Torah Musings Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:33:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Lech Lecha: Does That Mean Me? Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:33:07 +0000 Lech-LechaAliyah and you

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Daily Reyd Fri, 31 Oct 2014 12:24:13 +0000
Goldberg: Is Challahween the Sequel to Thanksgivukkah or Totally Different?
Jewish Conversion Up Close
Historic Synagogue Bulletins to be Available Online through Grant Awarded YU Libraries
The making of the Talmudic Encyclopedia
Hoffman: Obama Official Cursing Out Netanyahu – A Halachic Analysis
▪ It’s the reaction of the crowd that is most troubling: Jewish Girl Attacked in Sick New ‘Game’, Suspect Apprehended, Scene Descends Into Anti-Semitic Hate Fest
▪ In a country raising Muslim extremists, the government focuses on a Jewish girls school. Brilliant: British Jewish school flunks test triggered by claims on classroom Islamism
Polish hidden Jews embrace ‘hip’ ancestry
▪ In R. David stav’s city. He opposes this: Orthodox Service Raises Storm Calling Women to Torah
▪ UK equivalent of Conservative Judaism allows gay marriage: Breaking glass and breaking new ground

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The Super-Mitzvah to Have Children Fri, 31 Oct 2014 01:30:58 +0000 imageThe Logical Imperative to Procreate

by R. Gil Student

The “Shidduch Crisis,” the growing number of older singles in the Orthodox community, is not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, nor should it be. Contemporary society is also undergoing a “Singles Crisis.” This should give us pause when proposed solutions to the Shidduch Crisis, no matter how clever (and especially when too clever), only address concerns specific to our community. Can it really be a coincidence that we are suffering from the same problem as the culture around us? If not, we need to recognize this within our proposed course of action.

Additionally, acknowledging this link to general society gives us opportunity to consider why this phenomenon is so troublesome as to be called a “crisis.” Yes, we see the very real human suffering, but we have to look more deeply and ask: Why are these humans suffering?

I. The Half-Servant

The first commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and to multiply (peru u-revu), to have children. This was said first to Adam and Chavah as a blessing, like that said to the other animals, and again to Noach as a blessing and command (Gen 1:28, 9:1, 9:7). Since it was not repeated after the Torah was given, this mitzvah only applies to Jews. Gentiles are not obligated to be fruitful and multiply. However, we see a curious development twice in the Talmud.

Back when slavery was allowed, centuries before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Talmud (Gittin 41a) discussed the case of a half-servant. A servant is bought by two owners in a partnership and one owner sets him free. The half-servant is in a state of limbo–he cannot marry a free woman because of his servant half and he cannot marry a maidservant because of his free half. Therefore, the Sages decreed, the other owner must set the man completely free. The prophet declares: “Lo sohu vera’ah, la-sheves yetzarah, [God] did not create [the world] to be barren, He created it to be settled” (Isa. 45:18). This teaches an overriding obligation to have children (a mitzvah of sheves) that even applies to a servant.

Why did the Talmud quote a verse in Isaiah and not one of the three verses from Genesis about being fruitful and multiplying? Is not an explicit commandment in the Torah more compelling than a prophetic passage? Two students of the great Tosafist, Rabbenu Tam, disagree how to interpret this passage.1 R. Yitzchak of Dampierre (Ri) explains that the prophet emphasizes the importance of this mitzvah (peru u-revu) to the divine plan. Even though a half-servant is not really obligated in this commandment, his master should still free him to allow him to fulfill this great mitzvah.

R. Yitzchak Ben Mordekhai of Regensburg (Rivam) sees in sheves a different mitzvah. Why should an owner free his stake in a servant, suffering a financial loss, to allow a half-servant to fulfill peru u-revu, a commandment in which he is not technically obligated? It is true that a half-servant is not obligated to be fruitful and multiple. However, he is still obligated to settle the world by having children. Everyone, freeman and servant, man and woman, is obligated in sheves.

