By Shlomo Riskin
The tribes of Gad and Reuven are so taken with the grazing potential of the land east of the Jordan River that they request permission to remain there and establish their settlement. Moses rebukes them, insisting that they must first join the other tribes in battle, and only once the entire land is conquered, “may you return, so that you come out pure in the eyes of God and of Israel.” (Numbers 32: 22)
Rabbi Shaul Robinson (my successor at Lincoln Square Synagogue in N.Y., and a beloved student) was once surprised upon entering a Satmar bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to see a large Hebrew sign which read, “Shall your brethren go to war while you settle here?” He immediately asked the owners, “Can this be true? Have you really joined the ranks of the religious Zionists?” The owner of the bakery pointed out that this verse was actually being cited by the Satmar Chassidim to encourage participation in demonstrations in favor of Sabbath observance. The Satmar did not understand the irony in the verse whose meaning they were distorting for their purposes.
The Israeli haredi world is currently going through a cataclysmic shakeup. Until now, virtually all of their young men lived a life of exclusive Torah study. This is a result of Ben Gurion’s agreement with the Hazon Ish to fill the ranks of Torah scholarship, which had been so decimated by the Shoah.
There is now a strong likelihood that a great many, if not all, haredi young men will be called up for several years of national service. Interestingly enough, even before the present political constellation enabled the possibility of a haredi draft, many haredi young men were showing interest in joining the IDF, sharing the burden of military service and integrating themselves into the workforce.
There was never a halakhic justification for military exemptions for those studying Torah. Our sages declared that if Israel is under threat of attack, “Even a groom must leave his bridal chamber and even a bride must leave her nuptial canopy in order to protect our land and its citizenry” (Maimonides’ Laws of Kings 7:4). The great chassidic authority, Rabbi Isaac of Karlin, writes in his Talmudic commentary Keren Orah that, “In an obligatory war everyone goes to battle, and so even Torah scholars must be freed from their studies”. (Commentary to Sotah).
The ultra-Orthodox base their insistence upon exemption on two major sources. They cite the Sifrei (Numbers, Parshat Matot, 157), which comments on the biblical text enjoining universal military conscription: “With the exclusion of the Tribe of Levi“ – implying that the tribe of Levi was exempted from serving in the army! However, there is an alternative manuscript of this midrash which reads, “with the inclusionof the tribe of Levi”. This reading is preferred by Rashi, who insists that the tribe of Levi went out to battle against Midian – even though that battle was not an obligatory war in the classical sense (Numbers 31:4)
The second text they cite is the Talmudic ruling that the righteous deeds of Torah scholars guard them against attack, and thereby exempt them from sharing in the cost of defensive city walls (Baba Batra 7b). But the Tosafot (ad loc.) and the Hazon Ish (on Bava Batra 5:18) limit this exemption to defenses against robberies – monetary protection. If the wall is to be erected for the protection of human lives, even Torah scholars would be expected to contribute! After all, we dare not rely upon miracles when life is at stake.
Even within our Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 7b), there is a fascinating difference of opinion between Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish as to whether it is the Torah study or the righteous deeds that bring this protection. This question was seemingly resolved in an earlier generation in favor of righteous deeds. The discussion took place between two rabbis imprisoned during the Hadrianic persecutions. Rabbi Hananya ben Tradion noted that while he stood accused of only one crime, he would receive the death penalty while his colleague Rabbi Elazar ben Parta would survive despite having five accusations against him. Rabbi Hananyah ben Tradion attributed his colleague’s special good fortune to his performance of good deeds, “Because you occupied yourself with the study of Torah as well as the performance of good deeds, whereas I occupied myself exclusively with the study of Torah. And it has been taught: He who only studies Torah is compared to someone who has no God” (Avoda Zara 17b).
In the present Israeli climate, when businessmen – if they work alone – must simply close their shops and somehow absorb the loss of clientele for 30-90 days per year of reserve duty and young husbands must leave wives and families for the same period, what greater “good deed” could there be than lessening this pressure and sharing in this national obligation? What better way can there be to remove the resentment against the ultra-Orthodox and pave the way towards a united Jewish nation than by a united sharing of the burden as well as the merit of protecting our future?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.