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June 8, 2024 – 11:29 pm | Comments Off on The Ultra Orthodox Draft41 views

Amid Israel’s war in Gaza, there is talk of drafting yeshivah students into the army to bolster its ranks. On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Torah, so I want to write about the role of Torah in war. The Torah is not just a dusty old book …

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The Ultra Orthodox Draft

Submitted by on June 8, 2024 – 11:29 pmNo Comment | 41 views


Amid Israel’s war in Gaza, there is talk of drafting yeshivah students into the army to bolster its ranks. On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Torah, so I want to write about the role of Torah in war. The Torah is not just a dusty old book for religious scholars. It is the light of the world. Matters of commerce, diplomacy, and even war are all guided by the Torah.

Let me say up front that being called to the army and risking our lives to defend our land is the highest level of merit. Maimonides (Laws of Kings 7:15) writes, “those who fight with their entire hearts, with no fear, with intention to sanctify G-d name, will find no harm and no bad will overtake them. They will build a home in Israel and gather merit for themselves and their children forever.  And they will merit eternal life in the world to come.” Nothing compares to the merit of soldiers who risk their lives for Israel.

Chareidi or not, anyone who can fight to defend our land, should. Whether there should be a blanket deferment for Torah study, rotating army shifts across the yeshivah, etc., are details that can be resolved. However, on the overall issue, I am in favor of every Jew contributing to the war effort.

Here is where we come to an important caveat. The war effort entails many missions. There are planners, commanders, fighters, drivers, maintenance workers, kitchen staff, engineer corps, administrators, and many more. Torah study is one of the efforts that are key to victory. This does not mean that anyone registered to a yeshivah is exempt from the front lines. Only those who are as disciplined in study as soldiers are in war. In other words, the yeshivah is a division in the army.

It is critical that we have enough soldiers on the front lines and with the changing demographics, yeshivah students must contribute. But not at the price of compromising the yeshivah division.

In his youth, King David was a warrior. He continued to fight on the front lines after he became king. One day, in a battle against the Philistines, he nearly lost his life. At this point, his men swore, “You will no longer go out to war with us so you will not extinguish the lamp of Israel” (II Shmuel 21:17). As important as it was for their king to lead them in battle, preserving the light of Israel was more important.

Henceforth, when his soldiers made war, King David preserved the light of Israel through prayer, Psalms, and Torah study. The wars were led by his warrior, general Joab. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 49a) states, “If not for David’s study, Joab could not wage war and if not Joab’s war, David could not study.”

Without victory, David would be unable to study. But without David’s Torah study and prayer, the warriors would not have won the war. G-d once told King David, “You spilled much blood and fought great wars” (I Kings 22:8). Because his Torah study enabled his army to fight, it is considered as if he fought the war. David took part in the death of very enemy combatant slayed by his warriors.

You can have the best weapons and soldiers, but if they are not nourished, they won’t have the strength to win the war. Similarly, if the soldiers are not spiritually nourished by prayer and Torah study, they won’t win the war. Soldiers on the front lines can’t study Torah or pray. They rely on those behind the lines to do it for them. As chefs in the kitchen contribute to the war effort, so do students in the yeshivah.

Let me offer an analogy. Generals and strategic planners sit in command centers and plan the war. If someone complained that they send others into battle while protecting themselves, it would be ludicrous for them to shut down the command centers and dash off into battle. Just as the army requires generals and privates, so does the nation require a physical army and a spiritual army. On the surface, you only see the contribution of the physical army, but that does not diminish the role of the spiritual army.

There is no question that the glory goes to the soldiers on the front lines. And it should. When the army returns from battle, the soldiers deserve to be serenated, not the king. Yet, it was because of King David’s prayer and study that the army triumphed. The army is at the forefront, but the backseat driver is critical.

The backseat driver receives little credit. Yeshivah students can’t expect to receive a medal or flowery headlines for their efforts. Their neighbors return home with war stories and glory; they return home with tattered books of Talmud. Their neighbors receive commendations; they receive condemnations.

Yet, if they walked away from the yeshivah and run off to the front lines, they would have deserted their post. Just as a soldier who deserts the front lines to study in yeshivah is court martialed, so should a yeshivah student who deserts his studies and runs off to the front lines be court martialed. Each has a role, and each must play it. Without either, the war can’t be won. The student preserves the lamp of Israel, the soldier fights in the light of that lamp.

There are draft exemptions for athletes who compete for the Olympics. They are not expected to go to war because they serve their country in other ways. The same is true of the diplomatic corp. They don’t go to the front lines; they fight their wars in the corridors of power. If either should desert their post and run off to war, they would be deserters. Yeshivah students are no different.

However, only students who are serious about their studies contribute to the war effort. Only students who are disciplined and diligent, who drive themselves relentlessly as soldiers in basic training, belong in the yeshivah. You don’t need to be a master scholar; you can be an ignoramus. But you have to be diligent and study with a complete heart.

Most important, you need to regard your role in the yeshivah not as an exemption but as a service. You are not there to skirt the draft; you are drafted to a key role. You are fighting in a unique and critical way. You are studying Torah for the Jewish nation and the Jewish land. You are studying to protect Jewish lives. You can’t put your head down and rest when you are tired. You are on duty until your shift ends.

And just as there are non-stop shifts on the front lines, so must there be continual shifts in the yeshivah. As there cannot be a moment without soldiers on guard duty, so can there not be a moment without students on study duty. It is your mission; your duty to G-d, the Jewish land, and the Jewish nation.

Anyone who is willing and capable of fighting the war in the yeshivah division of the army is welcome so long as there are enough fighters to wage war on the front lines. Anyone unwilling to commit to this rigorous discipline, is not welcome in the yeshivah division. Their country and people need them on the front lines. Ducking out to waste time in the yeshivah renders them deserters.

The Torah is a Torah of light. It enlightens us to the deeper layers of truth. On the surface, it appears that wars are won and lost by soldiers on the front lines. But if you see by the light of Torah, you find that the war is fought on many levels. The fighters on the front line deserve all the credit and glory. The fighters behind the lines, in the yeshivah, provide a critical ingredient necessary to win a war. To fight a war, you need to be alive. The Torah is our life and the length of our days.

Bar Kochba famously said, “G-d, if you choose not to help us, don’t aid our enemies either.” He had the superior army, yet he lost because he turned his back on G-d, asking Him to sit out the war. Embracing the yeshivah students as soldiers in our war embraces G-d in our war efforts. Embracing the yeshivah as a division of the army, embraces G-d in our war efforts. With G-d, we will always win.[1]

[1] This essay is based on Toras Menachem 5727:3, p. 199; 240; Toras Menachem 5728:1, pp. 71–76.

Torah study wins wars
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