Military Service: an halakhic summary

Military Service


[Published in “The Observant Life” by The Rabbinical Assembly]


Why is there a need for the Jewish nation to have a standing army at all? After all, Abraham went to war when necessary, but the narrative in Genesis 14 makes it relatively clear that this was not a standing army and that Abraham’s servants were merely pressed into service to deal with specific cases of aggression (in this case, to undertake the specific mission of saving Lot from captivity). The defensive war against Amalek described in Exodus 17 is much the same story, only on a grander scale. Here too, however, Joshua is commanded to choose men and then to begin the fight. It is clear that there is no standing army, merely an ad hoc group formed on the spot for the purpose of national self-defense.

Later in the Torah, Israel engages in battles with nations that attack them on their way toward the Land of Israel. And since the openly stated goal of leaving Egypt and wandering through the desert in the first place was to “inherit” the Land of Israel (as stated explicitly at Deuteronomy 4:1 and 11:8), it becomes clear that an army will be required to accomplish that goal. Thus, the Torah contains laws about creating a standing army, laws of conduct for combat, and laws about armies in general, as well as specific instructions relating to the taking of captives, the distribution of booty, the maintenance of army bases, and the specific way the war against the Canaanite peoples is to be fought.

Later biblical books, however, show a change in assumptions. The Book of Joshua, for example, assumes the existence of a standing army organized by Joshua and operating according to the laws of combat presented in the Torah. By the time we get to the Book of Judges, on the other hand, we get the impression that any standing army was disbanded once the land was conquered and settled. Instead, a kind of regional or national militia is called into being specifically to defend a specific region or city that is being threatened. Indeed, the Book of Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 8:10ff.), citing reasons that Israel should not wish for a king, points out that a king would draft men for a standing army. This turned out to be prescient: by the time the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are established political entities, there are standing armies in both countries.

Different Types of War

Rabbinic literature introduces two terms not found in the Bible to distinguish between different kinds of war: milchemet reshut, a discretionary war, and milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory one. There is some imprecision about the terminology, however. At M Sotah 8:7, for example, Rabbi Judah uses the terms milchemet mitzvah and milchemet chovah for precisely the same two categories (mitzvah is usually translated as “commandment,” chovah as “obligation”). Thus milchemet mitzvah can refer to both kinds of war, which inevitably leads to confusion in the sources. Nevertheless, the concept that some wars are obligatory (because, like the war against the Canaanites or against Amalek, they are commanded by God or because they are in response to aggression from an enemy nation) while others are optional (like David’s wars undertaken to expand Israel’s borders) remains clear. Maimonides (e.g., at MT Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchemoteihem 5:1 ff.) uses the first set of terms exclusively, and does not refer to Rabbi Judah’s terminology at all.


The census described in the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers is clearly taken in order to prepare an army, and the fact that a similar procedure is recorded in later biblical books suggests that there must have been some sort of compulsory draft in ancient Israel at least at certain times and in response to specific national needs. In certain instances, such as the war against Midian described in Numbers 31, the number of men to be called up to participate in a war is formally specified.

The impression the biblical texts give is that every male from twenty to fifty years of age was expected to be available for army service. It also appears that different groups of men, perhaps chosen by tribal affiliation, were trained in specific duties and specific weapons (cf., for example, the specific tasks assigned the fighters from each tribe at 1 Chronicles 12). It appears as if the standing army was small in number, but, as all men who had been trained as soldiers were understood to constitute reserve units that could be called up at need, the total number could easily grow quite large. For example, we are told at 2 Chronicles 26:13 that King Uziah had over 300,000 soldiers in reserve.