II. Women and Procreation

The other Talmudic reference to sheves limits the sale of a Torah scroll. Normally, you may never sell a Torah scroll, perhaps the most sacred possession an individual or community can acquire. The Talmud (Megillah 27a) allows for the sale of a Torah scroll in only two circumstances: in order to study Torah or to pay for an orphan’s wedding expenses. The latter exemption is supported with the above verse from Isaiah. Since sheves is so important, or so all-encompassing, it overrides the sanctity of the Torah scroll in this respect. Commentaries to the Shulchan Arukh note that the Talmud uses the masculine form of the word for “orphan.” What about a female orphan?

It is quite surprising that the Torah only obligates men to have children (Yevamos 65b). Peru u-revu, childbirth and childraising, is a mitzvah placed only on males. Certainly, most people find this contrary to their biological, psychological and sociological instincts. The most popular explanation for this curious halakhic position was offered by R. Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk in his Meshekh Chokhmah (Gen. 9:7). R. Meir Simcha argues that the Torah is merciful and does not obligate people in tasks that are necessarily painful (see Yevamos 87b). The Torah exempts women from the obligation because childbirth is extremely painful for them.

That exemption takes a surprising turn. We may sell a Torah scroll to enable an orphan to fulfill the mitzvah of marrying. However, women are not obligated in the mitzvah. Therefore, perhaps we may not sell a Torah scroll to fund the wedding of a female orphan. Commentaries struggle with this surprising and counterintuitive conclusion. Chelkas Mechokek (Even Ha-Ezer 1:1) adopts it while Beis Shmuel (Even Ha-Ezer 1:2) and Magen Avraham (153:9) dispute it (see also Ba’er Heitev, Even Ha-Ezer 1:2; Otzar Ha-Poskim 1:11). Who needs communal assistance more than a female orphan? One answer lies in the debate between Ri and Rivam.

According to Ri, there is only one mitzvah to have children; sheves is the same as peru u-revu, from which women are exempt. However, Rivam sees these as two separate mitzvos. All people, men and women, are obligated in sheves. Therefore, since the permission to sell a Torah scroll is based on the verse in Isaiah about sheves, this permission must include orphan women. Note that according to the Ri, the discussion is not over. There might be other reasons to extend the permission to orphan women, as discussed in Otzar Ha-Poskim 1:11.

III. The Source for Sheves

The idea that sheves obligates everyone to procreate requires explanation. Where do we see women receiving such a command? And why would the Torah mercifully exempt women from peru u-revu and then turn around and re-obligate them in the very same thing via sheves?

I suggest that sheves is not a direct command. The prophet is not telling us what to do but explaining to us God’s will, posing a simple syllogism:

  1. God put people on this big planet
  2. God does not do things without a reason
  3. Therefore, God wants the world populated.

This is not an unassailable argument. Maybe God wants people to occupy only one place, even though the planet is large. Maybe He only wanted us on this world for a short time. How are we expected to fully grasp the divine will?2 In this case, prophecy does not command us but educates us, informing us of God’s will. Sheves does not command us but tell us what God wants.

Yet, we did not need this revelation. Merely observing the world teaches us that people were created with innate biological and psychological desires to have children. God must have implanted within creation the drive for procreation for a reason. The suffering of singles in this “crisis” is a symptom of spiritual unfulfillment, a sign of the divine plan of marriage and procreation. Genesis 1-2 is part of our inherent psychological makeup.

Once we know that God desires procreation, we are bidden, as His created beings, to fulfill His will. He wants people in the world, a full world, so we cannot allow humanity to dwindle. We must continue the human chain, implementing God’s will. Having children is one way in which we can fulfill God’s desires.3

This is not a meta-mitzvah, an overarching command like “And you shall do the right and the good” (Deut. 6:18). Rather, it is a logical mandate supported by prophecy. It is founded in the fundamental duty of every created being to fulfill his master’s will. As such, it presumably obligates all people, gentiles and Jews, every created being seeking to fulfill the will of its Creator.4

If this is correct, then God, through His merciful Torah, does not command women to have children. However, the continuation and growth of the human species is God’s will, which all people–men, women, Jew and gentile–must fulfill and through which they achieve their highest purpose. Their suffering, the communal and societal crises, demonstrates this need.


