Enlisting in the Army

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by R. Gil Student

When Jews are drafted into inhospitable armies in the diaspora, they are required to work on Shabbos and eat non-kosher food or face severe punishment. Effectively, they are coerced to violate Torah prohibitions. Historically, this raised many questions as young Jewish men faced a draft into a religiously hostile army. I do not know the exact history of Jewish service in diaspora armies but the discussion in the halakhic literature of voluntary enlistment seems to have begun only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although an involuntary draft began earlier. Dr. Judith Bleich discusses responsa about army service in chapter six of her Defenders of the Faith regarding attitudes to military service. Here we are concerned with halakhic arguments regarding enlisting in an army that does not respect kosher rules and Shabbos observance in non-urgent situations when lives are not at stake.

I. Long Term Thinking

In 1902, Rav Eliezer Chaim Deutsch was asked whether a young man could volunteer for a one year term in the army in order to avoid being drafted for a three year term (Responsa Pri Ha-Sadeh, vol. 1 no. 38). Is it better to serve less time and thereby violate fewer prohibitions or to wait until he is forced to serve so the violations are coerced rather than voluntary? Rav Deutsch quotes the debate between Ramban and Rav Zerachyah Ha-Levi (known as the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or) regarding a bris on Shabbos. In Talmudic times, it was accepted that you needed to treat a circumcised baby with hot water as a life-saving measure. For a Shabbos bris, they would heat water before Shabbos and keep it warm for after the bris. What if the water accidentally spilled? If you already circumcised the baby then you have to heat water as a lifesaving measure for the baby. If the water spilled before the bris, the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or (Shabbos 53a in the Rif) says to delay the bris until Sunday. It is better to delay the mitzvah to avoid violating Shabbos. Ramban (quoted in Ran, ad loc., s.v. ve-heikha) disagrees. He says to do the bris because we only consider the mitzvah in front of us. If, after we do the mitzvah, we have to violate Shabbos for the baby’s health, that is a later consideration.

Rav Deutsch suggests that according to the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or, we take into account future Shabbos violations. Therefore, a man should volunteer for the lighter service today to avoid three years of forced Torah violations. However, according to Ramban, we only look at the current situation and therefore a man would be forbidden to volunteer for service that involves Torah violations. However, after further consideration Rav Deutsch argues that even the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or would not allow enlisting for a shorter service. The Ba’al Ha-Ma’or allows avoiding future violations by inaction, not doing the bris. There is no indication that he would allow a lesser violation today in order to avoid a future, greater violation.

Rav Deutsch makes a surprising argument from the rule that if bandits attack a group and demand that they hand over one person or they all will suffer, they may not hand over an individual unless the bandits specify someone who is guilty of a capital sin (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 157:1). Rav David Ha-Levi Segal (Taz, ad loc., no. 7) explains that we cannot actively hand over someone to sin even if that will save many people from sin. Similarly, argues Rav Deutsch, an individual cannot hand himself over to be forced to sin even if that will save him from many future coerced sins. Someone who volunteers for army service is choosing to violate Shabbos, as opposed to someone who is drafted and forced to violate Shabbos.

II. Voluntary vs Involuntary Service

Rav Moshe Tzvi Landau, his 1931 Shulchan Melakhim commentary on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (pp. 279a-b n. 11), suggests that the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or agrees that on a biblical level we look only at the current situation. It is only on a rabbinic level that we are strict and take into account future Shabbos violations. Therefore, even the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or would not allow someone to enlist now for a lighter service to avoid a later service that involves more violations.

During World War I, Rav Eliezer David Grunwald of Satmar was asked whether someone could volunteer for a war-related factory job that entailed Shabbos work to avoid being drafted into the army (Keren Le-David, Orach Chaim, no. 100). Temporarily setting aside the issue of danger, Rav Grunwald considers multiple lines of argumentation but ultimate rejects the idea of committing a lesser sin in order to avoid a greater sin. When you volunteer for the job, every Shabbos violation you commit is considered voluntary. It is better to be drafted, in which every Shabbos violation is coerced. However, he returns to the issue of danger and concludes that because serving in a factory or office is much less dangerous than potentially being sent to the front lines, it is better to volunteer for the job than be drafted into the army.

III. Joining a Caravan

During World War I, Rav Mordechai Leib Winkler was similarly asked about obtaining a government job to defer the draft (Levushei Mordekhai, Tinyana, Orach Chaim, no. 174). Rav Winkler quotes the Gemara (Shabbos 19a) that you are allowed to join a caravan through the desert that leaves before Wednesday even though inevitably you will be placed in a situation in which you must violate Shabbos in order to save your life. Your life will be in danger if you are left alone in the desert on Shabbos while the rest of your caravan goes ahead. You may place yourself in that situation and violate Shabbos to travel with your group as long as you leave more than three days before Shabbos (i.e. Sunday through Tuesday). Magen Avraham (248:14) quotes some authorities who only allow this if there is a question whether you will have to violate Shabbos. But when you will definitely have to violate Shabbos, you are never allowed to join that caravan. On the other hand, for a mitzvah, you are allowed to join the caravan any day of the week, even Friday.

Rav Winkler compares this to someone who has been called before the draft board but not yet drafted. Taking a job that requires Shabbos violation in the future is like joining a caravan. Because Shabbos violations in that job are almost certain but not quite — it’s remotely possible that he will get a job that does not entail Shabbos violations on a biblical level — he is allowed to accept such a job to avoid being drafted into the army.

Rav David Tzvi Hoffmann has two responsa on this subject (Melamed Le-Ho’il, Orach Chaim, nos. 42-43). He takes the same approach in both but the second responsum is more personal. He was asked whether his nephew can enlist young rather than wait until he is drafted. If he enlists young, he will get his military service out of the way and begin his adult life, marry and settle down. Either way, he will serve the same amount of time and be forced to violate Shabbos. Rav Hoffmann compares army service to a caravan. When a soldier enlists, he does not violate Shabbos immediately — only after a few days. Therefore, since he is enlisting for the sake of marriage and having children, he is doing so for a mitzvah and may enlist any day of the week even though that very week he will be required to violate Shabbos.

In the earlier responsum, Rav Hoffmann adds that enlisting in the army is always a mitzvah because it disproves the accusation that Jews shirk their civic duty and disobey the law. It is a mitzvah to remove the Chillul Hashem of Jews failing to bear the burden of defending society.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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