October 22, 2018

Will IDF Soldiers Oppose Gaza Orders?

A group of prominent rabbis has called upon Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate Jews from Gaza. If the Gaza disengagement plan goes through the Knesset, many soldiers will face a bewildering dilemma, as they must choose between the orders of their commanding officers and the orders of their religious authorities.

These rabbis state their position as psak halacha, or the definitive expression of Jewish law. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. The halachic debate on this issue has generated two very different points of view. Whether you feel compelled or infuriated by the position that these particular rabbis have taken, it’s important to be able to place it within the framework of the larger halachic and ideological debate.

On the technical halachic level, this debate revolves around the biblical command to conquer and settle the land of Israel, and the accompanying prohibition against granting non-Jews — or perhaps just idolaters — any foothold in the land. There are some scholars of halacha, such as those mentioned above, who insist that these two items render evacuation from Gaza, or anywhere else in biblical Israel, a transgression of the halacha, in which no soldier who cares about halacha could participate. That it is the Israeli government itself that is implementing these evacuations matters not in this view. Even the biblical Jewish kings were beholden to Jewish law.

However, in direct contrast with these views is a school of thought that understands the mitzvah of conquest to have been addressed to the Jews of the Exodus story alone. This command was intended only for its own historical moment, and was never meant to take its place among the 613 eternally operable mitzvot. To be sure, we are instructed to eternally regard the land of Israel as our Divinely Promised Land, but the wars we fight today to gain the land, fall into the category of “permissible war,” not that of “commanded war.”

In the view of this school, the prohibition against enabling non-Jewish settlement of the land is to be evaluated within the normative halachic framework of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life. If the observance of this prohibition will cause a net loss of life, than strong consideration must be given to setting the prohibition aside, for preserving life takes precedence. Other factors must enter the analysis as well, but the determination that an evacuation is not merely permitted, but actually mandated by halacha, is an absolutely reasonable conclusion. This is the analysis that led influential Israeli rabbis to support and/or join with political parties that were pursuing territorial compromise in the hope of peace.

In the case of Gaza, how is one to determine whether evacuation will, in the long run, save lives, or God forbid, cost lives? The answer, for this second school of thought, lies in seeking the input of those most qualified to know — or at least to make the most informed, educated projection. Thus, if it is the opinion of the country’s military and political leaders that the evacuation of a particular place will save lives, and that remaining there will cost lives, then the halacha follows accordingly.

On a deeper level, beneath the surface of the technical halachic debate, there lies a passionate ideological debate. The position that disregards or dramatically diminishes the place of pikuach nefesh in this discussion is usually rooted in one of two ideological beliefs. One is that the religious importance of our possessing the land of Israel transcends the ordinary frame of halachic reference. Only, God forbid, a catastrophic loss of life, along the lines of what we faced during the Roman siege of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago could justify yielding territory. The other underlying ideological belief is that we are well into the process leading to the promised Final Redemption. Turning the process backward through retreating from territory that God granted us in war, would constitute nothing less than thwarting the Divine will in human history. Normative halachic analyses are thus out of place here.

On the other hand, the position that is open to territorial compromise and the evacuations that would come in its wake, is rooted in the ideological belief that the state of Israel — insofar as it embodies the people of Israel in our day — takes precedence even over the land of Israel. This gives primacy to those policies that help to ensure the state’s long-term physical security, and to preserve both its social viability and its moral character. Through a rigorous talmudic process, these priorities are articulated in classical halachic terms, which then generate concrete conclusions that are consistent with halachic precedent. This is the analytical process of the rabbis who don’t get the screaming headlines, but who have urged their student-soldiers to follow their superiors’ orders even in this emotionally wrenching case. (For the record, there is also a significant group of Israeli rabbis who oppose the disengagement plan on security grounds, and who nonetheless have urged their students to obey the orders of their commanding officers.)

There is no question that in the coming weeks and months, we will be discussing the Gaza disengagement plan over dinner, in shul and through the Jewish media, and will be doing so with great vehemence and passion. Clarity about the facts is vital to keeping these discussions useful and worthwhile, rather than caustic and divisive. And the one thing that is clear about the halachic dimension of this issue is that multiple opinions exist. Anyone who claims otherwise is, clearly, just plain wrong.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox congregation.