Serving in the IDF in the Teachings of Rabbi Yehuda Amital z"l

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
Serving in the IDF in the Teachings of Rabbi Yehuda Amital z"l
Dr. Aharon Ahrend[1]
There have been but a few great rabbis for whom the IDF and the problems of religious soldiers serving there have stood in the forefront of their concerns.  My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Amital of blessed memory (1925-2010), headed the Har Etzion yeshivah in Alon Shevut for some forty years.  One of the main subjects of interest to him from the time he himself fought in the War of Independence until the time of his death was the life of religious soldiers in the IDF.  He actively expressed his opinion both in writing and in speech on all matters relating to this subject.  Below we shall describe some of his views and activities in this regard.
On Independence Day one year, in what he called "a moment of weakness," Rabbi Amital told students at the yeshivah about the beginning of his military service.  His story is indicative of the atmosphere in the IDF in 1948 and of the lack of awareness on the part of the military at that time of the needs of the religious soldier.  Here we quote some of his words:[2]
I was inducted on the 4th of Iyar, 1948, and the very next day, a Friday, I was sent to Latrun…  We gathered around the tank and prepared to make Kiddush for the Sabbath.  I asked if anyone had any wine.  One soldier came up and said yes.  "How is it you have wine?"  "I am a wine merchant.  When I was called up, I was so confused, I did not know what to put in my bag.  I put in a bottle of Alicante wine."  "OK, take it out and tell the guys that we are making Kiddush here."  Some of the Czech immigrants who came were half assimilated and almost totally ignorant of Jewish practice.  They had heard something about Kiddush but did not know what sort of ceremony it was.  I began reciting Kiddush in my usual manner, and suddenly I saw that all the soldiers were standing at attention.  So as not to desecrate the Name, I too stood at attention.
Not long thereafter, in Tevet (January) 1949, Rabbi Amital published an article in the journal of the synagogue of Regiment 79, devoted to the areas in which religious soldiers should work to shape the IDF in accordance with the Torah.  For example, he noted that a religious soldier could contribute to improving the religious atmosphere in army camps by bringing model soldiers together to the army synagogue, by establishing a special atmosphere on the Sabbath, and especially by sanctifying the Name publicly.  His aspiration was that the comportment of religious soldiers would work its way into army life and would be accepted by all of the IDF.  Thus he wrote:
We, a small handful of rank and file soldiers, carry in our hearts a great vision of the model of a Hebrew armed force.  We have taken it upon ourselves to be among the architects of this model and have been so bold as to believe that we … shall leave our mark, the mark of the Torah, on the shape of the entire army.
The secular atmosphere that pertained in the early days of the IDF is also evident from his eulogy for Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917-2005), the first Chief Rabbi of the Army.  In his eulogy he noted Rabbi Goren's contribution to molding the IDF into a Jewish army:
Rabbi Goren built the military rabbinate.  But his greatness lies not in this alone.  In those days he succeeded in establishing rules of kashruth and of Sabbath and holiday observance that were binding on the entire army.  You cannot imagine what it was like in those days:  religious soldiers were few and far between.  When I was drafted and looked around to see if there was anyone else laying tefillin other than myself, I barely found one other soul.  There was an anti-religious struggle…  In this battle, Rabbi Goren's way met with success, thanks to his personality and the ideal that he presented:  to see to it that every kitchen in the IDF, wherever it may be, be kosher.  Words cannot describe what great sacrifice this demanded, nor how great was the ultimate achievement.
