Approach of Torah Jews to the Modern State of Israel & Army Service


I write this article after a gathering of 300,000 – 600,000 Jews in one place to protest recent army service.  This is not to be minimized, though very non-understood.  Why are so many Torah observant Jews opposed to army service?  Well, I was going to write mostly on that and try and make sense of it, but “Rabbi Akiva” does a much better job of it.  He is a Lubovitch Rabbi who serves in the Israeli army reserves and has both a son and daughter who served in the Israeli army.  After a quick synopsis of some of his articles, it’s on to the Torah observant approaches to the modern state of Israel.  I have spent much time trying to understand the different approaches and which opinion I believe.  I am going to try and keep my opinion out of it and just explain those opinions of others, which is actually quite easy as my mind is still not made up.  I can argue most (not all) of these opinions.

An “Ultra-Orthodox” Jew’s Experience with the Israeli Army

Rather than re-invent what’s already been well written by someone closer to the issue than I am, I direct you to three articles by “Rabbi Akiva” a Lubovitch Rabbi in Israel.  He runs the blog.

2014-03-02 Great Prayer Rally 019[6]Article 1: His Daughter in a regular unit without religious soldiers.  In short, she went to the army against his wishes to serve the country there.  She was well treated and special accommodations were made for her religious dress (she strictly wears long skirts only) and her job was to be in charge of kashrus on the base, making that a bit easier for her.  Suffice to say, it wasn’t easy for her in an environment antithetical to religious values.  I had heard similarly from Rav Mendel Weinbach zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem.  He was supposed to look the other way when men and women went into each other’s barracks.  It’s not an environment for a Torah observant Jew, especially not one who is 18 years old and still figuring out life.  A similar problem exists, and is one in which most Torah observant Jews avoid in the United States – it’s called the freshman year dorms.  Though in smaller scale, similar fights have happened over observant Jews who felt forced into such situations.

Article 2: His Son joins Nachal Charedi.  Here is a description of a Torah observant Jew who wants to serve in the army in a program which accommodates Torah observant soldiers … but has to “know someone” to even get in.  There is so much more demand (or was) than there are (or were) spaces.  After overcoming that hurdle, the author tells us that the environment in this special unit was, for the most part, pretty decent.  My own editorializing – if there’s such demand and willingness, and the program is already in place, why doesn’t the army just exponentially increase the size of such programs and let it play out naturally?  Well, that’s pretty much the position of the Likud party, but is certainly not that of Yesh Atid who is in the government coalition and wishes the Greeks beat the Jews and we didn’t have Chanukah.  That comes next…

Article 3: Why Rabbi Akiva Joined the Rally Against the Israeli Government.  He makes a great many points.  In summary: a) Only Torah Observant Jews are singled out as criminals if they don’t join the army; b) Israeli law prevents Jews who study Torah from working so they can’t [note – this is a point where I agree with Yesh Atid … this is finally changing); c) institutes of higher education in the religious system aren’t recognized as degrees [note – I have seen articles about Charedi high schools for girls that give the same secular studies as another, but are frowned upon when working with the Israeli system to get a proper diploma … so it seems to work both ways]; d) the feminist movements in Israel don’t want to see more Torah observant Jews in the army and segregation of men and women which has limited the expansion of programs such as Nachal Charedi in the first place; e) the army often disrespects even non-Charedi religious soldiers, forcing them to go to social events having nothing to do with fighting for the country, where they are subjected to content inappropriate for anyone, and most certainly, Torah law.

The “Actively Destroy Zionism” View

Now on to the views of different sectors within Torah observant Judaism.  Again, I preface with stating that these are not opinions – I am just codifying and trying to understand the different views.

