May Anyone Serve?

What kind of person is qualified to serve in the army?  What qualities should a soldier have? Rabbi Yossi the Galilean, writing nearly two thousand years ago on this week’s Torah portion, gives us a surprising answer to this question.  And his words are still relevant today.  

The individuals who are excused from army service are well-known.  They are listed in the Torah portion of Shoftim that we read this week:  he who has betrothed a woman but has not married her; he who has built a house but not consecrated it; he who has planted a vineyard but not harvested it.  All of these are invited to go home before battle commences (Deuteronomy 20:5-8).

But there is a fourth individual who should not serve: he who is afraid.  The soldier who is afraid also leaves the battlefield.  Indeed, the Talmud explains that he leaves together with the other three.  In this way his feelings are protected and his shame minimized (Sotah 44a/b).

Why should a soldier be afraid?  The Talmud records a dispute on this question between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yossi the Galilean.  According to Rabbi Akiva, his fear is nothing more than natural anxiety about battle and hand-to-hand combat.  Rabbi Akiva lived through the Jewish uprising against the Romans in the year 132 and the subsequent years of bloodshed and destruction.  He knew the fear of battle and we can understand his view.

But, according to his contemporary, Rabbi Yossi the Galilean, the issue is different.  These soldiers are not afraid of battle.  Their fear is different:  they fear the transgressions they have committed.  They are disqualified by their past, not by their cowardice.

What kind of transgressions might be so frightening?  We might expect a sin so serious that it makes the perpetrator deserving of death.  So when we read the discussion in the Talmud we’re surprised to find that the example quoted to illustrate Rabbi Yossi’s view is so trivial that it is almost laughable:  it is that of someone who speaks between putting tefillin on his arm and putting them on his head.

Tefillin are leather boxes containing four passages from the Torah, written out on parchment, that Jews are commanded to ‘tie as a sign on their arm and to wear between their eyes’.  Because the commandment mentions the two together it is forbidden to separate the two actions.  An observant Jew would tie the first tefillin on his arm and the second on his head without a pause, every single day.  Light conversation – indeed, conversation of any kind – between the two acts is prohibited.

How can an unguarded word, a momentary ‘How are you?’ to a friend between two parts of a religious act make the perpetrator ineligible to serve in the army?

One answer might be that Rabbi Yossi the Galilean and Rabbi Akiva have different views on conscription.  Rabbi Akiva, a supporter of the uprising against the Romans, takes a practical view that all who can serve should serve.  Only the small minority – so terrified by battle that they would put their comrades into danger – are excused.  Rabbi Yossi, on the other hand, limits conscription and allows the widest range of individuals to be excused.

But the failure to observe any of the minor commandments would serve to illustrate the view of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean.  What is unique about the commandment of tefillin that is chosen by the Talmud in his name?

Perhaps the answer lies in the synthesis of thought and deed, the integration of morality and action.  The head represents feelings, ethics, thoughts and reasoning.  The hand translates them into deeds and actions.  The hand and the head must be connected:  morality is of no purpose unless it can be expressed in action.  And action that is separate from morality, from ethics and from thought is dangerous at any time.  It is particularly dangerous at a time of war.  The soldier who separates the two cannot serve.  Action must always stem from morality; a soldier’s hand – and a general’s – must always be guided by his head.

This is a crucial message.  It remains as important today as it was in the time of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yossi the Galilean.  We should not forget it.


About Benedict Roth

An occasional Talmud student and popular teacher who has studied at Oxford and at Machon Pardes.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Talmud, Torah, War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to May Anyone Serve?

  1. Daniel Albert says:

    I like the interpretation, but I would put a slightly different slant on it. Our contemporary view of sin as something that is “wrong” in a moral sense fits with some mitzvot but not with others. It may be that keeping mitzvot was considered to be more of a skill than an arbitrary duty, at the time of Rabbi Akiba. So that learning to keep mitzvot was learning to be skilful – particularly in the art of living in the here-and-now. It is the opposite of day-dreaming and as necessary for spiritual growth as for fighting a war. A man who was waiting to marry his beloved or to reap his harvest could be expected to day-dream; one who talked between putting on the arm and the head tefillin had proved that he was day-dreaming. He did not have the skill to be focussed in battle. And, like as not, he would lose his life unnecessarily as a result. Both Rabbi’s, it seems to me, were trying to do the same thing: prevent unnecessary loss of life.

  2. Jonathan S says:

    I like very much your second interpretation of Rabbi Yose HaGallili, though I find tghe first explanation more likely as the original intention of the two Rabbis.

    I frequently find myself at an advanced stage in the prayers when I realise I “forgot my head”.

    What is striking about the Bibilical attitude to “desrters” is that they are sent home with dignity, rahter than shot (as in the British and other armies in WWI). There does not seem to be any anxiety by the Scripture that not enough people will fancy serving to make a viable army. Presumably a high degree of faith is involved that God will give victory to Israel in a righteous war, regardless of the numbers

    Perhaps there is also a suggestion in the Torah that raising a family and Agriculture are more important than warfare and should take precedence. Maybe Rabbi Yose thought layig tefilliin was more important too..

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