Reflections on Decisive Times and Decisive Orders

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein looks at religious arguments used to justify refusal to serve.

Israeli rabbis who support the refusal to obey orders have now received reinforcement from an unexpected quarter - the office of the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and the people around him. The ultimatums issued in a detailed article in Maariv - stated in brief by the chief of staff and elaborated upon by his aides - directed at religious Zionist institutions that are rooted in IDF life and at their leaders and educators, may not have been intended to achieve this objective. Presumably, their aim was to apply pressure that would make it clear to influential figures in the national-religious world that for both pragmatic and moral reasons, they would do well to quash the idea of refusing to obey orders (as it relates to execution of the disengagement); to convince them that the good of the nation and the advancement of their desires requires recognition of the cardinal necessity of IDF unity above and beyond fulfillment of their ideological aspirations.

The message heard

Yet I fear that the threatening declarations missed the mark, and that the ears that were supposed to be listening attentively heard an altogether different message. Despite the aggressive tone, there are concerns that we may be witness to a veiled weakness, related to a sense of intrinsic disappointment in an entire sector and its leadership, which the IDF had grown accustomed to relying upon and that in this time of challenge might abandon it. In addition, there is a frustration that is related to the fear of losing control. All of this gives the impression that the army has surrendered the public relations war for the hearts and minds of the soldiers, and that having abandoned the field of reasoned argument, it is compelled to resort to force of authority. If that is the case, we can only be deeply saddened, as we want to believe that the strength and vigor of the IDF is largely a factor of its moral and spiritual level.

Second, the statements that were issued actually make things difficult for those rabbis, with whom I have for a long time been associated, who are working to have the refusal to obey orders option removed from the discourse of the religious public, in relation to the disengagement. At best, this sort of action would not have been easy, since prominent figures in the religious establishment of this public advocate this option, whose simplistic acuity appeals to many young people. Nevertheless, there are initial signs of a hope that a front can be assembled of Torah scholars that could present a counterweight to it. However, to our great sorrow the applecart has been upset. The moment that denunciation of refusal to obey orders is seen, be it only superficially, as caving in to pressure and not as an expression of a halakhic (Jewish legal) perspective or worldview; when it can be presented as obsequiousness tainted by protection of personal and institutional self-interests, as opposed to the taking of a determined stand, borne of self-sacrifice, in defense of the dignity of Torah, its students and its teachers; when a person is liable to be portrayed, in the eyes of his colleagues and even in him own eyes, but mainly in those of the younger generation, as a lapdog of the military command, the chance of any self-respecting rabbis joining the proposed front dwindles. This is the case for halakha - the obligation of kiddush hashem (sanctification of the Lord's name) becomes more extreme the more a Jew is subjected to pressures and threats - and for psychology. All of which means that the drafters of declarations that are liable to deter their sympathizers and to radicalize their opponents have only kicked the ball into their own goal.

Mistake in judgment

Indeed, a fair share of unneeded, regrettable and disappointing statements have been made. I do not think, Heaven forbid, that there is any aspiration here to crush or to oppress the national-religious public, but in the effort to achieve a position of superiority, a mistake in judgment was undoubtedly made. Yet this is not the main issue that should now be engaging the rabbis of religious Zionism, and we must not be blinded by any aspects of it. At a time, hours or weeks, which could be critical to the future of the state and its residents, it is the responsibility of those who reject insubordination, to rise above obstacles and hurdles, correctly state our position, and prevent any erosion of our ranks - even in the absence of a consensus on the disengagement initiative itself.

Our doctrine is complex but well-arranged, and relates to two levels. At one relatively pragmatic level, even someone who thinks that it is his halakhic and civil right and obligation to refuse to obey a certain order, without any fear regarding the transgression of rebellion, must gravely consider the repercussions and effects of taking a stand which, even if justified on the isolated level, could yield destructive results and even bring disaster on the army and/or society. There is no moral or operational ability to make a distinction between the issues or to debate a single point disconnected from the sum total. In this context, at least three risks should be noted. One, there is a fear of a proliferation of the phenomenon. One need not be an advocate of Kant's teaching that a moral decision is one that if everyone adopts, it will be for the greater good, in order to internalize the significance of this danger. In a world of the absolute purists, there is occasionally a desire to allow them to invoke the right to refuse, while everyone else will be tranquil compliers with the law. In actuality, such a situation could not, of course endure, quite apart from its inherent moral problematic. Everyone has his own principles and reasons, and the more pervasive the phenomenon, the more significance it has in terms of the actual endangering of lives. The army's hands become increasingly tied, its ability to do its job internally and externally eroded, and its status as a deterrent factor affected, with all that implies for national security. Harm at this level may be likened to the loss of a vessel of war, to the destruction of an inventory of tanks or planes.