The Neturei Karta are a group that wants to see the modern state of Israel gone and actively works towards that goal – even a religious state would be no good until G_d wills it.  Their complete position can be found here.  They see the whole concept as contrary to Jewish law, citing the Talmud in Kesubos, page 111a about three oaths the Jews took, one of which is that we would not resettle the land by force.  I’m not going to go into the different interpretations here, but suffice to say, religious Zionists have a different take on it.  Neturei Karta are a new grouping of Jews, originally from Jerusalem, that continued in what are some fairly widely held beliefs in the Torah world pre-1948.  I don’t think that can be minimized.  However, their approach today is, I will admit, difficult to understand as they do things like meet with holocaust deniers because they also want the State of Israel destroyed, albeit for very different reasons.  I read accounts of the one of the founders who used to do things like block police cars on Shabbos in Jerusalem until he got arrested.  He was protesting the desecration of the Sabbath, and sees the zionists as secularists who are hostile to the Torah and so is hostile in return.

The “Be Polite but Don’t Give an Inch to Zionism” View

This view has been, to my knowledge, best articulated by the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum.  The English language biography was excellent.  This is also the view held, I think, by most Chassidm with the exception of Lubovitch, though even the latter group was anti-zionist in Europe.  (They changed their views in order to conduct outreach to the masses of less Torah observant Jews.)  Many “Litvish” (non-Chassidic) Jews also hold this way, though they are mostly, I think, the next category.

This view says that Jews shouldn’t have founded the modern state, and though often denied, the Satmar Rebbe biography states outright that zionism caused the holocaust by provoking the non-Jews to be against us.  The zionists are anti-religious and anti-Torah (and people like Yair Lapid play right into this) and are trying to destroy Torah Judaism.  With the founding of Israel, there is much evidence for this from the Children of Tehran, refugees from Europe who arrived in Israel, being coaxed into secular homes and screamed at if they said kaddish for their dead parents, to the disappearance of babies from religious Yemenite couples.

In this view, no money is taken from the Israeli government.  The money is raised internally within organizations such as Chassidic groups, and they aren’t serving in the Israeli army anytime soon because they ideologically hold that the state is an evil institution.  I heard Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, a Bostoner Chassid, say zionism is a big question mark.  We don’t know whether it’s good or bad.  At the same time, I heard his Rebbe, the Bostoner Rebbe say quite clearly that there is one Rabbinate in Israel and that he, even as a Rebbe of a Chassidic court, can’t conduct a wedding without approval from the Israeli Rabbinate.  The Charedi bais din’s also work with the Rabbinute, though are separate.  On the other hand, I heard Rabbi Gottlieb say that a secular Jewish government in the land of Israel is “totally illegitimate.”

I might also add that I had a midnight conversation with a Toldos Aaron Chassidic Jew in Meah Shearim, Jerusalem about this.  (He was actually from Boro Park, Brooklyn and spoke perfect English.)  He said that before 1948, the religious Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, who were most of the population, used to attend each others weddings and celebrations.  The Arabs would buy kosher meat from Jews and so on.  History tends to show a less idealistic picture, but in my review of The History of the IDF book by Yigal Alon describing Israel in 1903, it seems to corroborate this view … as long as the Arabs were the ones on top.  Their laws require Muslims to be on horses while the non-Muslims walk next to them; their religious places to be the highest in the city, and so on.

Keep Separate but Do What You Need to Do with the State to Meet Your Needs

As I understand this view, the Chazon Ish said (I have not found a direct quote) that it’s true, the Israeli government is run by people against the Torah and the halacha [Jewish law] is that we don’t partner with people who are against it.  However, it is not called “partnership” when you are doing what is necessary to get along with someone else. In fact, the secular government has more power and so it’s certainly not a partnership.  The Chazon Ish and Rav Schach in B’Nai Brak, Israel helped found the United Torah Judaism political party (well, one part of it).  R’Schach actively supported Shas, the party for the sefardi Jews headed by Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l.  The Chazon Ish did vote and take part in the government and be a part of it.  In this view, there are different roles – just as an army has it’s roles where one person is a front line soldier, another sits in a bunker working intelligence, and another writes the newsletter, Jews also have different roles.  Some fight in the army, others learn Torah and teach Judaism to the next generation.