  1. Tosafos, Gittin 41b sv. lo; Chagigah 2b sv. lo; Bava Basra 13a sv. she-ne’emar

  2. And does this make space travel, settling the vast universe, a religious obligation? 

  3. One can argue that we need not fulfill God’s will, only His command. See this post: link

  4. After writing this, I was gratified to see that R. Aharon Lichtenstein takes a similar approach, albeit not within Rivam’s view. See this Hebrew essay: link (RTF), section 2, fourth approach. 

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Vort from the Rav: Lech Lecha Thu, 30 Oct 2014 20:00:55 +0000 Genesis 15:4

כִּי אִם אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ הוּא יִירָשֶׁךָ
This one will not inherit you, but the one who will spring from your innards-he will inherit you.

This promise is the culmination of a long and frustrating journey for Abraham. When Abraham received God’s command of lech lecha, he also received a promise that the Almighty would make him a great nation and he would be a blessing to all people on earth (Gen. 12:1-3). Abraham interpreted this promise to mean that his mission was to convert the nations of the world to monotheism, starting with the inhabitants of the land he would be shown. Since he was concerned with converting the people he would meet, on his journey he took not only Sarah, his wife, but also Lot and the converts that he and his wife had already made in Haran. We do not, however, hear another word about these converts; they apparently abandoned Abraham the closer he came to Canaan. Abraham then “passed through the land” (Gen. 12: 6), directing his message to the Canaanites. Although God then appeared to Abraham and said, “to your own children will I give this land,” Abraham thought that the message referred to spiritual children, so He built on that spot an altar to God in accordance with his interpretation of God’s message (Gen. 12: 7). It is noteworthy that the Torah never says that he sacrificed upon the altars he built, for apparently he built them to attract a crowd so that he could address the people.

Abraham kept traveling further southward towards Egypt, which was then the center of civilization. Who better to heed his message than the Egyptians? Only when Abraham realized how immoral the Egyptians were, and that his message had no chance of catching on there, did he leave. After the great disappointment of his encounter with the highly civilized but grossly immoral Egyptians, Abraham escapes Egypt, again unsuccessful in his mission. Yet he continues his journey and goes back to the same places he had come to before, and finally to the very place where he had earlier pitched his tent, east of Beth-El. He returns, indeed, to the very altar he built from which he preached to all, and again calls out in God’s Name (Gen. 13:3-4).

And here began his second great disappointment. Among Abraham’s entire coterie, his nephew Lot should have been most affected by his message. Yet Lot and his shepherds forsook Abraham and his mission, and chose to dwell among the most wicked people of that time, the people of Sodom. Abraham is not sure where to turn to continue his teachings. If Lot would not listen, then who else would? Yet Abraham is so imbued with belief in his message and his conviction that the people of the land, even of Sodom, would ultimately heed it, that he moves his tent to another location, Elonei Mamre, and again builds an altar (Gen. 13:18). His last hope is that the power is yet within him to convince the inhabitants of the land of Canaan (including Sodom and its wicked neighbors) of the error of their ways. There is a war of four kings against five; Lot and his family are taken prisoner together with the King of Sodom and his followers. Abraham is forced to arm his household and to rescue them. Abraham triumphs, saves Sodom’s king and his followers as well as his nephew Lot and his family. Does the King of Sodom mend his ways, or even show gratitude? On the contrary, he says Give me the souls, and the possessions take for yourself. “Abraham, your spiritual message is meaningless. We know what really interests you. You take the booty.” For the first and only time in the Torah, Abraham displays fury. In the king of Sodom’s cynical words, Abraham sees his perceived mission of influencing mankind crumble before his eyes.

