Is service in Zahal today an obligation for every Jew in Israel, or may one engaged in sacred studies request an exemption in order to devote all his time to such studies? In the State of Israel today, despite our difficult security situation many, many thousands of young men and older men have done no military or paramilitary service whatever. The number increases from year to year. Among them are those who do not recognize the State, some who are newly religious, and others who recognize the State but feel themselves totally exempt on account of religious studies. The government permits and supports this arrangement. Our question: Does the halakhah justify this?
As a general principle, the Torah commands the responsibility of military service to every Israelite. There are temporary exceptions for those who are at a particular point in their lives and have not had the opportunity to savor specified major personal developments. And the one who is fearful – who is psychologically unfit – is exempt. The Rabbis tended to nullify the exemptions. Thus they saw the exemptions as temporarily waiving frontline duty only; there remained the obligation to perform auxiliary support services. They further nullified the exemption as applying only in the instance of an optional war. The commanded war, the necessary war, voids all exemptions. Surely pikuah nefesh – the saving of a life – is a commandment of the highest priority. In today’s world, service in Zahal, the Army of Israel, is an act of pikuah nefesh. It is at the same time a concretization of the commandment “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”. During the Biblical period one may understand that Levites and Priests as ritual functionaries and teachers were exempt from normal military duties. But even if there were such a broad exemption, it does not appear to have extended to a period of warfare. Among the commentators, some reject this approach to blanket exemption altogether. Others would apply it only to rare outstanding individuals – not as a basis for general exemption of large numbers. There is a Talmudic approach, which would exempt “rabbis” from some kinds of routine obligation. We surely do not see this as a basis for exempting large numbers of students from the commandment of saving Israel from its enemies.
Conclusion: Service in Zahal is a halakhic duty incumbent on every Jew living in the State of Israel. Whoever sees himself as engaged in important religious work has an even greater obligation to set an example by military service. Only in this way can he be properly prepared to effectively participate in a commanded war for the safety of the State of Israel. Not to do this involves violation of three major mitzvot: Participation in a commanded war for defense of the State of Israel; “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”; the saving of human life. To shirk this duty is to violate the halakhah.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Approved Unanimously 5747