The concept of hesder yeshivahs
In the 1960's Rabbi Amital, along with his father-in-law Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Meltzer, initiated the idea of the hesder yeshivah, a combination of army service and yeshivah studies.[3]  Having been in a work camp during the Holocaust and a soldier in the War of Independence undoubtedly influenced his views on the importance of yeshivah students serving in the IDF.[4]  Rabbi Amital spoke about the idea of hesder yeshivahs several times.  He mentioned several of the arguments of the ultra-Orthodox Jews against serving in the army, the main one of which was that knowledge of Torah can only be acquired by incessant study, and that whoever ceases studying even for the briefest moment cannot become a talmid hakham.  Rabbi Amital rejected this view:
Such an ideology detracts from the Torah.  The state of Israel boasts of top rate scientists and scholars in the humanities, and practically all of whom did full military service.  A large fraction of them even served as officers.  They reached impressive achievements in their fields, some even winning themselves a world reputation.  I cannot accept the argument that Torah study is different in this regard from any other field.  Not all the great religious figures of past generations were kollelnikim [full-time yeshivah students supported by charity], and the occupation of Rabbi Johanan the shoemaker did not get in the way of his achieving greatness in Torah.  I have had the good fortune to head a yeshivah, even though I had to "give" the Nazis – may their name be obliterated – over half a year of my life.  Afterwards, in contradistinction, I fulfilled my duty to the IDF, serving for 16 months, besides all the months I have served in the reserves.  Many of my contemporaries, figures greater than myself, spent long hard years in work camps and extermination camps, yet today they hold pride of place in the world of Torah.
Rabbi Amital noted two reasons for establishing hesder yeshivahs:
  1.  This setting was intended originally to develop a cadre of Zionistic Talmudic scholars, for it was feared that religious Zionism would not succeed in developing if it did not have a stratum of talmidei hakhamim [traditional Jewish scholars] originating from within.
  2. This idea lent expression to the involvement of the national-religious community in answering the needs of Israeli society.[5]  The hesder setting in which every student serves close to 18 months in regular army service did not win acceptance among the ultra-Orthodox, while in the Zionist yeshivah, Merkaz ha-Rav, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook advocated postponing army service, often for many years, and serving a relatively short time, with Rabbi Kook determining when each student would enlist.[6]
Several years after the idea of hesder yeshivahs came up, in the summer of 1969 Rabbi Amital founded the Har Etzion Yeshivah as a hesder yeshivah from the outset, without feeling in any manner inferior to the ultra-Orthodox yeshivahs.  As head of the hesder yeshivah he was in touch with the yeshivah students during their time in the IDF.  He would visit them at their army camps, teach them Torah, and mostly would listen to them and give them encouragement.[7]  Every two months or so the yeshivah would send its students in the army a collection of articles entitled Alon Shevut, in an effort to maintain religious ties with them.  In 1992, when Rabbi Amital was 67 years old, he wrote a letter to his students in the army, on the subject of his meetings with them:[8]
To the staff and our dear students … Instead of meeting face to face, allow me several lines of greetings.  To tell the truth, this is not easy for me emotionally.  As you know, in recent years I have ceased visiting our students in the army altogether, the reason being that I have decided to concede to the limitations my advanced age places on me.  Nevertheless, I am not at one with this decision and always have mixed feelings about it.  I would like to believe that you miss these get-togethers, as I certainly do.
Rabbi Amital succeeded in establishing ties with senior IDF officers and won their esteem and a willing ear.  At a certain stage he was appointed coordinating rabbi between the IDF and the hesder yeshivahs.[9]
Assiduous performance of the commandments
Rabbi Amital accorded great importance to assiduous performance of the commandments in the army setting.  During a cease-fire in the Yom Kippur War he visited soldiers near Cairo, and following this visit he was interviewed on the radio, saying:
The commander of the brigade told us:  "I had to make difficult decisions.  I gathered the soldiers to share with them my assessment of what lay ahead and to prepare them for hard eventualities.  The atmosphere was especially tense.  Suddenly, one soldier got up and said:  'Sir!  There is another problem; tomorrow is the eve of Sukkot, and we need to have a lulav.'  I was astounded," the commander recounted, "and when I had recovered from my shock I told him, OK.  I transmitted my order over the wireless, asking for so many weapons, so many mortars, and at the end, a lulav.  I could sense the shock on the other end. There was silence, then at long last: ''From where are we to get a lulav?''  Whoever is familiar with the authoritative voice of that commander knows that his orders must be carried out, even in impossible situations.  Before dawn a lulav had arrived at the front line, and needless to say our artillery men gladly included the commander of the brigade in observing the commandment of celebrating with the lulav.
