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Friday, May 31, 2013

Yeshiva Students and the Army

One of the difficult issues I faced when making aliyah some thirty years ago was accepting the fact that I would be drafted into the army. I grew up in the States during the Vietnam War era and had a kind of reflex reaction against anything military. At the same time, I understood that Israel's situation was one of being under constant military threat from its neighbors and, as such, came to accept that living here entailed personal responsibility to help defend against that threat.

I came to this conclusion in part by consideration of halachic sources. Despite the decision by numerous charedi (ultra-Orthodox) leaders to not allow their followers to join the army, I felt strongly that this was a misguided decision based on what I had learned.

However, knowing that my grasp of halachic sources was (and is) greatly limited, I approached Rav Mordechai Savitsky z”l, whom I have mentioned previously in this blog, to ask his opinion. Rav Savitsky was well known in the charedi world and, in fact, had been asked to be the head of the rabbinic court for the EdahHachareidis back in the 1970s, a highly prestigious position which he turned down (and I intend to speak about that decision in a future post). I had the privilege to study with and ask numerous halachic questions from Rav Savitsky during the time I lived in Boston and even after my aliyah considered him to be my rav.

I asked Rav Savitsky simply if halacha dictated that I must accept going into the army. Rav Savitsky's initial reply was a deflection: he stated that I should not worry and that he had connections who could get me an exemption.

I persisted, though, and presented my argument. I put it to him that if, chas v'chalilah, the Israeli army would cease to exist, the entire Jewish population of Israel would be in mortal danger. Therefore, one should see that being in the Israeli army is, in fact, an act of saving lives (פיקוח נפש – pikuach nefesh). I then pointed out to the rav the gemara which states in a b'raita:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף פד עמוד ב ואין עושין דברים הללו לא על ידי נכרים ולא על ידי כותיים, אלא על ידי גדולי ישראל.

Babylonian Talmud Yoma 84b: ...and we do not do these things (to violate the Shabbat for a person whose life is in danger) by way of non-Jews or by way of Cuthites, rather by way of the great of Israel (gedolei Yisrael).

This gemara is brought down in the most prominent halachic works including the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 2:3) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 328:12).

Thus, I argued, it is davka the talmidei chachamim (the learned sages) and their students who should be the first to volunteer for the army.

Rav Savitsky smiled and replied simply, “You're right.”

I left it at that and, when I was drafted, went to the army. As it happened, I was never actually called for active duty, but that's another story.

Let me point out here that many charedim do serve in the army, although as of yet they are still a minority. Why the charedi leaders do not adopt the position that there is an actual obligation to join the army is another question.

The connection to this week's parsha and my story comes by way of a book called אם הבנים שמחה (Em Habanim S'mecha-The Mother of the Children is Happy) by RavYissacher Shlomo Teichtal. I will elucidate in my next posting.


  1. אם הבנים שמחה One of my favorite Books...

  2. Thank you for sending me your parsha thoughts on military service in Israel. Roy E Feldman

  3. A very disturbing story, though you've mentioned it to me before. Unlike the charedi leaders who do not adopt the position that there is an actual obligation to join the army, Rav Savitsky does adopt this position, since he told you that this position is correct. So why not say so from the start instead of assuring you that he can use protektizia to get you out? Even if he mistakenly thought it wasn't what you wanted to hear, isn't it the job of a spiritual leader to say what's right, even if it isn't what people want to hear? His admission that you're right is a tribute to his intellectually honesty, and I think that many charedi leaders would not have admitted this. But even so, his admitting it only when cornered, and not saying it up front is a real problem. - Alan Yaniger

  4. Alan, thanks for your comments. Of course, I agree with you and was disappointed with Rav Savitsky's initial response. However, as you point out, he showed his intellectual honesty by agreeing with my argument. I did not press this further although I would have loved for him to publicize this opinion.

    My 'dan l'chaf z'chut' understanding of the initial response is that Rav Savitsky came from a world where direct support for the Israeli government was not acceptable. I don't think it is surprising that he hadn't come to my conclusion by himself given the discourse he was likely involved in. I don't know for certain as in the all the years I knew him we did not discuss politics. And, yes, when confronted with my argument he accepted it rather than use arguments common in the charedi world.

    What disturbs me now is that not only do charedi leaders not accept this argument, they do not deal with it at all. Furthermore, many of their followers are smitten with the notion that because of 'daas Torah' they are not in a position to question their leaders.

    Rav Savisky wrote about this misuse of the term 'daas Torah' and I intend to blog about that, as well.

  5. People in the yeshiva world, especially Americans dealing with the unfamiliar situation of the Israeli draft, simply operate in self-preservation mode. They don't ask the unfamiliar questions because it is a can of worms that they instinctively don't want to open. People who were in Bnai Akiva are idealistic about serving in the army and it is in their heads. Rav Savitsky was presumably just operating on automatic pilot until you asked him the question and he dealt with it. In general rabbis posken in a reactive rather than proactive mode. He thought the question was "how do I get out of going to the army" rather than "what do I really have to do". That is pretty much the way psak deals with new phenomena. Unfortunately with the speed that change is occurring, it is rather kludgy and getting worse, and I have no idea how to improve the response time.

    Yehoshua Friedman