My ten-year-old daughter came home from school one day with the following question on her lips: “Is it true that if all of Israel’s soldiers would study in Yeshiva instead, we wouldn’t need an army?” “No,” I answered matter-of-factly. “The Tanach tells us of many wars and battles, and no Jewish king or prophet ever considered abandoning the battlefield for the sake of exclusive Torah study.” “But why the question?” I dared ask. “Because this is what the teacher said in class,” she replied, “and one of the girls argued with her.”
The first time I ran into this argument in a school setting, I assumed it was a one-off. Perhaps an eccentric teacher with an extremist ideology. When the phenomenon repeated itself in different variations, however, I began to take it more seriously. The Charedi website “Shteigen” employs similar arguments to justify the avoidance of army service: “We ourselves,” explains one author to his Charedi readership, “have no issue with the question of why we don’t enlist. We know that if the entire Jewish People were to join us, there would be no wars.” a certain cheder (elementary school) teacher quite outdid himself when he taught the class that Israeli soldiers are an “army of suiciders.” What a tragic waste of human life; if they would only study Torah we could entirely avoid this unnecessary bloodshed.
Nonsense like this—you can’t make this stuff up—combined with an impressive supply of arrogance and condescension, are unrepresentative of general Charedi opinion. I am certainly not alone in finding such statements deeply offensive. Yet, their presence within ordinary Charedi schools (Litvish, in my case), alongside the fact that I’ve never heard any protest on the part of parents, teachers, or principals on this issue, highlights a deeper trend that requires attention. In short, the problem is that we have no organized, thought out, and well-articulated approach concerning army service. We don’t even have a disorganized one. Given this ideological vacuum, it’s no wonder that all sorts of odd and dubious views have taken root on the subject. Ultimately, they cause significant harm.
Ours is an era of frequent and inevitable exposure to non-Charedi content, values, and people, forcing us to think and educate even where we would otherwise refrain from doing so. Beyond the ideological plane, the State of Israel increasingly needs Charedi partnership in society, in public discourse, in politics, in education—everywhere. Even in the army
In this article, I aim to present an internal Charedi approach concerning the question of “Charedim and the army”—a question that comes up often, but especially around Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers—with an emphasis on the moral aspect of the question. Beyond taking any specific stance, I believe the discussion itself to be of high importance.
In the past, too, there was a need to justify Charedi non-service, whether internally (so we understand why our approach is right and moral) or outwardly (to rebuff attacks against “draft-dodging Charedim”). It seems, however, that even those who once endorsed simple adherence to Rabbinic objection against Charedi service in the IDF now require answers. Ours is an era of frequent and inevitable exposure to non-Charedi content, values, and people, forcing us to think and educate even where we would otherwise refrain from doing so. Beyond the ideological plane, the State of Israel increasingly needs Charedi partnership in society, in public discourse, in politics, in education—everywhere. Even in the army. We need to provide a response.
I will start by formulating the problem: the moral claim against Charedi society and its attendant issues. I will then cover various arguments that are raised in relation to the Charedi draft, noting that most derive from the urge to brush off the moral claim—a challenge that leads to distortions in our thought and even also in our understanding of the Torah. This includes the issue of pitting Torah study against military service (“I serve the stated by learning Torah,” as MK Moshe Gafni once said), which is also riven with confusion. Finally, I will get to the heart of the matter, arguing that making progress in traversing the minefield of “Charedim and the IDF” must rely on a recognition of a mutual moral obligation: one towards general society, and the other towards Charedi society. I will end with a partial vision for the future; perhaps only the distant future, but any vision is better than none.
“Shall Your Brothers Go to War and You Shall Sit Here?”
“Shall your brothers go to war and you shall sit here?” (Bamidbar 32:6). This, in a nutshell, is the fundamental and quite uncomplicated moral claim placed at the doorstep of Charedi society. The Torah presents the moral argument as a rhetorical question. Moshe Rabbeinu considered it indisputable: No parts of the nation, even those that took their portion outside the boundaries of the Promised Land, could be absent from the war effort against the nations of Canaan. The People of Israel, all of them, were charged with the national mission of conquering the land. It was clear to all that even the tribes of Gad and Reuven would do their part.
Circumstances today are quite different, but the demand from Charedi society is not dissimilar. We live in an age when the Jewish People are privileged to have returned to their land, maintaining a Jewish national life in which different groups—secularists, traditionalists, religious, and Charedim, each with its myriad sub-groups—get to participate. But our ability to live here is contingent on our capability to defend ourselves against enemies seeking to destroy us, whether by active war or by the deterrence achieved by military strength. The model for the State of Israel since its inception is a “people’s army” including an obligatory draft for all, except for Israeli Arabs, religious women, and Yeshiva students. In practice, the category of “Yeshiva students” includes the overwhelming majority of draft-age Charedim.