Common burden

However, there is another level, since we are not discussing a purely military or operation aspect, but also the human and social aspect. Unity of the army, bearing the common burden, bringing people closer together and deepening mutual understanding and concern - all of this is an invaluable national asset whose influence extends far beyond the ranks of the army, on all of society. Army service makes possible the encounter between diverse strands of the people in a national framework, whose key banners wave above and beyond sectarian and personal interests. Sectarianism is liable to unravel this fabric and turn constructive contact into a segregating and divisive force.

Three, there is also an internal price, which the national-religious public is paying. National unity is not only a need of the army or the state; it is a social and spiritual need of the Torah- and mitzvah-observant public itself. The values of unity of the Jewish people and the obligation of mutual responsibility were not brought to the beit midrash (house of Torah study) from foreign fields. They were spawned under the canopy of the Torah. This is the case for the entirety of the Jewish people in its Exile, but as the Maharal (a 16th century religious leader) explains in regard to the Talmud in Sanhedrin 43b, it carries even more weight in the Land of Israel, where the organic existential connection is conspicuous. And as hinted at in the Jerusalem Talmud in Sota 7:5, it is of especial consequence when a Jewish government is sovereign in Israel.

We have a multifaceted bond to this aspect. Firstly, in terms that were planted in our consciousness through "Kol Dodi Dofek" (The voice of my beloved knocks at the door), a famous speech by my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, may his righteous memory be blessed, the covenant of fate that is rooted in a common past and rooted in a common contemporary exposure to dangers: the collective boat in which the House of Israel is seated, at times being rocked in a storm at sea, at times resting in a safe harbor. Secondly, as regards the covenant of purpose, the moral values and the historic and even eschatological vision, we are bound to be closely linked to the general public. Maintaining connection with it - not as a pose and not as a tactical move but genuinely and truly - this is, then, an existential need of the national-religious public. And if you wish, on the face of it, of the Holy One blessed be He.

The commandment to love Him includes, according to the Sifri, the obligation to spread this love: "Make Him as beloved by all the creations as by Abraham our father, as the Bible says, the soul that they made in Haran." It is incumbent on us, then, to be especially careful with initiatives and directions that not only do not spread the love of the Kingdom of Heaven but that achieve, Heaven forbid, the opposite. However, this does not mean that there is no case, no situation, in which we will not adopt a path that will incite resentment, and that we will grow accustomed to dance only to the sounds of the general public. The point is that we must correctly assess when weighing the pros and the cons the dimensions of the heavy losses that, given the contemporary reality, the refusal to obey orders is liable to cause.

The second level is practical and focused. To what degree, when we disregard the indirect implications, is the refusal to obey orders justified, if at all, and does the requisite justification exist in the case of the disengagement?

As for the outlining of a policy of principle, our moral and halakhic lines are clear. There may, by all means, be circumstances in which refusing to obey orders is not only an option but also an obligation. In the ancient argument between Antigone and Creon, a moral and sensitive conscience, and even more so a religious conscience, will side with her. Moreover, in our world, this decision is rooted in an express religious ruling: "He who annuls the king's decree in order for us to engage in the mitzvot, even in a light mitzvah, is absolved. The master's words and the servant's words - the master's words take precedence, and a fortiori, if a king's decree annuls a mitzvah, that it is ignored" (Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 3:9).

Refusal that is permitted

This principle is even fixed in the IDF heritage, which permits refusal to obey an order when it is a clearly unlawful command, in a manner in which there is no clash between the halakhic teachings and the military ethos, although it is of course possible to have diverse interpretations of the definition of "lawful." But as for the application of the principle, we must not apply it with a light trigger finger. The possibility of error in comparing situations is an ever-present danger, and especially when there are charged issues at hand, which inflame emotions liable to dislocate logic.

When the government adopts an initiative that - based on halakhic criteria - is devoid of any justification and involves the commission of offenses, it is obvious that the individual who is committed to the burden and to the world of halakha may not take any part in it. If its motives are alien to halakhic parameters and the potential embodied in this action has no content that according to the principles of the Torah and mitzvoh might justify deviations from the norm, then the initiative and its accompanying orders have no validity, and on this practical and specific level, the observant Jew should distance himself from it.