While the draft is presented as universally applicable to all men in the right age categories, Deuteronomy 20 does isolate four specific categories of individuals who are formally exempted from military service: those who have built new houses, those who have planted new vineyards, husbands who have only recently married, and the terminally timid. The first three categories are all dependent upon specific acts and achievements. Thus, one is exempt until one’s newly built house is formally dedicated, until the grapes from one’s newly planted vineyard have been harvested, and until one’s marriage has been consummated. (Deuteronomy 24:5 specifies that the husband’s exemption is for a full year. Later, the halakhah extends the other exemptions to a full year as well; cf. MT Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchemoteihem 7:10.) The last category of exemption, however, is unlike the others and appears to constitute the grounds for a sweeping policy of exemption: persons faint of heart are not to be drafted, either because they themselves will be useless in combat or because they may influence other soldiers to give up the fight. This lays the groundwork for the general permission to exempt from service individuals deemed unlikely to serve bravely or with distinction.

The rabbis restricted these exemptions to army service during a discretionary war. In a war of obligation, however, the Mishnah rules at M Sotah 8:7 that there are no exemptions and that all must join in the battle, even if that means bridegrooms, and even brides, leaving the bridal chamber itself to join the fighting. (Maimonides goes into great detail about these categories in the Mishneh Torah; he codifies the notion that even women must serve in an obligatory war at MT Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchemoteihem 7:4. In the context of an obligatory war, there is no concept of women being exempt from conscription.)

Although one can make a good scriptural case for always seeking to resolve conflict through peaceful means, the modern notion of conscientious objection to war itself does not exist in Jewish law and, indeed, the notion that one may legitimately be opposed to all wars with no exceptions is contrary to the plain meaning of Scripture and its halakhic elaboration over the ages. In other words, emotional or psychological unsuitability for battle is a valid claim, as outlined above, but not formal objection to war in any form is not. Perhaps this is a direct result of the fact that the milchemot mitzvah described in Scripture are invariably accompanied by a report of divine approval for the undertaking. In modern Israel, even though the possibility of exemption from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on the grounds of conscientious objection exists in theory, this happens only very rarely and Israelis who do claim exemption on those grounds are generally exempted, if they are exempted at all, on grounds of unsuitability for military service. (For more on the question of when to seek peace and when to resort to war, readers may consult my essay in Etz Hayim, pp. 1382–1390.

In a war of obligation, the sole exemption is for the fainthearted individual who is specifically excluded not as a nod to his unsuitability per se, but simply because he might cripple the war effort. Moreover, since the Talmud (at BT Sanhedrin 72a) endorses the principle of self-defense—pithily stated as haba lehorgekha hashkeim lehorgo (“if someone is seeking to kill you, you may strike out and kill him first)—the nation is deemed to possess not merely a right, but a sacred obligation, to attack murderous enemies before they embark on a campaign to destroy the nation. Indeed, in such a situation, declining to participate in a war because one is opposed to all acts of killing in war is the moral equivalent of treason. The question of whether conscientious objection would be permitted in a war of discretion, on the other hand, is a thorny one, but also not one of much relevance in modern Israel: since statehood was proclaimed, the armed forces have been in a constant state of war with enemies whose avowed goal is the destruction of the Jewish state and the murder of its Jewish citizenry, and so a consensus exists that Israel’s state of war is at least a kind of war of obligation.

It seems clear that the one specific war of obligation in the Torah, the war undertaken to annihilate the Canaanites and settle the land, is no longer a standing mitzvah. This is because of the general rule that the nations of that time no longer exist (as codified already in the Mishnah at M Yadayim 4:4), which prompted Maimonides (at MT Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchemoteihem 5:4) to rule that this is one of the commandments that cannot be kept because there is no way to keep it in the specific terms the Torah sets out (cf. also Maimonides’ Sefer Mitzvot, positive commandment no. 187).

The question of exemption from army service is one of the major debates in Israeli society. Since the earliest days of the state, men who study full-time in yeshivot have been given an exemption from military service on the grounds that Torah study is equivalent to military service. As the number of such exemptions has grown, the public debate over this issue has become more shrill and emotional. Some religious elements have introduced the concept of special religious academies, called yeshivot hesdeir, in which soldiers can pursue Torah studies and fulfill their regular army service at the same time. There is also a blanket exemption from army service for women who declare themselves to be “religious.” Again in this context, an alternative “national service” for young women that parallels army service has been developed for young women unwilling to abandon entirely the concept of serving their country in a way analogous to military service.

