by R. Gil Student
I. Danger in Yeshiva?
It is now common for many American yeshiva students to spend a “gap year” in Israel after high school. This year usually fosters religious growth through intense study in a specialized environment. Since war began in Israel over Sukkos, due to a horrific terrorist attack, every student in Israel for a gap year faces the question of whether to remain in a country at war or return to their home countries. There are many aspects of this question that raise practical and emotional issues. I want to explore here just the halachic issues. But before we reach that, we should note that everyone faces unique individual and family circumstances. There should be no judgment about whether someone stays or returns.
I did not go to Israel for a gap year and instead went straight to Yeshiva University. However, most of my friends went for what they thought would be a full school year. Saddam Hussein had other plans. That year was 1990-91, the year of the first Gulf War. During that war, Iraq shot Scud missiles into Israel which people feared may contain lethal gas. When a siren sounded, people had to flee to a safe room and put on gas masks. Thankfully, the missiles caused minimal damage. However, there was a sense of danger which led many gap year students to return. YU’s dormitories did not have enough room for all the returnees so we had to squeeze extra people into crowded rooms. On the other hand, many US-based YU students went to Israel during winter break, after the war broke out, as a sign of solidarity.
An important element of our question is whether there is any danger for gap year students. The vast majority of the programs are based in cities that currently face very limited direct exposure to the war. This contrasts with the first Gulf War, when students would have to run to their safe room and put on a gas mask out of fear of missiles. While things turned out well, that was not known in advance. However, even today, war can change very quickly and fronts can shift, hopefully for the better but we do not know that in advance. Reasonable people can disagree about the level of danger. On October 14, 2023, the US State Department issued an advisory of “Do not travel” to Gaza but only a “Reconsider travel” to Israel and the West Bank. In other words, currently there is more risk than usual throughout Israel but not great risk in most places.
II. Leaving During Danger
In 1991, Rav Ya’akov Ariel, the now-retired rabbi of Ramat Gan and a leading halakhic authority in Israel, published an article on the subject in the journal Techumin (no. 12), later republished in his Be-Ohalah Shel Torah (vol. 1, no. 6). The primary source about leaving Israel during danger is Bava Basra (91a) which discusses the beginning of the biblical book of Rus. Why did Elimelech and his sons Machlon and Kilyon die? “In the days when the judges judged, there was a famine in the land. A man from Beis Lechem of Yehuda went to sojourn in the fields of Moav, he, his wife and his two sons” (Rus 1:1). They left Israel because of famine and went to Moav, where there was food. If there was a famine, why were they punished for leaving?
Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Melakhim 5:9) says that you are allowed to leave Israel during a time of great famine. However, it is a midas chassidus, a pious practice, to remain in Israel even during those difficult times. Rambam adds that Machlon and Kilyon were communal leaders and were punished for failing to observe this midas chassidus. Rav Yosef Karo (Kessef Mishneh, ad loc.) explains that Rambam recognizes that Elimelech and his sons were leaders of the Jewish community and would not leave Israel when doing so against halakhah. Rather, leaving Israel must have been technically permissible. They were punished because, as communal leaders, they were expected to follow the midas chassidus and remain in Israel, praying for the situation to improve. Rav Yisrael of Shklov (Pe’as Ha-Shulchan, Hilkhos Eretz Yisrael, ch. 1 n. 24) follows this explanation, as well.
If you may leave Israel during a time of famine, certainly you may leave during a time of war when you face potentially life-threatening danger. Rav Ariel suggests that yeshiva students constitute communal leaders, gedolei ha-dor, and therefore may not leave. This argument is difficult to accept. Perhaps the children of uniquely influential Jews are communal leaders. However, now that it is commonplace for nearly all yeshiva students to spend a gap year in Israel, they cannot all be communal leaders. Rather, it seems that halakhically gap year students are allowed to leave in a time of danger but it is praiseworthy for them to stay. When they stay, they show leadership, that they want to make a statement in solidarity with Israelis. When there are soldiers of the same age risking their lives in combat, students can do their part by volunteering in the community or at least staying in their program in Israel and continuing their studies. There are additional considerations of the impact Israeli morale, but that requires a longer discussion of the prohibition against fear during war.
III. Parental Rights
What if a student wants to stay but his parents insist he return? Rav Ariel quotes the Maharik (Responsa, no. 167), followed by the Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 240:25), who says that a son may marry a woman against his father’s objections. The Vilna Gaon (ad loc.) quotes many sources that say that a child is only obligated to honor his parents for the parents’ needs. If a father does not want you to marry a woman because he thinks she is wrong for you, that constitutes a child’s needs and not that of the parent. You do not have to listen to such an objection because it is about the child’s needs and not about the parent’s needs.
Therefore, suggests Rav Ariel, if a parent wants a child to leave Israel for the child’s safety, the child is not obligated to listen to the parent. However, if the parent is worried and will not become calm until the child leaves, then it is the parent’s need and the child must obey. In practice, I find it hard to think of a case in which a parent wants a child to leave a war zone that does not involve the parent worrying. If that is the case, then a student is obligated to leave Israel if his parents insist that he do so. Because different parents react differently, and different students have different emotional and family needs, we cannot judge poorly those who leave Israel. They might be doing what is right for them. Those who stay merit to fulfill the midas chassidus of staying in Israel during a time of danger.