Why should a non-Charedi mother lose sleep over the fate of her uniformed son while Charedi mothers sleep soundly at night, and even take pleasure in their son’s presence at the Shabbos and festival tables?
We all benefit from the sacrifice of IDF soldiers—a sacrifice of close to three years that sometimes involves heavy loss of life (God forbid), injuries, and experiences that leave no few physical and emotional scars. On the other hand, we do not all share in the sacrifice. The exemption from service for Arabs does not involve heated public debate; their place in a Jewish national army fighting against Arab enemies raises obviously complex issues, which are sufficient grounds for exemption. The exemption for religious women, granted after the struggle of religious parties driven by Halachic issues, has become a matter of consensus and is not up for debate. The most burning issue is the arrangement that allows Charedi men to refrain from military service. What moral justification is there for Charedi society to enjoy the protection of the IDF without doing its part for the shared defense? Why should a non-Charedi mother lose sleep over the fate of her uniformed son while Charedi mothers sleep soundly at night, and even take pleasure in their son’s presence at the Shabbos and festival tables?
I would like to start with the assumption that this is a piercing moral demand. In itself, it contains neither cynicism nor mockery, neither hatred nor hostility. We face a simple duty by every moral yardstick. The Torah, as noted, endorses it, as does the imperative of basic human decency to which we are also bound. In ignoring it, let alone summarily dismissing it, we are doing ourselves an injustice, even before we do so to others—injustice in repressing our moral sense and injustice regarding our duty to perform the good and just in the eyes of God.
As I will clarify below, I am not arguing that we need to enlist en masse; nor do I claim that there is no defense for Charedi avoidance of army service. But without this basic moral assumption, we cannot hold an honest and reasonable discussion of the issue. If we cannot recognize the demand and treat it with the gravity it deserves, we will surely be unable to reach any kind of solution, whatever it may be, to the predicament. Beyond that, denying the problem causes us many second-order harms, deepening the moral pit we would already be digging ourselves.
Turning a Blind Eye
The common attitude towards military service in its various forms could be characterized as “willful blindness.” The army and IDF soldiers are barely present in Charedi education, both elementary and secondary. On IDF Memorial Day, Charedi schools continue “business as usual.” There is of course no ceremony in memory of the fallen, and the siren marking the moment of silence has no significance in Charedi institutions. The teacher may warn students that this is a “goyish custom”—but nothing beyond. In addition, Charedi synagogues do not customarily pray for the sake of IDF soldiers (though there are some Shuls, mine included, where the prayer is recited). Aside from war-related news items, the Charedi public sphere is IDF-free.
The solution of ignoring the moral issue, despite the convenience factor involved—as part of the general effort to isolate from the general Israeli public—is not free of significant drawbacks. The first result of this approach is distance, detachment, and estrangement, which serve to deepen the moral problem. A religious Zionist individual told me that when his son was about to enlist in combat service, a Charedi colleague at work asked him how he allows his son to serve: “Surely it’s a matter of pikuach nefesh!” The statement is ludicrous to the point of ridicule, and clearly an extreme case, but it remains representative of the detachment underlying the Charedi attitude. The army is “their” issue—the state’s and not “ours.” For us, it might even be forbidden on the grounds of “pikuach nefesh.”
There are obviously Charedi families who stress the duty to be grateful to the IDF, but the general inattention at the communal level and the overall atmosphere of tension substantially weaken the natural instinct we should all possess
Estrangement from the army threatens to undermine the minimal hakaras hatov we owe IDF soldiers based on elementary Torah morality. The Ramban (Devarim 23:5) explains that the rejection of Amonites from becoming part of the Jewish People for their sin of not providing the latter with bread and water was due to a flaw in this most basic virtue: showing gratitude (Avraham Avinu, the father of the Jewish People, saved Lot, the founding father of Amon). Our negligence in expressing gratitude to those who sacrifice for our benefit is thus no small matter. There are obviously Charedi families who stress the duty to be grateful to the IDF, but the general inattention at the communal level and the overall atmosphere of tension substantially weaken the natural instinct we should all possess. It is clear that when it comes to the general Israeli public, the absence of appreciation and gratitude on our part only amplifies the sense of grievance.