Rabbi Amital was among the first rabbis outside the army to issue halakhic rulings regarding soldiers in the army.[10]  He tried to issue lenient rulings because of their special condition: being in a military setting.  A soldier in an officer-training course told me about the difficulties he had in praying properly because of his extreme exhaustion.  Rabbi Amital told him:  In time of war a soldier is exempt from praying, but during training the situation is more complex.  On one hand, he should demand from the army true and full consideration so as to enable him both to pray and perform army exercises as need be.  On the other hand, should he not manage to pray properly because of his exhaustion, he need not feel guilty but should know that the priorities established by the Torah are that a necessary war takes precedence over every other commandment, and preparations for such a war are also to be considered "preparation for performing the commandments," and as such are part of the commandment.  Further, the rabbi encouraged soldiers who had to say their High Holy Day prayers in the army, saying:  "I envy you, having to pray in the army, for it is no big deal to pray in the rarified environment of the yeshivah, and when as the leader of the prayers I say a single 'Oy,' four hundred youngsters follow me with excitement."[11]
Some of his answers to soldiers' questions were delivered in writing, mostly in short texts of up to three or four pages.  On one occasion some thirty short responsa that had been given on the telephone without full explanations were later published.  Here are two of them:[12]
Question:  May one call home before saying the morning prayers?  Answer:  It is not only permitted, it is a mitzvah to do so.
Question:  May one participate in roll-call before prayers?  Answer:  It is not quite proper, nor is it terrible.
Rabbi Amital opposed refusing orders on ideological grounds,[13] but he also opposed unnecessary compliance with an order that involved a transgression.  For example, once he told us that it is not terrible if we do some time in a military prison for refusing to carry out an order that involves desecrating the Sabbath when there is no compelling need to desecrate it.
He spoke of fighting having to be done out of moral values.  His opposition to the IDF going into Beirut in the Lebanon War stemmed, among other things, from moral considerations and the fear lest the civilian population be hard hit.[14]  In his eulogy for Danny Moschitz, killed in Lebanon in 1985, he spoke of his sense of morality:  Danny had phoned him about two weeks before he was killed to ask if he may pick oranges from a gentile's orange grove while in Lebanon.[15]
Studying Torah during one's army service
Rabbi Amital frequently mentioned the importance of continuing to study Torah during one's army service.  For example, at a memorial service he expressed himself thus:[16]
"When a person dies in a tent …" (Num. 19:14).  The Sages used this verse as the proof text for the question (Berakhot 63b):  "Whence do we learn that words of Torah are firmly held by one who kills himself for it?"  By this they meant someone who regularly "dwells in the tent of the Torah" and invests all his efforts in its study.  But sometimes one is required to take leave of the "tent of Torah" for a period of time.  Psalms (78:60) reads:  "He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent He had set among men."  It can happen that a person must leave the tabernacle, the beit midrash.  But some people, through great effort, are blessed with having the tabernacle dwell within them even when they must leave the tent, the tent He set among men.  Such people take the tent of Torah with them wherever they go.  They live in the tent of Torah and die in the tent of Torah.
In speaking of Rabbi Goren, he described how Rabbi Goren steadily studied Torah:[17]  "Even after he had become the Chief Rabbi of the Army, he did not cease studying; between one task and another he would sit down and study.  He kept a copy of the Mishnah in his car, and used every spare moment to study."
Rabbi Amital was sensitive to the matter of fallen soldiers from the IDF, and for years kept in contact with the bereaved families.  In the Yom Kippur War eight yeshivah students were killed, and following this tragedy for several months he spent little time at the yeshivah, acting like a person "whose dead [relative] lies before him."[18]  In his eulogy for them on the 2nd of Iyyar he described their common characteristics and then dwelled on each one's special traits.  He took care to speak an equal length about each soldier, so that none of the families would be offended.[19]  At a memorial service thirty years after the Yom Kippur War Rabbi Amital recalled that eulogy and the strong impression those eight students had left on him:[20]
At the memorial service which we held in the yeshivah after the war I made an especial effort to describe each of the eight who fell in battle.  It was no easy task…  I worked for long hours to recall every detail, even the smallest trifle, the least fragment of a memory that would truly bring alive the memory of each and every one.  I do not know if I succeeded.  Indeed, every fragment of a memory which I called forth was internalized in my consciousness and became an integral part of my self.  The eight princes – and like them, the rest of the yeshivah students who fell in Israel's wars and terrorist actions – live in my very being.  The Holy One, blessed be He, knows our innermost thoughts, reveals the deepest secrets of our hearts; He is witness to how those fragments of memory have worked their way into my being and consciousness…  Therefore, they have become my teachers; and my soul is bound up with theirs.
