Joining the IDF - An American Religious Zionist’s Dilemma


Of the Korahites. A Psalm. A Song.
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
His foundation on the holy mountains,
More than all the dwelling of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you
O city of God.   Selah.
I mention Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me;
Philistia, and Tyre and Cush – each was born there.
Indeed, it shall be said of Zion
“Every man was born there.”
He, the most high will preserve it.
The Lord will inscribe in the register of peoples
That each was born there.   Selah
Singers and dancers alike [will say]:
All my roots are in you.” 
(Psalm 87)[i]

Religious Zionism thrived in the small American town of Southfield, Michigan of my youth.   The small town’s 50 student high-school conducted many of its Judaic lessons in Hebrew. The school’s principle was a Yemenite-Israeli educator who spoke an eloquent English – albeit with a heavy Hebrew accent.  Many of the school’s teachers were “shlihim-morim” – Israeli teachers who had come to America as emissaries for three years. Two “bahurim” – Israelis who recently completed the army - roamed the hallways as teacher’s aids. Israeli flags draped the hallways, pictures of Israel soldiers covered the walls, and Yom Ha’atsmaut and Yom Yerushalayim were unquestionably days that students eagerly await throughout the year.  I may have been born in Michigan; but my small high school, family, and community clearly ingrained within me and my fellow students the message that, in truth, we were all “born in Zion.” Our passports may have read United States of America, but our hearts, our true “roots” were in the land of Israel.

Returning to America after two years of study in a Hesder Yeshiva in Israel was not an easy decision. I was struck with what I labeled the “Reuven Gad –syndrome.”   Was I really going to leave my fellow “brothers” in Israel behind to fight, while I returned to surround myself with textbooks and the safety of a college classroom in America?  The trenchant words uttered by Moshe to the tribes of Reuven and Gad upon their request to stay on the West bank of the Jordan rang strong in my mind. “Are your brothers to go war while you stay here (Numbers 32:7)?” Individual needs may have called me to return to America, but my sense of idealism and communal responsibility called upon me – or potentially even required me – to at least remain a bit longer and serve in the army of “the land of our birth.” How could I have abandoned my brothers? To properly grapple with this question, I decided to reflect more thoroughly - through research.  Delving into history, halakhah, and philosophy, I sought a more concrete understanding of the overwhelming sense of failed responsibility that overtook me upon my return to America.

The choice and opportunity to join the Israeli Defense Forces was unique – for many reasons. In the annals of Jewish history, millenniums had passed since Jews were military men – for their own people.   After the failure of Bar Kokhbah, Judaism has been defined by two thousand years of Jewish “powerlessness.” In exile, the strength of Israel lay in in the immortal words of Zehariah  “Not by might nor by power but by my spirit, says the Lord of host (Zehariah 4:6)”

Indeed, at times Jews had served in various military capacities. Jews are known to have fought under both Cross and Crescent in the great wars that raged between the Christians and Moors in medieval Spain.[ii] Some Jews had willingly joined the “professional ranks” of the Spanish conquistadors. By the 18th century, Jews had joined the armies of the Netherlands and the US, and soon after, they began to join the armies of countries such as France , Germany and Britain. My very own great-grandfather, Mayer Nadel, was forcefully drafted into the Russian army in the 1940’s. My grandfather, Tully Nadel, was drafted into the American army in the sixties where he served for two years in Germany. Indeed, Jews – my own family - may have served in the army, but they never served as Jews in the army. Now, with the onset of the state of Israel, Jews had the unique choice of joining their own army.

The ability to be a “foreign volunteer” to the Israeli Army is unique in contemporary times as well.  The Israel Army’s Mahal program, an abbreviation for “Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz-  Volunteers from outside the Land of Israel”  is unique amongst the countries of the word. [iii]In most countries, one cannot serve the respective countries army unless he/she is a citizen of that country. In Israel, this is not the case. One only needs to be Jewish to serve the country as a foreign volunteer.

Indeed, without Mahal, Israel may very well have lost the War of Independence. Over 4,000 foreign soldiers (mostly trained) joined the Israel army in 1948, aiding the fledgling state in its war against its Arab neighbors.  Regarding the contributions of the Mahal in the War of Independence, Ben Gurion famously remarked, “The participation of…men and women of other nations in our struggle cannot be measured only as additional manpower, but as an exhibition of the solidarity of the Jewish people…without the assistance, the help and the ties with the entire Jewish people, we would have accomplished naught…some of our most advanced services might not have been established were it not for the professionals who came to us from abroad.”[iv] The foreign volunteers of 1948 acted out of a sense of duty to the state.   The quote chosen for the monument erected to commemorate the 123 Mahal soldiers who were killed during the War of Independence reflects this sense of duty. The verse upon the monument is taken from the book of Yehoshuah.  On the brink of conquering the land, Israel’s new leader, Yehoshuah, reminds Reuven and Gad of the pledge they had made with Moses in Bamidbar. He exhorts to them to “Leave your wives , children , and livestock  remain the land that I assigned to you on this side of the Jordan, but every one of your fighting men shall go across armed before your brother , and you will help them.[v] Reuven and Gad respond to their calling and responsibility. They do not allow their brothers to fight alone. The Mahal soldiers of 1948 followed suit.  Sixty years later, should we – should I - feel the need to listen to the same “calling”?