So Abraham now answers God’s promise of reward with a desperate, heartbreaking cry. In response, God assures him that Eliezer will not be his heir; that actual children and not converts will carry on the message. With the Bris Bein Habesarim Abraham begins a new mission. (R. Nisson Shulman Notes, 1952)

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Healing Waters Thu, 30 Oct 2014 17:02:49 +0000 streamby Dr. Erica Brown

“I shall sprinkle upon you water of purification, and you shall be purified. I will cleanse you from all impurities…”
Ezekiel 36:25

In the past few weeks, the mikve, a space of sacred purity and privacy, has become a subject of scrutiny and suspicion. For those who perform this mitzva regularly, an obligation of holiness suddenly provokes worry. Is someone watching me? For those who have never immersed in a ritual bath, the chances of ever going to the mikve have just gotten slimmer. It’s not hard to understand the anxiety. This mitzva has been sheltered both in the placement of the building and the secrecy of the practice. Open conversations about mikve use are rare.

Immersion in the mikve is one of my very favorite mitzvot, and I hate to see it belittled and diminished, particularly by those who have never seen its value or dipped into its waters. It’s time to strengthen its observance because, as Rahm Immanuel said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Maimonides references the biblical verse above in the very last law of his “Laws of Mikvaot” [11:12]. He acknowledges that this mitzva would not have emerged from natural observance or logic; it demands a suspension of logic because notions of purity rarely make sense. “Impurity is not mud or filth that can be washed away with water,” Maimonides writes. “Instead the immersion is a Scriptural decree and requires focusing one’s heart.”

This led Maimonides to the conclusion that unlike other mitzvot where action trumps intention, the mikve requires both action and intention to be fulfilled optimally. If I sit in a sukka but am distracted and not thinking about the mitzva at all as I perform it, I have still satisfied the legal requirement of sitting in the sukka, even if it is sub-optimal. If I immersed in the mikve and was distracted, I have to immerse again because without intention, the mitzva has not been fulfilled at all. Maimonides, therefore, writes, “When one immersed but did not intend to purify himself, it is as if he did not immerse…One who focuses his heart on purifying himself becomes purified once he immerses, even though there was no change in his body.”

Maimonides continues this thought by suggesting that the mikve is a place where, with the right intention, we rid ourselves of impure thoughts that lead to bad behaviors: “Similarly one who focuses his heart on purifying his soul from the impurities of the soul, which are the wicked thoughts and bad character traits, becomes purified when he resolves within his heart to distance himself from such counsel and immerses his soul in the waters of knowledge, as Ezekiel states, ‘I shall sprinkle upon you water of purification, and you shall be purified. I will cleanse you from all impurities…’” It is almost as if the soul rather than the body was being dipped into ‘waters of knowledge’ and rinsing away the internal filth that builds up daily: the arguments, the gossip, the grudges, the jealousies, the meanness. It sluices away when we enter the mikve, and we emerge re-born, in the mystics’ view, trying once again to get it right.

One person’s abuse of the mikve turned it, in some people’s minds, into the exact opposite of what the space is – safe, sacred and special. It’s time to take the mikve back – for converts and regular users – by recommitting ourselves to its deepest meaning and purpose as a spiritual tool to achieve holiness and to encourage its use for those who have never experienced the beauty of ritual immersion.

For converts and others who feel violated, perhaps – in the spirit of Maimonides – it is time to immerse in the mikve once again to rid oneself of this impurity, the impurity of these past weeks. If it helps, before the immersion, you may want to recite on or both of these two excerpts from prayers traditionally said before immersion:

“…Just as I am cleansing my body of spiritual impurity in this water, so in Your great mercy and abundant kindness may You cleanse my soul of all impurity and dross, so that we might experience fulfillment of the verse ‘I shall sprinkle upon you water of purification, and you shall be purified,’ for as it is written, ‘God is the hope [mikve] of Israel.’” This was written by the Ben Ish Chai (1832-1909). The full text appears in the Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book by Aliza Lavie.