Beyond this, the vacuum created by an approach of turning a blind eye does not remain empty. As Chazal teach (Shabbos 22a), if a pit is empty of water, we can assume it contains snakes and scorpions. In our context, if there is no set approach to the army, chances are that the attitude will turn dismissive, humiliating, and even hostile. The moniker of “the army of spiritual destruction”—the word shmad recalls the darkest of times—is albeit used mainly by extremist Charedi groups, but we no longer feel the sense of instinctive revulsion the term ought to evoke. A Charedi person who calls soldiers “Nazis” will still get an Aliyah in shul or receive charitable donations for his child’s next wedding; the demonization of soldiers, moreover—especially Charedi soldiers—has become an acceptable practice. Aside from the internal harm caused by these phenomena, they cause a great deal of chillul Hashem among those outside our community.
The Danger of an Ideological Vacuum
Even at the ideological level, the harms caused by ignoring the issue are far from marginal, and an inevitable result of this neglect is confusion. We can live with it for a time, but it will ultimately come back to bite us.
This is amply demonstrated when it is no longer possible to ignore the issue. The army question sometimes demands an answer, be it internally when somebody approaches a teacher or the mashgiach at a Yeshiva, at outreach-oriented seminars, or in general encounters with the broader public. In these cases, and others, the response is often to simply deny all charges. Instead of dealing with the problem, an attempt is made to reduce it to a minimum, claim it doesn’t exist, or treat it as an optical illusion. Excuses for the avoidance of service made in this vein include “we also serve in the IDF;” “the army doesn’t need Charedim;” “the army has plenty of paper-pushers who don’t risk their lives;” “the army isn’t run according to Daas Torah;” and so on.
Arguments such as these are weak evasions of the real problem. We all know that Charedim, aside from small and very distinct groups, do not serve in the IDF. The question of the army’s needs is irrelevant to the moral question. The paper-pushers are part of the army system, contributing according to skills and abilities, and cannot be compared to those outside of it. And, indeed, the army is naturally run by army people—it would be difficult to expect anything else. One could elaborate on each of these arguments at far greater length, and the treatment above is admittedly simplistic, but these claims are ultimately a smokescreen, masking the reality that there is nothing real behind them.
Already in 2006, MK Moshe Gafni noted that “it is far from clear that we need to continue with the mandatory draft into the IDF; we need to hire professional soldiers and compensate them accordingly.” Without debating the relative merits and shortfalls of draft armies versus volunteer armies, I believe that as a group that avoids army service it is hardly our place to be the vanguard of such change
Also included in the same framework is the proposal to abolish the “people’s army” model and replace it with a “voluntary army” framework. Already in 2006, MK Moshe Gafni noted that “it is far from clear that we need to continue with the mandatory draft into the IDF; we need to hire professional soldiers and compensate them accordingly.” Without debating the relative merits and shortfalls of draft armies versus volunteer armies, I believe that as a group that avoids army service it is hardly our place to be the vanguard of such change. If our aim is to remove the stain of service avoidance, we should find other, more elegant ways to do so.
Torah Study vs. Military Service
A more serious and significant argument, worthy of its own section, regards Torah study.
The original reason for the deferral of Yeshiva students’ army service was Torah study. To be more precise, Ben Gurion ordered that they be freed from the obligatory draft to allow the rebuilding of the Torah world destroyed in the Holocaust, as documented in the Knesset record of 1958. Today, that “Torah world” is far larger than it was in pre-WWII Europe, and the number of Torah students, may their number augment further, has skyrocketed beyond anything known to human history.
Today, instead of the original purpose of rebuilding the Torah world, Charedi apologetics must recruit creative argumentation to ground its position. One of the common arguments refers to the military significance of Torah study. To quote one Charedi author on the subject:
The Torah describes a reality in which a third of the population studies Torah, a third works, and a third serves in the military. This was the case for the army of King David. Just as the Home Front Command and Intelligence Corps, which serve alongside the combatant army, so too do we need the army of God that studies Torah in purity, providing the spiritual foundation of our survival. Today, Charedim are only 9% of the population, and we lack many soldiers in the army of God before we reach a third of the Jewish People. We also find the agreement of Zevulun and Yissaschar in the Torah, which demonstrates that God wishes the different parts of the Jewish People to be responsible for each other.
This passage indicates just how deeply confused we are when it comes to comparing Torah study to military service. Where does the Torah describe a reality of “a third of the population studying Torah”? Is there any documentation that this was the case in King David’s wars? What possible connection could the draft issue have to the “Yissaschar-Zevulun agreement”? And even if there are midrashim hinting at any of the above, did any of the great Torah leaders of past generations think to implement such ideas in practice, as the author seeks to do? Anybody familiar with the paths of halacha knows that such argumentation is simply ludicrous.