The Law Committee of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly has published responsa on both of these issues, ruling in both instances that, since modern Israel is constantly engaged in a legitimate war of defense for its own survival, no one capable of military service can legitimately be considered exempt. This remains a key area of disagreement between the Conservative/Masorti and Orthodox movements in Israel.

Jewish Views of War

In many ways, the codes of conduct of the IDF are a direct development of the Jewish view of war and how war should be waged, as it developed in later biblical tradition and in rabbinic Judaism. As a result, the emphasis is on defense as a reason to justify going to war. Indeed, this value is reflected in the very name of the Israel Defense Force. Unfortunately, the State of Israel has been under threat of military attack from the very beginning of its existence, and thus has had to keep a standing army ready to defend the lives of its citizens. Indeed, this army has had to operate in open wars and in wars of attrition during the whole period of its existence.

A large number of works on war and army life have been composed over the years since 1948 by many rabbis in modern Israel. Many of these rabbis themselves served in the IDF chaplaincy. Some of the most famous works are by Rabbis Shlomo Goren (the first chief chaplain of the IDF), Shemuel MinHa-Har, and Rabbi Mordecai Piron, all of whom served in high positions in the army rabbinate. Unfortunately, most of these works deal almost entirely with problems associated with remaining faithful to Jewish religious law while on duty in the army, and very few of them are devoted to the ethical problems raised here, or to other ethical issues that arise from army life, such as relationships between commanders and subordinates, some of which will be discussed later in this chapter.

The Holiness of the Army Camp

The standing orders of the general staff of the IDF (pekudot matkal) concerning booty and wanton destruction of property have as their epigraph Deuteronomy 23:15 (“For the Eternal, your God, walks among you in your camp to save you and to bring down your enemies to defeat; therefore, let your camp be a place of holiness”). This is understood as a sacred obligation to ensure that the army conducts itself according to the principles of ethical and just behavior.

In 1994, a special commission established by the IDF and headed by Asa Kasher (an Israeli professor well known for his work in ethics and himself a bereaved father whose son died during his IDF service) published “The Ethical Code of the Israel Defense Forces,” also known as “The Spirit of the Israel Defense Forces.” The code was meant to give guidance to soldiers in the IDF and also to reflect the values that underlie the uniqueness of the IDF as the Jewish army of a Jewish state. Professor Kasher set forth the basic premise of his report in these words, “The IDF is different from other armies. The basic function of this document is to concretize a common language and standard of evaluation for values and norms. Its very existence creates a motivation to operate by its standards.”

Some of the main points of the document are as follows:

  1. Soldiers must always be aware of human life, and should be ready to endanger oneself or another person only to the extent necessary to fulfill the mission.
  2. Soldiers should use their weapons to defeat the enemy only to the extent necessary, and must show restraint by preventing harm to human life, honor, or property when force is not necessary.
  3. Soldier must fight and make an effort to succeed in battle to their utter limit. Even though doing so might actually endanger their lives, soldiers must struggle to overcome the enemy and not to surrender.
  4. Soldier must always help comrades in need, no matter the danger and including if the effort could conceivably cost them their own lives. Soldiers must do all that is necessary, even to the extent of endangering their own lives, not to leave wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
  5. Soldier must act in such a manner that their personal opinions about public, social, or ideological issues will not impact upon their military actions.
  6. Soldier must act fairly and in a restrained manner, and must always be well informed and conduct themselves professionally in all instances of contact with civilians who live or are present in the areas which the Israel Defense Forces control.

The very publication of this very worthy document earned its authors praise in some quarters and condemnation in others. The official IDF stance was very positive about the effort to create a climate of moral awareness in the army, but others felt that publishing such a document would be counterproductive, because it might confuse soldiers and keep them from feeling wholly bound to fulfill their assigned tasks. It was also noted that reality on the battlefield is often very different from the way things look from a professor’s study. And some critics took the stance that war and morality were inherently incompatible, so the whole effort to infuse the former with the standards of the latter was ipso facto disingenuous.