A brief survey of some of the major halakhik sources regarding Judaism’s definition of war and the requirement it places on each individual sheds light on the significance of the issue at hand. The primary discussion of the topic occurs in Sotah 44b. There, the Mishnah presents an explanation of the scriptural verses that – at first glance- seem to outline extremely lenient parameters for exemptions from military service.

The verse in Deuteronomy 20:5-7 reads as follows:

And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying: who is the man who has built a new house and has not begun living in it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man begin living in it. And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and has not redeemed [its fruit in the fourth year]? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man redeem it. And who is the man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go and return to his house lest he die in the battle and another man take her.

The Mishnah discusses the actual context of this exemption and limits the application of the above text to “discretionary war.”  The text of the Mishnah reads as follows:

to what does the foregoing [verses] apply? To discretionary wars, but in wars commanded by the Torah (milhamot mitsvah) all go forth, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy. R. Judah says: To what does the foregoing apply? To wars commanded by the Torah (milhamot mitsvah), but in obligatory wars (milhamot hovah) all go forth, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy[vi]

In his extensive article on preventative war, R. Bleich fleshes out all of the potential definitions of discretionary wars and wars of Mitzvah. [vii] The following citation of Rambam only adds to the confusion over categories. He writes in his Hilchot Melahim:

The king may first wage only a Milhemet Mitsvah. What is a milhemet mitsvah? It is the war against the Seven Nations, the war against Amalek and [a war] to deliver Israel from an enemy who has attacked them (she-ba aleihem). Thereafter he may wage a milhemet reshut, which is a war against other people in order to enlarge the borders of Israel and to enhance his greatness and prestige.” [viii]

Rambam appears to add new categories to the definition of the mitsvah such as the war to deliver “from an enemy who has attacked them. The halakhik category of the war’s Israel currently engages in is the source of much debate. While defensive wars clearly seem to fall under Rambam’s category of war as a “mitsvah,” other forms of preventative and preemptive wars are not as clear. Granting even the most conservative approach in understanding these sources, the general thrust of the halakha is clear. A Jew’s obligation to defend the state of Israel and its people is all encompassing.  If “even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy” must go to defend Israel, what is the responsibility of the healthy twenty year old youth? Even if the category of the war being fought is not an absolute obligation, perhaps we still have the religious responsibility.

The scenario that faces Mahal volunteers is- at first glance - much different than that which faces their Israeli brothers.  Mahal recruits retain the choice to join or not join the Israeli army. In Israel, however, there is still a universal conscription.  This being the case, Israel’s army has developed into a paradigmatic people’s army. Joining the army has becomes a civic duty, or what Stuart Cohen labels, a “civic religion.”[ix]  However, the idealism surrounding service in the Israeli army has diminished in recent years. In the past, army service was flaunted as the highest good one could do for Israel, and members of the IDF were viewed as the heroes of Israeli society.  Studies have shown that since the 1980’s this aura surrounding the member serving in the Israeli army has diminished. In Stuart Cohen’s words, the “IDF since the mid 1980’s has been de-mythologized men in uniform once considered demigods are now approached as mere mortals.”[x]

Israel’s army is still very much – out of necessity – a “people’s army” maintaining its rules of universal conscription. However, this change in attitude has moved - even Israel - to transition toward a more “professional army.”  Nowadays, it is clearly easier to choose to skirt army service than it has ever been in the past.  With this gradual yet evident transition within the structure of the Israeli army, the following question may be equally relevant to Mahal volunteers and to the quasi-voluntary nature given to contemporary Israeli soldier. The question is one that any reflective potential soldier must ask himself - why should one choose to join the army?

Cohen divides the choice into three broad categories: emotional, material, and ideological. On the emotional level, some join the army because they feel that it will help them mature as human beings. The people of this group believe in the army as a form of “finishing school.” The skills learned in the army – skills of discipline, risk taking, and sacrifice – are ones that can then be transferred into general life-skills. This category also entails the belief that in Israel the army serves as “society’s melting pot.” Joining the army is a rite of passage that one must undergo to truly be a full-fledged citizen of Israeli society. Others join the army for material/utilitarian reasons. To get a job, one must be a member of Israeli society. Alternatively, some join the army as a lifetime career choice.