Devra Kay collected this prayer in Seder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women, likely written by a woman in the 19th century:

“God, my God, the time has come today
For me to cleanse myself of my impurities.
God, my God,
May it be Your will that my cleansing
In the water of the mikve
Be counted with the purification
Of all pious women in Israel
Who go to the mikve at their time
To cleanse themselves.
God Almighty
Accept my prayer…”

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Daily Reyd Thu, 30 Oct 2014 12:22:35 +0000
Schick: The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School And Me
Gordimer: Looting the Kodesh
Pruzansky: Stepping Down
Jewish History’s Lesson for Handling Ebola
▪ Our culture–not just our media–has a bias toward lascivious stories: A tale of two rabbis
No, Grammar Does Not Cause Sexism
▪ The Prague quarantine: Jewish History’s Lesson for Handling Ebola
Hoffman: Ebola – A Halachic Perspective
▪ Make sure to vote: Seizing The Moment
Jonathan Sacks on religion, politics and the civil war that Islam needs
Court orders for Texas pastors’ speeches withdrawn

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Diapers With Disappearing Ink Thu, 30 Oct 2014 01:30:14 +0000 diapersby R. Daniel Mann

Question: Is it permitted to use on Shabbat a diaper with forms on the outside that disintegrate when the diaper is soaked, alerting parents to change the diaper?


Answer: There is a Torah-level violation to erase (mochek)writing or, according to many, a picture or figure (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 340:3; Beur Halacha to 340:4). When the erasure does not serve a positive purpose such as enabling new writing, the violation is only Rabbinic (Mishna Berura 340:17). Thus, the diapers in question would seem to have no more than a Rabbinic prohibition. Another possible reason for no Torah prohibition is that the erasure’s result may be “destructive” (mekalkel). It is debated whether considering the side benefit, that the disintegration provides desirable information, it is mekalkel (see Beur Halacha to 340:13).

The main cause for leniency relates to who and how the erasing is done. Directly, it is the baby who erases by urinating, but he is almost always too young to require training in Shabbat prohibitions. Although one must not “feed” children prohibited matters, he may allow a situation in which a baby might choose to do a forbidden action (see Yevamot 114a). Here it is even better, as the baby “violates” Shabbat without any knowledge of this consequence of his action, in which case it is not a fundamental Shabbat violation even for an adult (see Shut Rabbi Akiva Eiger I:8).

Thus, the question is whether the adult violates Shabbat by creating a situation in which a future event will set off a melacha. Specifically, putting the diaper on the baby creates a situation where erasure will occur. When the direct cause (urination) of the erasure has yet to occur at the time of the adult’s action (diapering), we say that the adult acted through gerama (indirect action). Violation of Shabbat through gerama is a very low level violation of Shabbat, to the extent that it is permitted in certain cases of need (Rama, OC 334:22).

In this case, there are often additional points of leniency. For parents who are not interested in the erasure, as they can easily determine the “old way” when the diaper is soaked, the erasure is permitted as a davar she’eino mitkaven (an unintentional forbidden result of one’s action) of the diapering. It is true that when the forbidden result is a definite outcome (psik reishei), the action is forbidden by Torah law (Ketubot 6b). However, when the result is arrived at through gerama, many important poskim permit psik reishei (Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 12:18, based on Rav Auerbach; see discussion in Orchot Shabbat 29:(41)). Some say that gerama is permitted in cases where direct action is only Rabbinically forbidden. Other opinions disagree, and in any case the leniency likely does not apply to every Rabbinic prohibition (see Yabia Omer III, OC 17). Yet the above is probably not needed, as, in actuality, the erasure is not a psik reishei. For a variety of reasons, including the baby soiling with solids before the diaper is soaked, diapers do not always reach the point that forms are erased.