It is interesting that many of the questions raised in this document are discussed in detail in halakhic sources. The codes of the IDF stress that there is a sanctity to life that must be respected even as soldiers are preparing to kill enemy soldiers who themselves are attempting to kill them, and that one must avoid wanton or unnecessary killing. To underscore the fact that killing the enemy should be a source of regret even to soldiers who have fought bravely and who are proud of their efforts, the IDF places less of an emphasis on medals and ribbons than other modern armies.

Destruction of Property and the Spoils of War

Another law concerning war has to do with destruction of property before and during battle. At Deuteronomy 20:19–20, the Torah rules that, when setting up a siege against a city, the army should not cut down fruit-bearing trees in order to build a siege ramp; only those that are clearly not fruit-bearing may be used for that purpose. For a rule of battle, this law suggests unusual sensitivity to the need to prevent unnecessary destruction, proscribing even behavior by invading armies that would be harmful to future inhabitants of the land on which the battle is taking place. It is permissible, however, to destroy a tree if it is felt that such an act will help win the war by damaging the emotional or psychological state of the enemy; indeed, only pointless aggression against trees is outlawed.

These rules are also reflected in General Staff Orders of the modern IDF, which contain specific rules prohibiting the wanton destruction of enemy property, except for certain instances in which the property in question could conceivably cause harm to IDF soldiers.

No personal booty can be taken by individual soldiers under any circumstances. Instead, all property seized from the enemy must be turned over to the IDF, which has special units whose job is to handle these objects. Much was made of these units in the war in Lebanon, when they methodically searched for booty taken from village homes and then arrested the IDF soldiers who had taken such possessions. The thrust of the rules and the administrative procedures is to implement the expansive meaning of “let your camp be a place of holiness” (Deuteronomy 23:15).

Prisoners of War

In considering the issue of prisoners of war taken during the wars leading up to the conquest of the Land of Israel, the Bible takes a stance that moderns almost invariably evaluate as brutally cruel. The story of Israel’s war against Midian, recounted in Numbers 31, is a good example. Although the soldiers had slain every male, Moses is enraged that they had brought back all the females and children as captives. He points out that the captive females might conceivably entice Israelites to worship foreign gods, and that the Midianite male children would eventually grow up to be soldiers. Thus, he instructs the Israelites to kill all the male children and every woman who has had carnal relations with men, so that only women who have had no sexual experience will be spared. Every soldier must then undergo ritual purification and bring a sin offering.

Other passages in the Torah present slightly different laws regarding prisoners of war. The law specifically regarding captured women presented at Deuteronomy 21:10–14, for example, is not at all what one would expect after reading the story of the war against Midian—here, a woman may be spared merely because a soldier finds her attractive, and no specific mention is made of her virginity or prior carnal relations. The law does assume, however, that the soldier’s ultimate desire is to make the woman his wife. The Torah demands that she be made less beautiful by trimming her hair and paring her fingernails (or perhaps by letting them grow—the text is unclear), and that she be given a month to mourn her slain parents. This woman cannot be enslaved but must be treated as a wife. If the soldier later tires of her, she must be divorced as would be the case with any wife.

On the face of it, this law of the yefat to’ar (beautiful woman) seems to be aimed at preventing mass rape and the abuse of vulnerable women. The Torah acknowledges the lust that can overpower men who are engaged in battle, and the particular enhancement of lust that comes with wielding power over others. At the same time, it seeks to control that passion and to curb the power that makes possible its fulfillment.

In our day, this law is the source of many disturbing rulings, and the halakhic discussion of the ramifications of the law regarding the yefat to’ar throughout the generations are even more disturbing. For example, to whom does this law actually apply? Some authorities say that, since the Canaanite nations are subject to cheirem (total annihilation), it is clear that the law cannot apply to them and must, therefore, apply to women captured in other wars. Others disagree and argue that, since this law obviously overrides other rules that normally govern sexual behavior, it may thus be presumed to override the cheirem rule as well. Then there are those who argue that the law does not apply to Israelite women at all, even those who might have been seized as prisoners of war in one or another of the wars between Israel and Judah. (For a discussion of cheirem itself, see my article on war and peace issues in the Etz Hayim, referenced above.)

