Yeshiva Students and Army Service
Why do most yeshiva students not serve in the Israeli army?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
First we have to define a Jewish army.
The Torah provides military exemption to those who are afraid of battle, which the Talmud explains refers to people who are afraid that their spiritual standing may not be sufficient to protect them in war.
Thus we see that those who serve in the Jewish army are the most righteous of all. The Talmud says that when Abraham went out to rescue his nephew Lot from the warring kings, Abraham himself led the battle (see Genesis 14:14).
We also need to understand what is a "yeshiva"? It is NOT a place for sitting around and shmoozing. Rather it is a place for delving into the historical, ethical and spiritual roots of the Jewish people. Then, just as research scholars in a university, these students develop new, creative ways of addressing society's issues and problems. This is achieved through communal leadership and activism, and by fulfilling the Jewish mission of being an ethical role model, a light unto the nations.
Thus many students contribute an important national service by studying in yeshiva, accruing tremendous spiritual merit and protection for the Jewish people. That is why it is so important for the State of Israel to support the ideal of full-time yeshiva studies.
Indeed, the Torah (Exodus 17:8) tells us that the Jews defeated Amalek when Moses' hands were raised, because they gazed upwards and reminded of their Father in Heaven. (see Talmud - Rosh Hashana 29a) We should consider how Israel even exists at all, given its small size and the ferocity of enemies intent on its destruction. The victories in 1948 and 1967 were against all odds, and cannot be explained in terms of military strategy alone.
In the days of King David, he would send out soldiers to the battlefront and - in a uniquely Jewish two-pronged attack - leave an equal number behind to pray and study. When the soldiers returned from war, David insisted on splitting the booty between everyone, even those who "remained behind," for it was their prayers and study that contributed equally to the victory. (see 1-Samuel 30:9-10 and 2-Samuel 18:3)
Further, deferments for Israeli yeshiva students is no different than every civilized country - including the USA - which provides draft deferments for divinity students. (Further, an estimated 25% of secular Israelis currently obtain some type of army deferment.)
Having said all that, it is important to note that today many fine yeshiva students do serve the in army, with the ideal of national service that combines Torah studies and military duty. There are flourishing programs for yeshiva students including Nahal Haredi, Hesder, and Machal programs.