The last category- the ideological – is not mutually exclusive of the first two categories.  Here, the altruistic volunteer can be motivated for various ideological reasons. He may believe it’s his national duty, perhaps even a civic privilege, to serve in the army.  Alternatively, his desire to join the army may stem from a more religious rationale.  It is this last rationale that clearly motivates the Jew contemplating Mahal.

Rav Aharon Lichtentstein in his famous essay on the Ideology of Hesder addresses many of the issues that beleaguer the pensive Religious Zionist American.  Through the prism of his essay, we can gain many valuable insights into some of the lingering questions related to the choice of joining Mahal .

In describing the purpose of military service, Rav Lichtenstein makes the following important statement regarding its necessity. He writes:

The Yeshivah prescribes military service as a means to an end. That end is enrichment of personal and communal spiritual life, the realization of that great moral and religious vision whose fulfillment is our national destiny; and everything else is wholly subservient. No one responsibly connected with any Yeshivat Hesder advocates military service for its own sake. We avoid even the slightest tinge of militantism, and we are poles removed from Plato’s notion that the discipline of army life is a necessary ingredient of an ideal education. No less than every Jew, the Hesdernik yearns for peace ….[xi]

In other words, service in the Israeli army is a value because there is a need for it. Ideally, the religious Zionist desires peace.  The army is temporarily the best means to pursue that end.

Much of Rav Lichtenstein’s essay is spent trying to balance the competing values of wanting to devote oneself to a life of Torah while, all the while, feeling the moral need to protect the state of Israel. A core assumption leading to this conflict of interests is the idea that the defense of Israel is a moral imperative.  Indeed, Rav Lichtenstein clearly and succinctly states the importance of this values as follows: “The defense of Israel is an ethical and halachik imperative, whether because, as we believe, the birth of the state was a momentous historical event and its preservation of great spiritual significance, or because, even failing that, the physical survival of its three million- plus Jewish inhabitants is at stake.” [xii]The need to protect the state of Israel is not purely motivated by hashkafic considerations. All Jews can agree that the defense of others Jews is a value – independent of the status of the state.

Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully, Rav Lichtenstein extends the rationale to help out in a defensive war past the realm of mere “protection.”  He writes that “military service is often the fullest manifestation of a far broader value: gemilut hasadim, an empathetic concern for others and action on their behalf. In essence, Rav Lichtenstein is defining the parameters of a Jew’s responsibility toward the protection of his brothers.  One of Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s three foundational principles of the world is gemillut hesed, and it is – ultimately – this value that pulls the Jew to fight for his country and his people. In a powerful statement toward the conclusion of his essay, Rav Lichtenstein writes “when, as in contemporary Israel, the greatest single Hesed one can perform is to help defend his fellows’ very lives, the implication for yeshiva education should be obvious.”[xiii]

The sense of responsibility is, perhaps, obvious. The courage to make that choice is , however, another matter entirely. Some of the people closest to me are currently serving in IDF. I chose to return America, but it was not without a sense of guilt. I long to serve the country of “my roots” and to one day merit hearing the same words that Yehoshua uttered to Reuven and Gad upon the completion of their mission. “And [Yehoshuah] said to them ‘You have kept all that Moshe the servant of the Lord commanded you, and have listened to my voice and all that I commanded you, you have not left your brothers.”[xiv] Until then all I can say to those of us who have courageously chosen to reattach themselves to their roots in Israel by joining Mahal is the following. Indeed, your brothers in exile have not left your side either. Know that we think of you during every prayer, during every difficult task, during every moment that we open our textbooks to study. You’ve returned to the place of your birth and all the while, your entire family and community in America is standing by your side, proud and inspired by you, our representatives in Israel.

Dovi Nadel is a senior at Yeshiva University majoring in Torah U-Hokhmah. He is the Editor-Chief of Kol Hamevaser on the Wilf Campus.

[i] All translations taken from JPS Tanakh,with slight modifications

[ii] For more extensive discussion  refer to Schiffman, Lawrence and Wolowelsky, Joel B. (eds.) War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition (Jersey City, NJ : KTAV Pub. House, Inc., 2007)

[iii] Information on Mahal taken from booklet outlining Mahal accomplishments at following link

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joshuah 1:14-15

[vi] Sotah 44b

[vii] David Bleich, “Preemptive War in Jewish Law,” in Tradition, Vol. 21, No. 1 (SPRING 1983): 3-41

[viii] Refer to Mishneh Torah, Hikhot Melakhim 5 for a more extensive discussion of the basic sources.

[ix] Stuart Cohen, The Scroll or the Sword? : Dilemmas of religion and military Service in Israel (Amsterdam: The Netherland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997)


[xi] Aharon Lichtenstien, “Ideology of Hesder,” in Aharon Lichtenstien, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning. (Jersey City, NJ : Ktav Pub. House, 2003)

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Joshuah 22:3