When there are not meaningful figures of letters but just a line or dots, there is even more room for leniency, as erasing such nondescript things is not a (full) violation of mochek unless the erasure uncovers or enables writing (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 340:3; Orchot Shabbat 15:59). We find this distinction in such cases as cutting cake with writing or clear figures vs. nondescript shapes (Rama, OC 340:3).

One may generally use diapers with disintegrating ink (Orchot Shabbat 15:52). However, note that many of the reasons for leniency are based on the assumption that one does not have intention when diapering for the erasure, which is a valid assumption when one did not intentionally buy diapers with this marginally useful feature. However, for one who values this function, use of such diapers on Shabbat may very well be forbidden and should be avoided. (Regarding a slightly stricter case of a color-changing strip, see the Star-K website, which has a similar ruling to the above.)

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Aveilut for Parents Wed, 29 Oct 2014 21:00:44 +0000 Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

Many people have wondered why aveilut for a parent is twelve months while for a child is only thirty days. After all, the loss of a dear and loving parent is a natural phenomenon of life, and it is anticipated, yet here the Halacha requires twelve months of mourning. But one who is subjected to the loss of a child, which is unnatural and extremely traumatic for the surviving parents, is told by Chazal that one month of aveilut is enough. How do we justify it?

Rav Pinchus Teitz from Elizabeth, New Jersey suggested that a parental loss is in a category of its own. Parents are unique. More children and siblings may be acquired. But there is only one mother and one father. The added mourning is to manifest this uniqueness.

According to Rav Soloveitchik, when parents become old a role reversal takes place. The parent, who cared for and sustained the child, is no longer physically capable of doing so. The parent now needs a support system. The child takes on the parental role of caring, sustaining and protecting the parent. In the latter stages of illness the parent is cared for almost like a child. Chazal imposed a longer mourning process to overcome the image of the child-like invalid parent in order to remember and vividly recall the parent not as viewed in the end of life but rather, as he/she appeared as a strong, vigorous caring parent. This process requires a considerable longer period of time.

On a simpler level, the Rav commented, the aveilut for parents is longer than for children because for parents it’s a mitzvah of Kibbud Av and Kibbud Eim.

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Daily Reyd Wed, 29 Oct 2014 12:33:48 +0000
Kiruv Goes On: the Models Change
Folger: When a Modest Proposal is Unreasonable
Folger: Respecting, Caring for and Helping the Convert
For prospective Orthodox converts, process marked by fear and uncertainty
Yated: The Givers of Lakewood: Welcome to Giverville!
RCA forms committee to review conversion process in wake of Freundel scandal

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The New Israeli Army Wed, 29 Oct 2014 02:30:28 +0000 IDF religiousby Aron White

In a book released last year, Amos Harel, the army commentator for Haaretz and the author of a number of books on the Israeli military, describes how the Israeli army is changing. The changes are fascinating. Due to the internet, more information is available to new soldiers about what to expect, removing the traditional element of surprise. As the standard of life in Israel improves, soldiers expect better quality services on their army bases as well.

One of the main changes that Harel documents is the army’s increased religiosity, both in terms of its soldiers and its leadership. This drastic change impacts three major issues in Israeli society – the place of the national religious community in Israeli politics, the Haredi draft and the relationship between religious and secular.

The religious shift of the army

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of religious soldiers in the army, particularly in combat units and leadership positions.1 In the infantry division in the year 1990, 2.5% of commanders were graduates of religious high schools. By 2000, this figure had jumped to 15%. By 2007, the number had reached 31.4%. Within the infantry division, the Golani and Givati brigades have even higher percentages that are religious. In 2010, two thirds of the commanders in Givati were religious. The Brigadier General of the entire Givati brigade, Ofer Vinter, is himself also religious. One piece of anecdotal evidence: The author of the study quoted in Harel’s book served in the Shaldag unit in the mid 80s, when the unit had two religious soldiers, both of whom “removed their Kippa” by the time they left the army. When he returned to the unit 18 years later, 40% of the junior commanders and 30% of the senior commanders were religious. A friend of mine in Golani said that if someone were to never have seen Israel, and were to walk into his army base, he would believe that at least half the country is observant. The army is now full of religious soldiers and commanders.