Another popular saying often quoted in this context is the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shemittah and Yovel:
Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites. And thus David declared: “God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot.”
Though a truly wondrous statement, the Rambam’s reference to “any inhabitant of the world” whose “spirit generously motivates him” clearly cannot apply to an entire public chosen only by virtue of birth. The Rambam refers to truly gifted and exceptional people who separate themselves from the world, devoting themselves to the spiritual and the holy while detaching from all things material. Is the Charedi public, exceptional individuals aside, detached from the material world in a manner befitting the Rambam’s definition? And can one be born into the definition while demanding that others do the work for us? Moreover, the Rambam, whose words are also Aggadah is their orientation (as the way of the Rambam in closing sets of laws), says nothing about military service. It seems, once again, that applying the statement to our reality is nothing but a smokescreen.
The simple truth needs to be said: military service and Torah study are not commensurable!
How have we nevertheless adopted such views in our community? The answer is as noted above: When there is a vacuum, especially a vacuum of ideas, it will necessarily be filled with something. More often than not, that uncontrolled “something” will not be particularly complimentary. The simple truth needs to be said: military service and Torah study are not commensurable! First, these activities are entirely different and quite incomparable: one is forced, a civic duty imposed by the state, while the other is voluntary, a personal or communal choice to learn in Yeshiva. Torah study, moreover, can be engaged anywhere and everywhere; the Sages derive the constant duty of Torah study from Yehoshua, who studies Torah on the battlefield itself (Eruvin 63b). But beyond this, the essence and aim of these activities are utterly different: Military service is about allowing us to live in our country by defending the State, while Torah study involves learning how to live and spreading God’s word throughout the world.
Military service allows us to live, while Torah study gives that life a purpose. These are two different things, and the apologetic effort to mix the two together can only be harmful and confusing. At the same time, and without comparing the two, one of the proper justifications for avoiding military service is indeed a concern for the continued success and flourishing of the Torah world.
Where to Draw the Line
As mentioned at the outset, the moral demand to share the burden of military service and protect the Jewish nation dwelling in Zion is clear and simple. Halachically, protection of the country’s borders falls under the concept of a milchemes mitzvah, a war that constitutes a religious obligation. We are all part of it. Many decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin zt”l already expressed wonder concerning a certain rabbinic proclamation on the matter, asking “why should Torah scholars be exempt from participating in a milchemes mitzvah of saving the Jewish People from its enemy who seeks to eradicate and destroy them, God forbid?”
On the other hand, there is also a simple obligation, incumbent upon all of us, to establish and ensure the continued success of Torah institutions and the emergence and growth of Torah scholars who will be a credit to their generation and fulfill the promise that “[Torah] will not be forgotten from his seed.” This duty is anchored in Halacha, but it also includes a moral dimension relevant to the entire Jewish People. The Torah is our national heritage; we are all responsible for its continued development and flourishing. If the army grants an exemption (or at least significant leniencies) to excelling athletes, then it should certainly grant an exemption to Torah students—those who maintain the supreme value of the Jewish People.
There is therefore an obligation to participate in military service, and there is an equal obligation to encourage and develop Torah study. How can we maintain both?
There is therefore an obligation to participate in military service, and there is a separate obligation to encourage and develop Torah study. How can we maintain both? The answer is that it is good and proper that Yeshiva students, those who invest all their time and energy in Torah study, should be legitimately exempted from military service. The question of where the line is drawn is of course of paramount importance, and I do not have a simple answer to it. Creating a working formula, one that will incorporate age, diligence, excellence, and all the other parameters that might be relevant in establishing the balance between military service and Yeshiva study—and how this formula will change over time—is not my subject matter. But the current lack of clarity as to boundaries need not mask the foundation, which is a mutual obligation: participation in army service on the one hand, and the flourishing of Torah centers on the other.
The duty of the hour is to internalize the importance and obligation of military service and to apply its consequences: gratitude towards those serving in the IDF, support for those who enlist, and refraining from making irresponsible statements that fail to respect all those involved in the debate.
The question of consequences brings us to an issue worthy of emphasis in conclusion: What about young Charedi men who are outside of Yeshiva? Or in other words: So why do we refrain from army service?
Those Outside the Yeshiva
I recently spoke with a Yeshiva student whom I invited to share a drive from Kiryat Sefer to Ramot, Jerusalem. As we talked, it turned out he was thinking about his future. Not finding satisfaction in his Yeshiva studies, he had already begun to work part-time in a clothing store and was considering his next steps. While discussing his plans, I brought up the army issue: “And what about army service?” He responded by explaining that this is not a problem: several friends manage to combine employment with Yeshiva registration, thereby dodging the draft. “And what do you say about the moral question? If you’re not studying in Yeshiva, how are you any different than other Israelis your age?” After a few moments of silence, he responded: “Truth is, I never thought about it.”