In the traditional yeshivah world the head of the yeshivah would teach and influence his disciples in a single place, at the beit midrash.  The new model of hesder yeshivahs led to yeshivah students dividing their time between the beit midrash and service in the IDF.  This led to a change in the role of the head of the yeshivah:  teaching Torah to youngsters within the halls of the yeshivah, but also maintaining ties with them while they were in the army and at war.  Rabbi Amital was among the figures who forged this new model.  His personal example as a soldier, his excellence as a Torah scholar and thinker, and his personal charm all brought him the love of his students in the beit midrash and in the bases of the IDF.
[1] Dr. Ahrend, an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion, teaches in the Talmud Department of Bar Ilan University. This essay originally appeared in the weekly mailing of Bar Ilan’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat Emor 5771 / May 7, 2011. Our thanks to Dr. Ahrend, the Bar Ilan Faculty of Jewish Studies, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi for permission to reprint.
[2] Rabbi Y. Amital, "Shomer Yisrael Shemor Medinat Yisrael," Alon Shevut – Bogrim, 9 (1996), p. 53.  He described the atmosphere in the army camp on the Sabbath in 1949 (in his article, "Le-Darko shel he-Hayyal ha-Dati be-Milhemet ha-Kommemiyut," published in his book, Ha-Ma`alot mi-Ma`amakim, Jerusalem and Alon Shevut 1977, p. 100) as follows:  "The regiment has been in existence for six month, and in the mess halls there is no sign of Sabbath.  On entering the mess hall you notice nothing that sets Friday night apart from any other night:  the same line, the same food, the same noise, the same tables, the same hastily eaten meal.  From one distant table the sigh of a soldier pierces through the weekday atmosphere, 'Believe me, I even forget which day is the Sabbath.'  Only these naïve sighs with their routine expressions add a modicum of sanctity to the air so permeated with a weekday atmosphere."  
[3] Cf. the remarks of his son, Rabbi Yoel Amital, "Savi ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda Meltzer, z"l," Ha-Ma`ayan, Tamuz (June-July) 2009, p. 69.  He noted that the students in Yeshivat ha-Darom in Rehovot, where his father and grandfather had taught, were among the first to serve in the army as hesder soldiers.
[4] Here we should note his view, based on words of Hazon Ish, that on the one hand there is Divine action, yet on the other human beings must respond, build and act naturally according to their capabilities.  Cf. Rabbi Y. Amital, "Al ha-Ge'ulah ve-al ha-Temurah," Alon Shevut, Sivan (May-June), 1978, pp. 8-9.
[5] Cf. Rabbi Y. Amital, "Pit'hav shel Elul," Alon Shevut – Bogrim, 4 (1995), p. 40; ibid., "Binu Shenot Dor va-Dor," loc. sit., 13 (1999), pp. 137-138; ibid., "Re`ayon" (note 7), pp. 36-37; ibid., "Talmud Torah," Daf Kesher, 7 (1998-1999), p. 525.  Also cf. the letter of the fallen soldier, Dov Indich, from 1983, in Mikhtavim le-Talyah, Tel Aviv 2005, pp. 101-105.
[6] Cf. H. Wolberstein and R. S. Klein, and S. Raz, Mashmi`ah Yeshu`ah:  Le-Demuto shel ha-R. Tz. Y. H. Kook, Merkaz Shapira 2010, pp. 295-302.
[7] I heard from Rabbi Weiner that at the beginning of the first Lebanon war the students of his year in the yeshivah were called up urgently.  Rabbi Amital assembled them and said:  "It says, a man before taking leave of his fellow should not finish off … but with some matter of halakhah (Berakhot 31a), so my words of halakhah for you are:  For your own sake [or "souls"], therefore, be most careful (Deut. 4:15)!"