Another disturbing discussion involves the question of why a woman should only be considered protected under the statute once she has already been violated by a soldier. In any case, the substance of this law is problematic for our modern sense of what the rules of war should reasonably and decently be. Paradoxically, if a soldier’s desire for some particular woman were merely an outgrowth of his need to indulge himself sexually, then the forceful violation of a female prisoner-of-war would be a clear transgression of the law. The law permits sex with the woman only if the desire is so great that the soldier in question would lose his ability to obey orders, thus to fight effectively, if it were not permitted. Thus, there emerges from our sources a major (presumably regretful) concession to human weakness in an extreme situation where the greater good—in this case, the survival of the nation—must be considered of paramount importance. The major codification of this set of laws may be found at MT Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchemoteihem 8:2ff.

Obeying Orders and the Limits of Obedience

The biblical idea of kingship, especially as it is fleshed out in the historical books and in the books of the prophets, is not that the king’s authority is a divine right, but rather that it exists, if it does, as a function of national will. Thus divine law is above royal law and so the prophets are able to criticize the king, even to his face. This view is expressed in rabbinic literature as well (e.g., BT Sanhedrin 49a). My colleague, Rabbi Jane Kanarek discusses this concept in more detail elsewhere in this volume in her chapter on halakhah and citizenship.

In addition, the king cannot summarily execute a person, even one accused of treason. Rather, all the procedures and customs of a legal trial and evidence must be followed. While some think that the normal procedures may be relaxed somewhat in the case of treason, others do not (cf. the talmudic traditions in this regard cited at BT Sanhedrin 36a and cf. also the comment of the Tosafot there, s.v. rabbah bar bar chana).

Indeed, one of the greatest medieval halakhists, the Meiri (Rabbi Menachem Meiri of Provence [1249–1315], in his commentary to BT Sanhedrin, ed. Sofer, pp. 46–47 and 204), says that there is no basis in the Torah for the king’s authority to put rebels to death. Instead, the Meiri develops the idea that the special authority of the king derives from a contract between him and the nation: the nation gives up some of its basic rights of property and freedom of movement to the ruler, and the king leads them in war and works for their general welfare.

The narrative that serves as the foundation story for these laws revolves around the summary killing of Abner and Amasa by Joab, an event so laden with meaning that King David is actually reported at 1 Kings 2:5 to have mentioned it on his deathbed. In rabbinic tradition, however, Amasa together with Abner refused to be a party to the massacre of the priests of Nob (cf. the rabbinic exegesis of 1 Samuel 22:17 at Y Sanhedrin 10:2, 28b), and it was thus Amasa’s piety that brought about his death. When challenged by Solomon at the heavenly court, Joab pleaded that he murdered Amasa only because the latter had been tardy in obeying David’s order to gather an army (1 Samuel 20:4–5). The real reason for the delay, however, was that Amasa was loath to interrupt the studies of those whom he was to summon, believing that supporting their Torah study overrode his duty to obey the royal command (BT Sanhedrin 49a).

In trying to understand all the aspects of this case, the rabbis came to the idea that a soldier does not fulfill his complete moral obligation if he does not object to what seem to him to be unjust commands. (See BT Sanhedrin 20a on the justification for the killing of Abner). Furthermore, it is not enough simply not to participate in such an order. Instead, one must actively resist unlawful orders, and one must do so even if one thinks that, in the end, the protest will make no difference. The Talmud (at BT Shabbat 55a) expands this point of view into a general doctrine in the discussion of what distinguishes evil people from the righteous.

