As I write, our beloved state of Israel is in the throes of a war with Hamas in Gaza—and whenever Israel agrees to a truce, for the benefits of the Gazan inhabitants, it is Hamas who breaks it, and the lives of the people in the Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF, Tzahal, are always at risk.
Unfortunately, most of the male members of the Haredi community in Israel, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands, refuse to join Tzahal. This problem is a major social and political issue in the Jewish community. This article is not to be construed as an evaluation or assessment of our Haredi brethren. It is solely my approach to the question posed in the title of this article.
Haredim claim to be Torah-true Jews and believe they are better Jews than those who do not observe mitzvos as they do. They are also aware that their fellow Jews in Tzahal, whom they deprecate, would not let them down and would prevent their delivery into enemy hands. Consequently, the Haredim contentedly take advantage of this kindness, and refuse to participate in defending their ownlives. Perhaps they believe that they don’t need the IDF at all and that Hashem will protect them as a reward for their piety.
But is this thinking and behavior true to Torah precedents and values? Just a few weeks ago, we read the Torah’s response to the tribes of Reuven and Menashe who wished to settle on the East Bank of the Jordan after Israel conquered those lands. Moshe asked, “[Is it fair that] your brethren (who just conquered this land that you wish to occupy) will go to war (to conquer the rest of the land and destroy our enemies who can attack you here) and you will sit here?” At that point the men of Reuven and Menashe agreed to join the forces of their fellow Israelites to complete the conquest and secure their own territory.
It is the custom of Haredim in Israel to eschew military service and also to reject training for their economic self sufficiency. They learn in Yeshiva through adolescence, marriage and large families. Tens of thousands of Israeli haredim spend their lives in a Yeshiva, and have never worked in their lives. They survive on welfare, charitable contributions and sometimes with the help of their wives’ employment. These men are not drafted to serve in Tzahal because they take advantage of an Israeli law freeing Yeshiva students from army service. This entitlement stems from an agreement made by Prime Minister Ben Gurion who needed the support of the Agudath Israel at the inception of the Jewish State. At the time of the original agreement with Ben Gurion, there were a few hundred Yeshiva students in the Yishuv. I doubt Ben Gurion envisioned a society 65 years later with 80,000 men of military age who never served in Tzahal, living off Israeli welfare system while they sit and learn.
True, there are some 3,000 Haredim who are indeed members of Tzahal. Unfortunately, these Tzahal volunteers face hostility from their peers in the Haredi world when they come home on leave in uniform. This article is not directed at them, and indeed, they are devoted young men. I direct this to the men who harass such soldiers.
Do the Haredim truly believe that Hashem will battle the invaders without anyone having to lift a finger? At Krias Yam Suf, the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds, Moshe told our ancestors “Don’t fear, stand fast and see the salvation of Hashem….Hashem shall do battle for you.” A command by Hashem to the Jews to stand fast and do nothing to defend themselves has happened only once in our entire history.
Are the Haredim looking for more miracles of this nature? The rabbis of the Gemara tell us: “Do not rely on miracles.” But by refusing to join Tzahal, aren’t these men ignoring the counsel of Chazal? Further, our rabbis have told us that the age of miracles is over.
Are there any Halachic, rabbinical or historical bases that justify the Haredim who refrain from serving and expect Hashem to do the job? The Gemara tells us “Ma’aseh Avos, Siman L’banim.” ( The doings of our forefathers are a model for their progeny to follow). What can we learn from the Avos, our forefathers?
According to the Gemara, the Avos observed the whole Torah even before it was given. Yet, when Avraham Avinu’s nephew Lot was captured during the battle of the five kings vs. the four kings, did Avraham run to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever and sit down to learn, or did he go to war to save his nephew? The Torah says that he “armed his disciples…and he pursued them (the enemy).” Shouldn’t this be a model for Torah-true Jews to follow? Why do Haredim think that it is sufficient to sit and learn when they and the entire State of Israel are in danger?
Later, we learn of Ya’akov Avinu’s confrontation with Esav ha’rasha, who approached him with an army of 400 men. What did Ya’akov do? He prayed to Hashem, “Please save me from my brother, Esav.” Now at this point, Ya’akov had already spent 14 years studying Torah day and night at the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever. But he didn’t rely on this. When Esav approached, Yaakov did not bury himself in a sefer; he sent tribute to appease Esav; and as a backup, he prepared for battle.