This change can be explained by looking at the internal organisation of the National Religious (Dati Le’umi) community. The National Religious community places a strong emphasis on the land of Israel and the Jewish people, and thus army service is a highly esteemed value. This value was converted into its current position in the army due to a watershed development in 1988. Until 25 years ago, there were two paths National Religious teenagers would take in army service. Yeshivot Hesder (such as Kerem B’Yavneh and Yeshivat Har Etzion) provide a program whereby students would learn Torah for 3 and a half years, and serve in the army for a year and a half. Yeshivot Gevohot (such as Merkaz Harav) provide a framework where one could learn for 5 or more years before serving in the army, often for half a year or so. Students in the Hesder or Yeshiva Gavoha programs usually served in religious-only units, and most importantly, usually serve less than a full three years. In 1988, a new framework, that of the Mechinot, was established. The Mechinot provide a year of religious study for students, who then go on to serve full three years in the army, usually in the same units as everyone else. This framework has significant societal implications – these soldiers from religious communities, educated in an environment that puts great emphasis on army service, now serve for three years, and thus are able to take more senior positions in the army than previously possible. Additionally, these soldiers, who have spent a year preparing emotionally, spiritually and physically for the army are far more prepared and motivated than their peers who are arriving straight from high school – 80% of Mechina students go to combat units, almost double the national average. With the large number of highly motivated religious soldiers serving for three years, the change in leadership of the Israeli army was almost inevitable.

The place of the National Religious in Israeli Politics

The first implication of this shift is the way the National Religious community is perceived in Israeli society. It is common to characterise the pre-State years of Israel and its first three decades as the era of the secular, Kibbutz, socialist vision of Israel. In the early years of the State, continuing through the 80s and 90s, there was a tendency to say that secular socialists built the country. This was the state built by the “Tel Aviv” consensus, while Sephardim and religious minorities had not “earned their stripes” and were residents of a home built by someone else. The Israeli identity was formed by the Ashkenazi secular consensus, and other groups were peripheral to this group.

This culture has gradually broken down in a number of ways. First, of course, was the shock of the 1977 election victory of the right wing traditionalist Menachem Begin. Parts of “Tel Aviv” became embarrassed by the country and institutions they had once been proud of building, as peace with the Palestinians continued to remain elusive. And minorities–Sephardi, religious, and then Russian–began to demand their place in the development of the State.

The National Religious are now a major, if not the primary, demographic force in the Israeli army. 36% of soldiers from Gush Dan serve in combat units as opposed to the 62% of soldiers from Yehuda and Shomron, and 54% from Jerusalem (both National Religious strongholds). Efrat is the city in Israel with the highest percentage of its soldiers in leadership positions – fully 22% of its soldiers achieve Ketzuna (middle level leadership). This has created a growing sense that the National Religious also built this country, and thus a growing confidence in the political sphere. Israel will be a state that was built by Tel Aviv, but is currently being developed by Gush Etzion as well. This development has significant implications for Israeli identity and politics.

The Haredi Draft

The religious nature of the army also affects the Haredi draft. It has become orthodoxy in the Haredi community that the army is a great threat to the religiosity of soldiers, and many outside the Haredi camp begrudgingly agreed that the army was inhospitable to a religious person. Indeed, much of what the Haredim say about the army and the statistics quoted were quite accurate – but for the 80s and 90s.

The recent major shift renders untrue the view of the army as an anti-religious hotbed. The legendary encounter between the Yeshiva student and the anti-religious commander is quickly disappearing. As mentioned above, in some brigades two-thirds of the commanders are religious. (This is combined naturally with the existence of many religious-only units, but that has existed for decades.)