In Israeli elections in the 1980s, the left wing wanted to form a coalition with the religious parties in order to give land to Arabs for their own country.  They thought they’d find a partner with R’Shach who, for example, was very against the building of the modern city of Beitar, a Charedi city on land captured in 1967.  R’Shach was against provoking the Arabs in any way and I have even read in one of his books, was against proclaiming “Jerusalem is our eternal capital” because a) we know it’s true anyway, and b) it will only anger the Arabs.  However, in the election, he sided with the right wing parties and joined their coalition because the right wing parties were made up of traditional Jews and not those who are antithetical to Torah and the values passed down from Mt. Sinai.

The State of Israel is a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy

Here is the first real cultural leap, at least among Ashkenazi Jews.  These are Jews who tend to actively be engaged with secular Israeli society, earn higher secular degrees, and serve in the army or national service.  Some do study Torah full time as well, and some protest against mandatory draft of Torah scholars.  They hold that the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment of prophecies that Jews would return to the land in mass and have added prayers to the prayer books praying for the welfare of the state and call it the “footsteps of Mosciach”.  Maybe.  (Whether or not that should be added to the prayer book as fact, I think, is a larger problem.)

I don’t have as much familiarity with Sefardi Jews and their way of thinking, but the group, even when religious, seems to be pro-Zionist.  Most of them, having come from living under Arab rule, maybe know something that the Ashkenazim find harder to understand.

Still, religious Zionism has problems with much of the secular nature of Israel, but will actively compromise with it and live within it.  The more right wing parties were livid, for example, when courts were allowed to operate over a three day religious holiday (in Israel, this only happens on Rosh Hashana and only in some years) to which the religious Zionists responded it was a good compromise as in almost all cases, the courts would be respecting the holidays.  The religious Zionist approach is usually a pragmatic way of living in Israel.

Even further, in this view, there are many who say the holocaust was caused not by zionism (as the Satmar Rebbe said) but by being physically weak and failing to move to Israel when we had the chance.  We now have an army and can defend ourselves without relying on other nations who, one after the other, harmed us.  Thus, we should and must preserve and make stronger the state both physically and spiritually.  This includes both army service and Torah learning.  As R’Mordechai Becher put it to me, if you live in a country, you shouldn’t remove yourself and his opponents in yeshiva had much less to say against him when he had a gun on him.  (He also taught in what is politically right wing Ohr Somayach with R’Dovid Gottlieb, quoted above.)

Why Less Charedi Jews Will Join the Army

First, the Yesh Atid party isn’t the one to do it.  You can’t antagonize people and tell them what they do is not worthy and expect to get your way.  It won’t happen.  It just reminds Torah Jews of stories of Russian czars doing the same thing, along with tons of other examples.  You can’t change someone when you don’t even understand their worldview, let alone respect it.  If you want people in the army, you can’t start by cutting funding to their school children and telling them they’ll go to jail if they aren’t like you and don’t hold the same values to join an army that doesn’t need the manpower in the first place.  That works on a person who believes in nothing and has no chain of tradition past his own father.  It shows that Yesh Atid understands nothing of how a Torah observant Jew operates and doesn’t act with even a subjectively decent way to treat a person.

Second, Charedi Jewry was already bursting out in all directions and is economically unsustainable.  (For this, I agree with Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi.)  This was starting to be solved on it’s own by introduction of more job training and higher education in a framework acceptable to Torah observant Jews.  Problem: It’s now stigmatized and polarized by the forces working to impose on the Charedi community from the outside.  This is precisely why the community has separated itself to begin with.  If you can’t respect one another, there isn’t much hope of coming together.