However, if it is an initiative that according to those proposing it, and with a certain level of reasonableness (in the opinion of an objective observer) might advance goals that according to the principles of halakha validate deviation, then it justifies and even obligates a deviation from a routine halakhic lifestyle. There is no dispute at all here between the master and the servant, and the most pious righteous man will see fit to be summoned to the flag and comply with the sovereign's writ.

Rejecting misgivings

This differentiation is simple and clear, and I do not imagine that any serious espouser of halakha would take issue with it. And so, as regards the refusal to obey orders related to disengagement, the question is not whether evacuation of settlements may be likened to desecrating the Sabbath. Are there not heads of yeshivas who do expressly this, sending their students to the army to "desecrate" the Sabbath in operational activity every week? They send them, with full understanding and agreement; what's more, they do not view it as a transgression whose sinfulness is overridden because of a commandment that surpasses the prohibition, but as a positive and critical expression of the command, "And thou shalt live by them" (the commandments). To those God-fearing Jews who hesitate to perform labor in order to save a life, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk used to ask if they were also troubled when they had the occasion to join in the occasion of a circumcision held on the Sabbath. Even before him, the author of the "Or Zarua" (Issac ben Moses of Vienna, a renowned 13th-century rabbi) rejected out of hand the misgivings of Jews who asked him if they needed to atone for having performed labor to save lives on the Sabbath. One can be extremely sad about the factual need to deviate from the tranquil Sabbath routine in order to accomplish objectives that permit it. But if the need exists, there is no justification for tormenting oneself for having upheld the needs of the hour, as dictated by halakha.

In regard to the disengagement, then, the question is to which of the two categories cited above it belongs - to that which is marked by violations of the halakha without any foreseeable grounds for permitting their commission, or to that which, possibly, if only on the strength of a doubt, includes an element that would permit its commission. The government contends that the plan will in the long term and in the broad perspective bolster our diplomatic and security strength, and will reduce the chances of war. In other words, the government believes that its plan will have the effect of saving human life - a halakhic argument of the first rank. And because this is the case, its defenders will claim, it is appropriate, halakhically speaking, to obey its orders.

Anyone disputing this conclusion can take one of two stands. It may be argued that, as the late Rabbi Goren said when he called for refusing to obey an order - in a different context - that the integrity of the Land of Israel is more important than saving lives. To put it in the most extreme terms, one could say that even if tens of thousands of rivers of blood were to flow in battle, territories of the Land of Israel must not be conceded. This makes clear the obligation to refuse an order that promotes the dissection of the Land of Israel, even if we were to assume that the government's hopes would be realized.

Alternatively, it could be claimed that the government's predictions should not be taken seriously, either because of a deep belief and certainty that the Guardian of Israel will not rest and will not slumber, or because even an objective and completely secular analysis will lead to the conclusion that it is no more than wishful thinking. Consequently, any order related to an initiative that calls for the violation of a precept of the Torah must be defied.

As for the first argument, it fits in with a more general landscape of weighing the sanctity of human life against the sanctity of land, and determining the status of people and land, and this is not the place to go into this subject in depth or breadth. I will only note that I will admit without embarrassment that I come from a beit midrash that some of my adversaries consider to be tainted by a Diaspora mentality, that is very sensitive to human life in particular and to the human aspect in general. But I hope that even those who challenge the emphases of my upbringing recognize the need to take into account the pros and cons in either direction. It is my hope that they, too, will be willing to consider that if the government's scenario comes true, and masses of human lives are saved, in exchange for withdrawal from a section of the country that, should we ever accomplish peace, has no chance of remaining in our possession, that it will be possible to accept the plan with responsibility and with a love of the people and the land alike.

No guarantee

I relate to the second argument differently, but my conclusion as to its weight in regard to the question of the refusal to obey orders is the same. I will say that to my best understanding, there are no guarantees that the plan, if executed, will succeed, and I am not convinced it will achieve its objectives. I understand the doubts and fears that not only will the security situation not improve, but it will, heaven forbid, be aggravated. And I listen attentively to the murmurs that say that as long as we are giving up land, we should have gotten something in exchange and carried out the withdrawal as part of a bilateral, and even inclusive, agreement.

But the question is not whether it is clear that the objectives will be achieved, but whether it is clear they will not be achieved. The conclusion of the issue of saving a life as it appears in the tractate of Yoma (85b) is that even the uncertain possibility of saving a life overrides Sabbath observance, and this is the practice embraced by every Jewish community. The comparison between the disengagement and desecration of the Sabbath is inadequate, then, to serve as a basis for insubordination. Its justification must rest on the additional premise that we rank the integrity of the Land of Israel above and beyond Sabbath observance - either because it is substantively more important or because we must distinguish between an isolated, passing act of "desecration" and harm to the national fabric that is liable to remain like a permanent scar until the arrival of a just redeemer. Alternatively, we can lay down hard-and-fast claims that there is no doubt here, not even the shadow of a doubt, and that it is obvious to anyone with his wits about him that the plan is headed for utter failure.