Beyond the issue of the commander, the growth of religious personnel also gives the army bases a more religious feel.2 During the operation in Gaza in 2009, the army newspaper BaMachane reported that soldiers from the Givati unit in the army queued up to receive a personal blessing from the unit’s rabbi, who was holding a Sefer Torah, before entering combat. The central defence building in Tel Aviv, and the General’s headquarters have a sign at the entrance explaining how to avoid activating the electronic sensor that will open the door on Shabbat. On the training base for the Nachal, outside the bathroom, the wall which once contained a list of the types of weapons held by the Syrian army has been replaced by an “Asher Yatzar” card. At an army conference a few years ago, a senior commander caused surprise by talking about the soldiers who are fighting “to protect the holy land of Gaza.” When the largely secular crowd responded angrily to this overt show of religiosity, he was supported by another senior commander. Both commanders in question are themselves not religious.

There are unquestionably issues that still arise, halachic dilemmas that crop up. Certain units may still have individual commanders who are not sensitive to the needs of the religious. But the idea that the army, as a general rule, is anti-religious is simply no longer true. The Haredi discourse must change to match this new situation, and we do not need to accept the claims (which were a little ridiculous to begin with) that service in the army threatens the perpetuation of Orthodox Judaism. As always, there are tracks in the army where one can serve entirely with religious soldiers. The recent development is that the commanders of those units are predominantly not only sensitive to the needs of the religious, but religious themselves. The army has become, and is continually becoming more, conducive to service for the Haredi community. The Haredi community will find it more difficult to excuse itself from service based on last generation’s reasons.

The relationship between religious and secular

The tide has now turned and whereas previously the religious were worried about the army being to secular, the secular are now worried about the army being too religious. There have been instances were army events are perceived as being too religious. This summer, many were surprised when the brigadier general of Givati rallied his troops with the cry of “Shema Yisrael.” In his writing for Haaretz over the years, Harel documented how the Army Rabbinate, under Chief Rabbi Rontzki, was very active in trying to bring secular soldiers closer to religion.3 The important issue of how religious soldiers relate to their non religious comrades, and increasingly, juniors, requires clarification.

But there is one concern that looms larger than these more localised issues. There has always been a fear in the army of religious soldiers because religion provides them with another source of authority– to whom would they listen in a clash between their religion and an army command? The major flashpoint for this was the removal of settlements in Gaza in 2005. Would rabbis tell their students to refuse orders to remove residents from Gaza? Would they listen? In 2005 there was a huge discussion about this, but in the end, there were relatively few refusals to serve, mainly at junior levels of the army. Many soldiers also came to individual agreements with their commanders, thus averting head-on clashes.

But the fear has not gone away, and the implication of this issue for the two-state solution could be far greater. In the event of a two-state solution, would the religious soldiers take part in a mass removal of settlements in the West Bank – removing hundreds of thousands of people from land, such as Shechem, Kever Rachel, Chevron and Shilo, that is so central to religious people, ? Is it even possible that the army could one day have so many religious soldiers and commanders that the viability of any such operation depends on the participation of the religious soldiers? If it were known that all the religious soldiers and commanders will not participate in such an operation, could the army reach a certain point when a two state solution could actually not viably be pulled off? This situation seems very unlikely – there were numerous Rabbis who called on their students not to refuse orders in 2005, and if there was a threat to the political viability of the country, many more would likely make similar calls. However, the balance between listening to religious teachers and army hierarchy is a crucial tension that must be worked out within the National Religious community.

With its newfound hegemony in the army, the National Religious community has many complex issues to discuss. Its relation to the secular majority, both in day-to-day routine as well as in larger political decisions, must be reanalysed and discussed.


The Israeli army is different than it once was ,and the religious are now a significant feature of its makeup. Managed properly, this situation can allow for a more even spread of political power, a window to finally solve the issue of the Haredi draft, and a chance to create a less suspicious relationship between the religious and secular. There is a lot to discuss.

  1. All statistics, unless otherwise mentioned, come from Harel’s book. 

  2. These anecdotes are from Harel’s book. 


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