In the past, it was clear that a young man who is not occupied in Torah study must enlist in the IDF. The Chazon Ish even stated that “Somebody who exploits the right of deferral of Yeshiva students is a rodef, and sins towards all Yeshiva students.” Today, by contrast, things are altogether different. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, in a lecture he gave two years ago, stressed that anyone in Yeshiva, even if they study but little, should not enlist, lest they be harmed spiritually and religiously: “Our army is not like the army of King David! […] There is licentiousness, foul language. So how can you say such a thing?”
Rabbi Yosef is partially right. A God-fearing Charedi young man who is diligent in Halacha but does not find his place in the study hall will have a hard time maintaining his level of religious practice in the army—certainly when his default placement will be a combat unit. The Netzach Yehuda organization does wonderful work with Charedi soldiers in the IDF, and their involvement both during active service and with army veterans has assisted thousands of soldiers maintain and even augment their level of religious observance and connection with Hashem. Yet, the profile of the Charedi soldier entering the IDF is all too far from the Halachially fastidious Yeshiva student who has a hard time concentrating on his learning. For the latter, the army is not a viable option.
It is “their army” rather than “ours,” and we are therefore not overly concerned by the fact that the religious and spiritual level does not befit the Charedi individual
This, in the end, together with the deeper issue of closer identification with the State, is the central justification for Charedi avoidance of the draft. Yet, the justification is weak because we are responsible, at least partially, for the fact that the army remains an inappropriate venue for our children. Our army is indeed not like that of King David, and we’re quite content to keep it that way so that the option of army service remains beyond the pale for the vast majority of Charedi society. It is “their army” rather than “ours,” and we are therefore not overly concerned by the fact that the religious and spiritual level does not befit the Charedi individual. “We” will continue to maintain the commitment to our way of life, while “they” will serve in the IDF, and all will be well.
My main point in this article is that this is a fallacy: not all will be well. The spiritual condition of the army does not grant us an exemption from the principled requirement to serve, and our attitude of burying heads in the sand creates the moral conundrum of young men who take the protection of the IDF for granted while active service never crosses their mind. In all his years in Yeshiva, the moral duty of army service never occurred to the student in the passenger seat beside me. He had perhaps internalized some combination of the standard excuses common to Charedi society (as detailed above), and, more likely, had never had the occasion to think about the subject. Is this the good and the just that Hashem expects of us?
At the outset, I mentioned Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and perhaps this is a good place to conclude. Over the five or so year, a new trend of Charedi ceremonies marking fallen soldiers has emerged, spearheaded by the Netzach Yehuda (Nahal Charedi) organization. Moreover, the Netzach Yehuda event is broadcast on Charedi (Internet) news outlets, a phenomenon that both reflects changing sentiments and also catalyses greater awareness and a continued shift in attitudes. This grass-roots inspired change, alongside a popular project of reciting Tehillim for fallen shoulders, should certainly be celebrated; but they remain only initial small steps.
The more we understand the moral imperative I have tried to emphasize, the more we will embark on projects and initiatives that can create a suitable environment in which we can serve, and which can also bring the army itself closer to the national ideal to which we aspire. Today, such initiatives remain few and far between, though the recent formation of a Charedi Hesder Yeshiva and Charedi Mechinot programs is another step in the right direction. Far, far more remains to be done.
Religious Zionist society, after years of challenging experience, established the army Yeshiva division to ensure their students maintain their level of religion during their years of service. If they used to enter the army on a high religious level and left less impassioned, today the challenging arena is academia rather than the IDF. Though we cannot simply “copy-paste” from this to the Charedi situation—matters of identity, education, and the prevalent Charedi mindset are all significant issues that must be taken into consideration—it is high time we began to think of our own solutions to the problem of the Charedi draft. The issue is thorny, and every initiative has a reasonable chance of failure, yet there is no excuse for not trying.
On occasion, there is room to justify the pay-no-attention approach; one need not always act. I believe this is not the case when it comes to Charedi army service. In this case, there is no room for indifference and for the hope that if we do nothing, it will all turn out alright. This is a false hope. We must take action, and the first step toward doing so is internalizing the imperative.
 Rambam, Laws of Shemittah and Yovel, Chap. 13, no. 13.
 Quoted by Vaad Hayeshivot director Rabbi Asher Tanenbaum z”l, Erev Shabbat 11.12.87.