a free society can willingly choose to exempt certain Torah scholars from military service as it exempts others for frivolous reasons. But the ideal of the scholar-warrior should be nurtured and cherished as the one best capable of ensuring Israel’s defense and its sacred standing. And it forever deprives the secular Israeli of his persistent complaint, whether sincere or contrived, that “ultra-Orthodox” Jews are parasites who contribute nothing to society and live off the blood and sweat of others. We can hold the book and sword together and achieve greatness in both; can they?
Fortunate is the generation that has witnessed the renaissance of the Jewish spirit that is a harbinger of the Messiah who himself will personify both virtues – “meditating in the Torah and observing Mitzvot like his ancestor David and fighting G-d’s wars” (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 11:4) – so that we will all behold the glory of Torah and merit complete redemption, speedily and in our days.