The demand on the soldier to distinguish right from wrong and to act on that distinction, which is formally widened in the sources to include all those who are part of any hierarchy of power, might be taken as an extension of another principle in Jewish law, namely, that there is no agency for the performance of evil deeds. Thus, if an officer kills one of his own soldiers unjustly at the king’s command, Jewish law holds the officer responsible, not the king.

This is because each person is viewed as an autonomous moral agent: the fact that the king has commanded a particular deed does not absolve the officer from fulfilling God’s prior command, which takes supreme moral precedence over the order of the mortal king. Jewish law does not recognize the subordinate’s traditional excuse, “I was only following orders.”

Does the case of Uriah the Hittite not contradict this rule? In his stinging indictment recorded at 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan directly and unambiguously indicts David of Uriah’s murder (cf. 2 Samuel 12:9, “You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword”), apparently ignoring the fact that David neither killed him nor even personally sent him into the thick of battle where he was killed by the enemy. And what of Abiathar’s comment to David recorded at 1 Samuel 22:21 to the effect that Saul had “killed the priests of Nob,” when it was actually Doeg who did the killing? Both these remarks seem clearly to blame those who gave the orders and either to absolve, or at least to ignore, the guilt of the individuals who followed them. Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, the great medieval Provencal commentator), commenting on 2 Samuel 12:9, assumes that the law enjoining soldiers to refuse such orders is an ideal to which men may aspire, but which most will not actually attain. The crushing conformity of the military system and the fear of punishment combine to justify the decisions of the soldiers involved to follow their kings’ commands. Therefore, the king is not free from guilt and the verses cited above merely attest to this fact.

The code of the IDF puts the burden on the individual soldier to refuse to obey a command that is “unlawful on the face of it” (bilti chuki be’alil). On the other hand, this sweeping statement is qualified by many subordinate clauses that specify when and under what circumstances a soldier could be exonerated for refusing to obey a direct order. Such a soldier, for example, would have to be fairly learned in the law and in ethics to be able to discern whether or not a given command falls under the category of “unlawful on the face of it” in the first place, and this comes close to Radak’s sense that average soldiers should almost never feel fully empowered to decide for themselves whether or not an order is lawful. (This is similar to the rule in the U.S. Army Field Manual to the effect that the obligation of the soldier to obey is primary.)

Soldiers are not expected scrupulously to weigh the legality of every command they receive. Indeed, the nature of the army structure, which depends entirely on the willingness of each level of the hierarchy to follow the commands of the next level up, makes it difficult to grant full moral autonomy to individual soldiers. On the other hand, the halakhot regarding soldierly conduct rest on the supposition that every individual is a fully autonomous moral being and that no one can ever excuse the commission of sin, even one less grievous than murder, with reference to orders received from another.

Abner and Amasa, who refused to fulfill a command that seemed to them “unlawful on the face of it,” were celebrated in tradition as extremely sensitive and gifted individuals who were able to discern the unjustness of the king’s command. And, indeed, the obligation to rank the commandments of God over those of an earthly king was codified by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah at MT Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchemoteihem 3:9. In the end, the halakhah considers the obligation of the soldier to act morally as a supreme value, thus leaving the possibility of disobedience far more open than is the case in most modern army codes.

The Ranking System

An army operates based on a hierarchical system of ranking and the performance of the army in battle as a whole depends upon the internal discipline of each soldier in that hierarchy. As a result, soldiers are taught the supreme value of discipline as part of their army training, and one of the most basic aspects of that concept of discipline is the simple notion that soldiers must, as a matter of course, follow the orders given by their superiors in rank. Thus, armies throughout history have relied upon training that in some sense contradicts the idea of an autonomous individual with free choice. The supreme value of protecting the nation and its citizens from annihilation can be used to justify the training methods and the ranking system of an army. On the other hand, the idea of an army camp being “holy space” places clear boundaries on the extent to which this avenue of justification can be reasonably travelled.