It is hard to find any halakhic sanction for the first point, or a factual basis for the second. The projections are indeed a matter of controversy, within the army and without, and given the complex and convoluted reality, it is certain that there are several variables that cannot be precisely defined. But this fact is as correct for those who reject the initiative as for those who back it. There are no grounds to support statements emanating from certain quarters, which assert that there is no chance for success, or that it is a blatantly unlawful initiative over which a black flag is flying. Clearly, no one can speak of guaranteed success, but it is also clear that predictions of guaranteed failure are erroneous. Nor let us forget that the loss of the Jewish majority in Israel, about which so much has been said, entails security, spiritual and existential dangers.

In the final analysis, we - the government, the army, and it goes without saying the citizens and their spiritual leadership - face a hazy reality. To a certain extent, one may also refer in this context to a halakhic haze, since it is difficult to gauge the level of uncertainty that justifies exposure to risks. A decision on this matter is presumably assigned to religious judges erudite in halakha. But on the operative plane, a decision reached on this point will not dispel the fog until we can gauge the actual dosage. Even if we agree that it is the arbiters of halakha who define the level of danger and of utility that permits eating on Yom Kippur, only physicians know how to determine the extent to which a certain meal is needed for a said patient. Similarly, diplomatic issues that are veiled in the darkness of the decision-making apparatus should be entrusted to the government, partly because it has the tools and the perspective that are not always available to others. The prime minister's statement, "We see things here that you can't see from over there," is not an empty slogan. It has been proven, in other countries and other periods, as concrete truth. Primarily, however, because of its status. Although there is no absolute certainty that the realistic assessments of the government are correct, there is absolute certainty that it is the administration and that it has the right and obligation to govern. Its authority is not all encompassing or unhindered. A well-run state has a system of law and order that differentiates between law of the kingdom and oppression of the kingdom. But when it comes to taking initiatives that fall within its decision-making purview, in accordance with an assessment of the reality it faces, the government's opinion and will are sovereign.

Although this is not the place to clarify and conclude it, there is a debate on the status of "judgment of Torah masters." Does it wield authority on diplomatic and social issues that are in the public domain and that are devoid of any clear halakhic content? Yet even those who accept the validity of such authority see it as a request that the administration listen to the decisions reached by religious scholars on these questions. But - aside from specific issues such as embarking on an optional war, which necessitates the approval of the Sanhedrin - this compliance is not a condition for the legality of the sovereign power's decision on the matter.

In regards to refusal to obey orders related to disengagement, herein lies the critical point. When the root of the argument is more factual than normative, it is inconceivable for every soldier or every officer, as long as he is in uniform and serving the country, to make decisions for himself and usurp - he or his rabbi - the chief of staff, foreign minister, defense minister and prime minister. This does not entail any denial of the status or conscience of the individual; there are certain circumstances and questions of specific principles and values to which they apply. This does not constitute a call to blind obedience in every situation and at every price. What there is here is a sense of limiting its extent, renewing awareness of legitimate authority and encouraging sensitivity to collective responsibility.

Painful phenomenon

I hope that it is clear that my stand does not stem from any lack of feeling when it comes to the problem of the disengagement and its difficulties. We face a painful phenomenon, to which there are three sources of pain. The Holy Land is apt to lose one of its bodily organs; the people are being torn to shreds; and several thousand citizens, who are faithful to their heritage and devoted to their homeland, are liable to suffer a heavy blow to their spiritual world and lose their homes and communities alike. Clearly, all of these considerations have to be weighed by the decision-makers, and I hope that was the case. But once the die is cast and the order is given, unless the government changes its mind, a soldier who has the privilege of serving in the Israel Defense Forces must do his duty, contribute his part and pray that the Holy One blessed be He will not abandon His people and not leave His land and will arrange events for the best.

It is our responsibility and aspiration to cleave with ever fiber of our being to the world of Torah, to its great vision and to every letter written in it; and it is our responsibility and aspiration to cleave with all our being to the Jewish people and the rebuilding of Israel. There are times when this permutation is exceedingly difficult. But this is the task, as summed up at the ends of Psalms 122: "For the sake of my brethren and my comrades, I shall speak of peace in your midst. For the sake of the house of God, I will request good for you."

This article is a translation of the original Hebrew text.