Third, the current plan is just stupid.  As written above, the internal demand by Charedi Jews to join the army was steadily increasing and gaining more acceptance.  You can’t get a spot in Nachal Charedi without knowing someone.  Instead of increasing the size to let more in, if you’re 18+ right now, you have no obligation to go to the army whatsoever meaning very few will enroll at all.  Then, all of the sudden, everyone who doesn’t is a criminal.  What?  The wise men of Chelm seem to be controlling the Israeli government.  (I am a direct descendant of an illiterate water carrier from Chelm.)  A frog in a pot with slowly raising temperature will stay, but throw him in freezing water and the hot water and he’ll jump right out.

How to Fix The Problem

First, stop trying to get others to be like you.  It doesn’t work.  Respect them for who they are.  The very religious and very secular play into each other’s hands – the secular don’t want to give money to the very religious and the very religious want only religious study without job training.  So there is a 50% work rate for Chareidim in Israel with incomes far lower than those of secular Jews.  Perfect until financial collapse for everyone.

Paraphrasing R’Mordechai Becher, what do Charedim expect when money is taken from the secular government, all the while telling them that they’re wrong for their beliefs?  The secular public is “up in arms” over this basic lack of respect.  An attitude of “thank you” for supporting Torah learning would go a long way.  Secular Jews, for which I was once one, are more likely to hear, “I’m doing you a favor by keeping Judaism” which is true but has the implication that the other person is lesser.

On the secular side, stop trying to force religious Jews to be zionist or teach zionist education.  That’s your value, not theirs but we can all get along in a country just like different people in other countries go to work together despite having very different beliefs.  You’re not going to change them, you’re only going to antagonize.  There are certain (many) religious Jews who will never join the army. Many other would join if there were an appropriate atmosphere – not through coercion or force but through respect.

What I would do, being highly influenced by American-style equality and democracy:

– Taking from Yesh Atid, I would allow all Jews, regardless of army service or not, to work.  Good idea.

– Taking from no one in Israel, I would start with a school funding formula that funds every student equally.  If you have 500 students in your school, you get 500x dollars … adjust this for local differences in salaries and costs of the class.  It should at least be offered and there in a democratic society.  If a school wants to take less or doesn’t want state funding, leave them alone but don’t be a bigot in your funding formula.

– Put more money into career opportunities for religious Jews, not penalize schools getting less money with … even less.  If you want to give incentives to teach English, then do so but don’t penalize a school receiving 55 cents on the dollar by taking away more funds.  That’s antagonism and makes people do the opposite of what you want.

– Give freedom of religion in the Israeli army.  If a soldier is reprimanded because he refused to attend a concert with a female singer claiming a religious exemption, that is something for Rabbis in the Israeli army to answer.  They, in turn, should answer to the Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.  This is not something that a communist commander should be deciding and amounts to religious persecution.  It is unconscionable that in Jewish state, you can be punished because you won’t violate Jewish law.

– Quadruple the size of the charedi units in the army, with army commanders having say over army issues and the Rabbinate having command over religious issues.  No soldier should be punished for insubordination to a human commander while exercising religious freedom.  All Jews, whether secular or religious, should have the same rights to use religious freedom as a reason not to take part in a non-essential event.

– Penalize those who dodge the draft the same whether they be a religious Jew, a secular Jew, or a non-Jew.  Each are treated differently today.

– If the army is not okay with accommodating religious Jews under religious leadership and it doesn’t really need the manpower … then then she shouldn’t require them to serve at all.  In fact, this is precisely what’s happened for so long.  Changing this requires respect for religion of the person in all policies.



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22 Responses

  1. Moshe Schwartz says:

    People should be aware that hesder yeshivot do exist. Hesder is a 5 year program , 3.5 in yeshiva and 1.5 in the army. You draft with the guys in your yeshiva and stay with them for the duration of your service. Your roshi yeshiva looks after you as does the mador bein ish , the religious office in the army. Your time for teffila, among other things, is as much as a right to you as your right to eat 3 times a day and is strictly regulated. I am currently learning in the hesder yeshiva in sderot and I am blown away with the quality of guys there.Charedi hesder yeshivot I believe are the answer. That being said the situation on the ground is overblown by the media, we are in a good place as a nation. Am Yisroel Chi.

