Should the Haredi serve in the military or stay in a yeshiva?
By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
CHULA VISTA, California — How many times have we heard it before? Haredi rabbis are going to great lengths to prove a point. They have no intention of giving up their Torah study to serve in the Israeli army. Tens of thousands of Israelis protested and demand that the Israeli government draft the Haredi students.
For most of us reading the story from the sidelines, we feel perplexed. Why wouldn’t the Haredi want to serve in the army?
Let’s look at it from the Haredi point of view.
They contend that first and foremost the Israeli government is suffering from a major misconception. In the metaphysical mind of the Haredi Jew, he believes that there is an inextricable link between the spiritual reality and the physical plane we live in. Since Jewish tradition has long taught that God created the world for the sake of the Torah, the Haredi believe that the study of Torah is of primary value—even more important than earning a livelihood for one’s family, or paying taxes to the government.
If you ask a Haredi protestor, he might say something like this to you in Modern Hebrew:
- Who do you think you are telling me that I am not contributing toward the safety of the Jewish people living in Israel? Our Torah study is so important; it is you who ought to be thanking me and my friends for studying Torah! We really appreciate everything you do to physically to protect us from harm—but without the study of the Torah, the Arabs would have destroyed us long ago. Our ancestor’s devotion to Torah study kept our people alive throughout the ages. Had it not been for the study of Torah, the Jewish people would have assimilated long ago. Therefore, it is you who owe us, the merit of Torah study continues to act as a shield for our people.
Actually, at one Shabbat talk, Rabbi Simcha Avraham Halevy offered these words of admonition to his listeners: Drafting Haredim into the Israel Defense Forces is a bad idea.
- Unfortunately we have recently begun to hear about malicious plans of regime leaders here in our Holy Land, to stick their paws in the sacred halls of the yeshivas, with vain claims about equal burden and responsibility, in order to enlist the yeshiva students for military service – this will not be.…The stupidity of their hearts keeps them from seeing and understanding that the men of Israel who prefer sitting on yeshiva benches even though there are opportunities open before them to earn a good living and become rich thanks to their intelligence – and yet they prefer to kill themselves in her tent of Torah, sacrificing themselves many hours each day. Those who leave behind them the vanities of this world – they are the real defenders of the nation of Israel in the land of Israel…Regarding the claim of not shouldering the burden and the problem with equality, we call on our erring brethren who do not labor to learn Torah and do not obey the commandments: Come share the burden of learning Torah with devotion, for the sake of the nation of Israel.…The nation of Israel did not survive our brutal history by the deterrence of the IDF, nor by the might of the State of Israel, but by the merit of the study of Torah.” 
By now, you must be scratching your head. How do you respond to such a persuasive piece of rabbinical logic? Maybe the real question we ought to be asking is: What does the Torah have to speak about this problem?
Surprisingly, there is a lot that can be said about this point. Toward the very end of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites experienced the jubilation of defeating the mighty Amorites. After surveying the newly conquered territory in Gilead, located on the western part of the plateau east of the Jordan,—a number of tribes had a brilliant idea:
- Now the Reubenites and Gadites had a very large number of livestock. Noticing that the land of Jazer and of Gilead was grazing country, they came to Moses and the priest Eleazar and to the princes of the community and said, “The region of Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Baal-meon, which the LORD has laid low before the community of Israel, is grazing country. Now, since your servants have livestock,”they continued, “if we find favor with you, let this land be given to your servants as their property. Do not make us cross the Jordan.”But Moses answered the Gadites and Reubenites: “Are your kinsmen, then, to engage in war, while you remain here? 
Moses’ response to the tribes’ leaders is priceless and worth reiterating, “Are your kinsmen, then, to engage in war, while you remain here?” Note that the Reubenites and Gadites did not reply, “Do not worry Moses, our beloved leader! We shall study God’s Torah while the rest of you do the fighting! After all, everyone knows that the study of Torah provides the real protection to the Jewish people!
Yet, one may deduce that Moses did not find this argument persuasive because God expects human beings to do what is earthly possible to accomplish. Repeatedly the Torah tells us, “God shall bless you in all that you do …” (Deut. 15:6,10,18; 16:15; cf. Deut. 28ff.). Blessings require earthly effort; we work in partnership with God. According to Jewish mysticism, God demands that blessings demand that people make a vessel to receive God’s abundance, “Blessings from above descend only where there is some substance, not just emptiness, below. 
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the spiritual realm abhor a place of emptiness. Blessings from Above must descend into hands ready to receive the Divine outflow. Human participation is essential if we are going to allow God’s blessing to become manifest in the world—especially when the forces of evil seems pervasively strong.
One of the great 15th century Jewish thinkers, Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444) offers some excellent advice about today’s problem in Israel. Albo concerned himself with the question about the efficacy of prayer. Albo writes:
One of the principle reasons people doubt the efficacy of prayer is also the same reason why people deny God’s knowledge. They reason: Either God has determined to grant a person a certain benefit, or He has not. If God has determined, then the act of prayer serves no purpose; if God has not determined, how can anyone think that his prayer is going to alter God’s will? God does not change from desiring to grant a person, or vice versa. For this reason, people say that proper conduct is useless in obtaining a desired benefit. Similarly, one cannot be saved from an evil that has been decreed against him. However, this opinion is erroneous for the heavenly flow that affects a person from Above depends upon the recipient’s readiness to receive the blessing. If one does not prepare oneself, he will not enjoy the bounty that God wishes to give him. This calls for an illustration. If God has determined that so-and-so will have a bountiful crop in a given year, and he neglects to perform the earthly chores to prepare the ground through plowing and sowing. All the rain of that God provides for the crops will be of no use since he has not performed the necessary work to enhance the land. In the end, he is responsible for his lack of bounty—since he did not take the necessary steps to prepare his land. From this illustration, we must conclude that any benefit is conditional upon the individual’s response and ethical conduct … the truth of the matter is simple: God desires to grant a benefit, but the blessings humans want must be earned.
By the same token, the fate of the entire Jewish nation depends upon everyone doing what is within their ability to accomplish. Studying Torah is important but we must not behave like the farmer who expects to have a bountiful crop without expending the necessary effort to prepare his field for God’s blessings. Having a dedicated cadre of 200 -500 of the country’s finest students would be a compromise worth pursuing. However, defending the country from her enemies is a biblical and ethical imperative that nobody in Israel can ignore.
The Haredi have demonstrated that they can contribute in a variety of significant ways to the betterment of Israeli society. There are some Haredi organizations that do outstanding work in helping people in times of national crisis, e.g., Hatzolah (the private Haredi ambulance and EMT service), or the Hasdei Naomi Institute that helps provide for indigent children in Israel.
The time has come for the rabbinical leaders in the Haredi world to step up to the plate and join the ranks of Israel’s soldiers—this alone offers the best human hope that God will indeed bless His people with strength.
 Numbers 32:1-7.
 Zohar, Genesis., 88a. The 17th century Halachic scholar, Rabbi David Segal (known as the TAZ), quotes this passage in conjunction with the miracle of Hanukkah and explains why the miracle of the Menorah lasted eight days (Cf. Orah Hayyim 670:1).
 Yosef Albo, Sefer Ikarim 4:18-19.
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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