The Gentle Heart in Israel Today

Extending a biblical exemption from military service to Israeli refuseniks.

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Reprinted with permission from "Torah, War, and the 'Gentle Heart' Today: Israeli Soldiers' Refusal to Serve in the Occupation Army," published by The Shalom Center.

The Torah teaches: "The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, 'Is there anyone afraid or gentle-hearted? Let him go back to his home, lest he melt the heart of his brothers, like his heart!'" (Deuteronomy 20:8)

More than 250 Israeli reserve soldiers and officers have publicly announced that they will serve in defense of Israel's boundaries but refuse to serve in the army of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. They have named themselves Omez Lesarev (Courage to Refuse).

Is there any connection between their decision and the passage of Torah in Deuteronomy?

This essay will examine the Torah-related and ethical questions involved.

First, the Biblical Exemptions

First, it is noteworthy that the biblical tradition has a place for individual exemption from national military service (Deut. 20:5-8):

"Then the officials shall address the troops: Is there anyone who has built a new home but not yet dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it."

"Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another initiate it."

"Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him return to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her."

"The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, Is there anyone afraid or gentle-hearted [= rakh halevav; also "disheartened," or "softhearted"]? Let him go back to his home, lest he melt the heart of his brothers, like his heart!"

I Maccabees 3:56 reports that even in the moment of resistance to the Syrio-Hellenistic empire ruled by Antiochus, Judah Maccabee applied this passage of Torah and ordered back to their homes the newly married, the new homebuilders, etc., and those who were gentle-hearted.

Notice that this war was being fought against an imperial occupation of the Land of Israel, against an enemy that had desecrated the Temple and commanded idolatry.

What the Rabbis Said

About three centuries after the Maccabean wars, when the Rabbis took up the question of interpreting this Torah passage, some of them asked why the last verse specified both "afraid" and "gentle-hearted" as reasons to exempt a man from military service.

According to one interpretation, those who must be exempted from army service are not only those who are afraid to be killed but also those who are gentle of heart, lest they become killers.

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.