  2. Green says:

    “I would start with a school funding formula that funds every student equally. ”

    Why would a government fund each student equally, when some schools are educating kids to join the workforce and help the economy/state, whereas other schools are not giving the kids secular education and are encouraging them to be a drain on the economy/state?

  3. emes says:

    From Jonathan Rosenblum: “Matters only grew worse, when the chief rabbi of the Israel Air Force resigned over what he described as the IAF’s failure to adhere to various commitments he had made to chareidi recruits in its highly successful Shachar program. Those accommodations go to the heart of the IDF’s ability to voluntarily attract married chareidi men in their 20s.”

    “Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, one of the founders of the Nahal Haredi, told HaModia last week that the IDF has proven unwilling or incapable of living up to commitments to chareidi recruits. For instance, a new elite frogmen unit for chareidi recruits had to be closed very shortly after opening because the IDF did not keep its promises. He also said that the level of kashrus in IDF kitchens is rapidly declining.”

    • abekohen says:

      And these rumors have been VERIFIED?

    • abekohen says:

      Failure to adhere to religious commitments vs gender segregation. Big difference. A little truth goes a long way.

      • tostien says:


        “Rabbi Ravad’s resignation from the Shachar program comes one day after IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz ruled that no soldier will be allowed to absent himself from official military ceremonies, even if it conflicts with his religious observance.

        “Religiously observant soldiers were told they will be required to attend official ceremonies even if a performance by a female singer or dancer is included. This despite the fact that hearing women singing is clearly forbidden halakhically”

      • abekohen says:

        Clearly forbidden? Or norms of the times? Do you think that European rabbis never went to the opera? Really?

        But be that as it may, I heard Megillat Esther for the nth time and I was astounded that the Haredim (if there really were such) of Sushan and of the 127 States of the Empire did not protest joining the army of Mordechai and Esther. Instead ALL the Jews took part in killing the enemy.

      • tostien says:

        Clearly forbidden. Here’s Rabbi Jachter’s article about it (and he’s ‘to the left’ in the frum world):

        Even if you don’t agree for whatever reason, it’s not for you or an army commander to trample on my religious freedom and then expect me to put my children under your command.

        What you neglect to mention about Shushan is that it was done to save lives, not for political reasons in an army that doesn’t need the manpower. You also neglect to mention that the entire Jewish community did teshuvah and no one was forcing anyone else’s ideology on each other’s children.

      • abekohen says:

        As someone who wore the uniform during an actual war and lost classmates in battle, I have to ask what fantasy land are you living in that you don’t understand the role of the IDF and that you think it is different from the role Jews played in Shushan. As for your claim that the IDF does not need the manpower, who are you to decide that secular and Dati Leumi boys should serve but not Haredi boys? That is the epitome of hutzpa. That is the role of the rasha of the four sons of Pesach.

  4. MarkS says:

    BTW, the source for the three oaths is actually Kesuvos 111a

  5. MarkS says:

    Having seen the email last night, I must admit that it was refreshing to read a posting where it seemed clear that a real effort was made to be neutral and factual.

    I did want to clarify a few things related to Neturei Karta in that same spirit. Neturei Karta actually was founded in the 1930’s and came as a result of Agudath Yisroel becoming more and more involved with Zionism – not explicitly being pro-Zionist of course, but gradually going against deeply held principles of almost all pre-World War II gedolim and Agudath Yisroel’s own original mandate to fight Zionism. Hence people broke away and formed Neturei Karta. Neturei Karta itself is not chasidish and historically came from a spectrum of hashkofas including German Jews (yekka’s), Lithuanians, Hungarians, etc… over the decades it has become overwhelmingly chasidish, but there is nothing about Neturei Karta’s positions which necessitate this, it is the turbulent, very mixed and often contradictory and strong views across the Jewish spectrum about Zionism that have resulted in this.