In addition to davening, why don’t the Haredim consider it their role to prepare for real-time battle in view of the ever present existential threat against them and the country they live in? Do the Haredim today believe they have more Z’chuyos (merits with Hashem) than our Avos who went to battle to defend themselves?
Of course we aven and hope that Hashem will protect us; but throughout our history our ancestors took up weapons to meet their enemies. When Hashem freed us from the bondage of Egypt, the Torah states that “The children of Israel were armed when they went up from Egypt.” Rashi explains that the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that they had weapons so that later when our ancestors confronted the armies of Sichon, Og and the Midianites, people would not wonder “How did the Jews battle these people without weapons?”
True, there is a Drash that the Jews were “armed” with Mitzvos. But Rashi always says “ayn hamikra yotsze mi’day p’shuto” i.e., we give first consideration to the plain literal sense of the verse: Bnai Yisroel left Mitzra’im armed and prepared for battle.
When Hashem told Moshe to take a census of the people, He used the phrase “from twenty years and older, all those who go out to the army in Israel.” He didn’t say “Exclude the Yeshiva students.”
When Amelek attacked Israel soon after the exodus, Moshe did not say to Y’hoshua “Go round up a few Yeshiva boys and tell them to learn Torah” He said: “Choose us some men and go do battle with Amalek.” Moshe stood on the mountaintop and prayed, but he did not assume that Hashem would destroy the enemy without military effort by Yisroel. Moshe prayed for the men in battle fighting the enemy face to face…and the Torah says that when he lifted his eyes to our Father in heaven, Israel prevailed.
When we became a nation, as described throughout the Chumash, we were encouraged to go into battle to invade the seven nations of Canaan and to destroy their altars and statues and inhabit the land. It was an obligatory battle. All male Jews of a certain age were obliged to fight. In fact a Parsha of the Torah begins with the phrase “When you go into battle against your enemies.” Hashem adjures us not to fear because He will be with us. The Torah does make provision for deferments, but not for permanent exemptions. For example, just before a battle, the Kohanim and the military officials are told to address the men, and a newly married man is told to leave the ranks, go back and spend the first year of marriage at home so that “he may gladden his wife whom he has married.” Of all the deferments cited, the Torah does not mention the one Haredim use today: that learning Torah is a reason to be exempt from military service.
When we were ready to enter Canaan under the leadership of Y’hoshua, we called upon Hashem again when the Kohanim took the Ark and stood in the Jordan to stop it from flowing, so the Jews could cross. But once this happened, Moshe spoke to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe and the Torah says “40,000 men armed for war passed on to the plains of Yericho.” When the Jews attacked the city of Ai, Hashem told Y’hoshua: “Stretch out the javelin that is in thy hand towards Ai for I will give it into thy hand.” How can the Haredim justify their pacifistic stand in the face of Jewish history and the model of our Avos and prophets?
In our studies of Jewish history, we find again and again, that our ancestors prayed to Hashem for Y’shua, but did not rely on this alone. Dovid confronted Golyas in the name of Hashem, but did not wave a sefer at his enemy. Dovid used his slingshot, and after felling the giant, took the giant’s sword and slew him. After the death of our first king Shaul during a battle with the Phillistines, Dovid lamented the loss and stated (that it was important) “To teach the sons of Judah (fight with) the bow.”
And so it was with the Makkabim who did not hide behind their role as Kohanim, but under Matisyahu , the Kohen Gadol, and later his son, Yehuda,battled against the Syrian-Greeks who had invaded our land and defiled the Bais Hamikdash.
Even after the destruction of the Second Temple, when Bar Kochba decided to rebel against the Romans he was encouraged by the revered Rabbi Akiva. Clearly, when it came to defending Eretz Yisroel against the cruel Hadrian who tried to eradicate our religion our ancestors had the backing of the religious authorities of the day.
Reuben E. Gross PhD is a licensed psychologist and marriage counselor with an office in Teaneck NJ for the past 40 years. He specializes in the problems of couples and singles of marriageable age. He is a member of Bnai Yeshurun. Dr. Gross can be reached at 201 837 0066 or from his website, MarriageCounselorNJ.com
By Reuben E. Gross, PhD