Most armies have codes of conduct that spell out the rights and the responsibilities of soldiers and officers at every level of command. These codes are based in part on civil laws of the countries in question, and also, inevitably, on the moral standards prevalent in those countries. In Israel, the code of conduct that governs the IDF is both comprehensive and strict. There is, as in other armies, a large corps of lawyers and judges whose duty it is to maintain justice and fairness in the command structure. And, although extreme conditions occasionally produce a certain amount of deviation from socially accepted norms in military action, the Adjutant General Corps of the IDF works very hard to address these deviations and to maintain the rule of law and morality in the army.

The Right to Religious Observance in the Military and the Chaplaincy

There is no question that one of the basic human rights is the right to practice one’s religion freely, openly, and peacefully. Most armies in the modern world recognize this and go out of their way to allow each soldier a great deal of leeway in the practice of his or her religion. Clearly the freedom to worship freely will become an important part of any soldier’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with army service.

In Israel, the army is committed to creating an ambience conducive even to very strict religious observance. Accordingly, all food on IDF bases is kosher, and specific requests for special stringency in kashrut in ways that have been approved by the IDF rabbinate are honored as well. Each year at Passover time, for example, there is an army operation known as Operation Passover (Mivtza Pesach) in which thousands of reserve soldiers are called up specifically to assist in the kashering of every kitchen and dining area in the Israeli army, including even the small kitchens of remote outposts. In addition, the army officially observes the Shabbat. Of course, Jewish law permits the desecration of the Shabbat in order to save lives, but, in normal situations, the Shabbat laws are observed on army bases.

In addition, there is a large chaplaincy corps consisting of rabbis and assistants on many different levels. There are synagogues and houses of study throughout the army, and time is set aside for educational study by soldiers on all levels. On Sukkot most army bases erect a sukkah, and on Passover every army base has its own seder for soldiers on duty to attend. Indeed, there are even mobile seder kits for every soldier, even if they are on active duty and alone with a small patrol. The Israel army rabbinate has even produced a special version of the Haggadah for soldiers on active duty, which presents a shortened version of the text containing only those sections that absolutely must be read for the seder to be meaningful. Also, all IDF casualties are handled by the army chevra kadisha (burial society), and the bodies of all soldiers who die while on duty are treated according to Jewish law.

Elsewhere in many modern armies, the chaplaincy corps has a Jewish section that oversees the religious needs of Jewish servicemen and women. However, it also occurs regularly that such rabbis are called upon to counsel and help people of other faiths. The same is true in the Israeli army, where the army rabbinate also counsels and assists Druze or Bedouin soldiers.

Allegiance to a Secular State

Jewish law regarding armies is predicated on the existence of a ruling king, a functioning priesthood, and the existence of a government of Torah sages, all of whose authority derives directly from God. Thus, one might suppose that modern Jews would have a difficulty in serving in an army created by a secular state, even a Jewish secular state such as Israel. Indeed, this question does arise in rabbinic responsa.

The major halakhic justification for finding it permissible to serve in such secular armies is the rule that the law of the state is equivalent to Torah law in all matters that do not directly contradict Torah law. (This is the principle known in Hebrew by its pithy formulation dina demalkhuta dina, which has been cited in many chapters of this book.) Since the Torah does provide for armies, and since much of the way in which modern armies operate is entirely consistent with Jewish law, the principle of dina demalkhuta dina can easily be used to justify the sense of obligation that citizens of secular states feel toward service in the military.

In the State of Israel, some Jewish religious groups deny the validity of the secular state altogether. They contend that until the state is reconstituted according to the principles and strictures of halakhah, it has even less claim on their lives than would a non-Jewish secular state in the Diaspora. Even though this group constitutes only a very small minority in Israel, it is very vocal and manages to sow the seeds of conflict and tension over the issue of military service even among Jews who would otherwise have no hesitancy at all about serving in the army. Still, many rabbis have responded to the challenge of this fringe group directly, noting that even those who question the authority of a secular government still have a basic obligation to support the efforts of an army that has as its central mission the defense of property and lives of Jews living in Israel. As such, even the most strictly religious Jew can be part of the army without feeling that such service inevitably implies allegiance to the notion of the validity of a secular Jewish state.