    Neturei Karta’s positions are often mischaracterized due to their firm and unwavering position against Zionism which includes a very pro-Arab relation view that is despised by Zionists, but is also completely misunderstood by non-Zionists or even other anti-Zionists. This has resulted in a certain infamy and deep hatred by many as well as widespread misinformation and conclusions that are often inaccurate. Probably one very good example of misunderstanding is with reference to a conference in Iran discussing and questioning the Holocaust. Neturei Karta’s attendance at this conference has been implied or misunderstood by many to suggest that they supported a position that, Chas V’sholom, the murders of countless Jews during the war didn’t happen, when in fact, Neturei Karta’s attendance was in fact exactly the opposite. Due to their Anti-Zionist position and open relations with the Arab world, they were in a unique position to legitimately and credibly (from the perspective of the attendees) speak publicly at the conference and attest to the murders – one of the Neturei Karta speakers had lost his father during the war.

    Suffice it to say, Neturei Karta are held with extraordinary contempt and vitriol by Zionists, but it should be clarified that regardless, their motives and positions are sincere and a direct reflection of Torah true Judaism. Unfortunately the existence of the State of Israel has provided Jews with a temptation that few can resist and has led to a world where Zionists do things in the name of Judaism and Jews have found countless ways to rationalize these actions and chilulei Hashem on an unprecedented scale. One need only look throughout Tanach for the mistakes whole generations have made so many times in the past – idol worship being a common theme – and see that Zionism is just another example. We look back and wonder, what people were thinking, how could they go against fundamental beliefs of yiddishkeit and we find that if we had lived during that period we could very well have been just as drawn into it as everyone else was. Having said this, it should be noted that Neturei Karta’s views reflect what is recognized even by rabbonim that do not totally agree with them as the most consistent and accurate position about Zionism.

    One final note, I’m not in agreement with the characterization of the Satmar Rebbe Z”TL a universally recognized gadol hador in the original posting. The Satmar Rebbe Z”TL was virulently anti-Zionist, with countless writings of his leaving zero doubt as to his position – Zionism will end, and must end for Moshiach to come – he did not leave any room for tolerance of Zionism or any aspect of it.

  6. abekohen says:

    These anecdotes are so far from the truth that to address them takes ripping each one apart. My guess is that the blogger has not lived in Israel nor served in the IDF. If observant Jews could serve in the Czar’s army and the Bolshevik army, they can certainly serve in a Jewish army which provides kosher food and allows time for prayer (and learning.) Shabbat Shalom.

    • tostien says:

      1) I didn’t say Jews couldn’t serve in the Israeli army.
      2) Your comparison to the Bolshevik army is absurd – if that’s your point of comparison then you think less of the IDF than I do.

      • abekohen says:

        I said “observant Jews,” not Jews. Of course Jews serve in the IDF.

      • tostien says:

        We’re talking about apples and oranges. I summarized the opinions of many others who I have spoken to over the course of many years. It cover a wide range of opinions.

        To summarily dismiss everything while trying to make a “kol s’kain” from the Boleshivik army which set out to destroy Jews and Judaism consists of one big logic flaw.

      • abekohen says:

        Speak to me after YOU have served in the IDF, so that you can tell the difference between reality and the bubbeh maises (sipurei savta) that your “many others” are feeding you.

      • tostien says:

        Please let me know if there are any factual inaccuracies in the post above and I’ll look into it more and make corrections.

        I don’t need to live in a freshman dorm (I did) to know I don’t want to send my kids there, I don’t need to enter the army to know I don’t want my kids there. I have no reason to believe that “Rabbi Akiva” from, Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt’l, Rabbi Mordechai Becher, or others were not telling the truth about their experiences in the army.

  1. August 19, 2014

    […] helps solve a lot of these and let’s us determine right from wrong, but then in cases like zionism which are in contention, I can argue a lot of sides.  However, in the 2014 conflict between Gaza […]

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