[8] The letter is photo-copied in Daf Kesher, 4(1992-1994), p. 16.  On his visits, also cf. A. Reichner,  Be-Emunato:  Sippuro shel ha-Rav Yehuda Amital (hereafter, Be-Emunato), Tel Aviv 2008, pp. 76-78, 133-134.
[9] Cf. Be-Emunato, pp. 77-78, 129-134.  A soldier in my company lost his rifle while traveling in a tank over the sand dunes of Tze'elim, and as was the policy in the army, was sent to prison.  He came back four days later.  When asked how he got out so quickly, he replied, "Rabbi Amital worked for my release."
[10] Another Rabbi who dealt with such matters was my mentor, Rabbi Shlomo Min-Hahar, co-author with R. Y. Eisenberg and R. Y. Goelman of Dinei Tzavah u-Milhamah, Jerusalem 1971.  Cf. H. Nahari, Ha-Sifrut ha-Hilkhatit la-Hayyal be-Hitpathutah (1880-1975), doctoral dissertation, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan 2003, pp. 76-81.
[11] See the letter of Rabbi Y. Amital, in Alon Shevut – Bogrim, 17 (2003), pp. 183-184.
[12] Rabbi Y. Amital, "Teshuvot Ketzarot ba-Telefon be-Hilkhot Tzava," Siah ba-Sadeh, 2 (2000), p. 110.  Incidentally, Regarding Rabbi Amital's views on national service for young women, his son-in-law Rabbi Shlomo Brin told me that he was in favor of women doing national service and that his daughters did so.  He opposed the view of other rabbis forbidding women to do national service.  On his opposition to female soldiers instructing male soldiers in the context of professional training, see  Be-Emunato, p. 133.
[13] As recounted by Rabbi Y. Amital, "Shliah Tzibbur," Alon Shevut – Bogrim, 8 (1996), p. 168:  "Today two young men came to me requesting my blessing for them to sign up for an officer-training course.  I asked them, 'If you were to receive an order to evacuate Jenin, would you refuse?'  When they answered me in the negative, I encouraged them and said:  'Go to your commanders and tell them in the name of your Rabbis:  I will carry out the order not because it ranks higher than the halakhah, but because the halakhah instructs me to carry out the order.'"   
[14] Rabbi Y. Amital, "Meser Politi o Messer Hinukhi," Alon Shevut, 100 (1983), p. 38.
[15]  Likewise in his remarks about Rabbi Goren (note 4 above), p. 126:  "He insisted that the fighting be on the highest moral level…  [In his article] he proves that by halakhah one must not hurt non-combatant population, and surely not women or children.  Even the enemy is not to be hurt beyond that which is necessary for victory or self-defense…  This is of especial importance these very days, as we hear such utterances as, "the blood of gentiles is for the taking," coming from disciples of his who did not learn all that they might have learned."  Also cf. Rabbi Y. Amital, "Devarim she-be-Hovah ve-Hovot she-be-Hakarah," Daf Kesher, 1 (1985-1988), pp. 29-30; ibid., "Erkam shel Hayei Adam," Daf Kesher, 8 (2000-2001), pp. 288-289.
[16] Rabbi Y. Amital, "Divrei Zikaron ve-Hesped" [on David Cohen and Danny Moschitz], Alon Shevut, 113 (1986), p. 4.
[17] Rabbi Y. Amital, note 4 above, p. 122.  Also cf. ibid., "Divrei Petihah," Siah ba-Sadeh, 1 (1987), p. 5.
[18] Cf. Rabbi A. Lichtenstein, "Rabbi Yehuda Amital, z"l:  Mish`an u-Mivtah le-Shakulim," website of Yeshivat Har Etzion.  Also cf. Be-Emunato, pp. 74-77, 81.
[19] Cf.  Be-Emunato, pp. 81-83.  This was also noted by Rabbi S. Tropper in his eulogy for Rabbi Amital at the memorial service at the end of shloshim.  The eulogy was published in the booklet, Shmonah Nesikhei Adam, Alon Shevut 1975, pp. 7-30.
[20] Rabbi Y. Amital, "Morai ve-Rabotai," Alon Shevut – Bogrim, 21 (2006), p. 11.