5774 - #43


Ki Teitzei

            During the Korean War, the need emerged for additional Jewish chaplains
in the American Armed Forces. In response, the government called upon
the Committee on Army and Navy Religious Activities of the Jewish Welfare Board
to supply 111 new Jewish chaplains; 37 to be supplied from each of the three
branches of Judaism. While the Conservative and Reform movements more easily
met their quotas, Orthodoxy lagged behind. One of the issues was the
halachic permissibility of even joining the Armed Forces in this regard.
To this question, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was asked to respond.

            As the Rav saw the issue, the question was whether it would be permitted
to become such a chaplain given the chance that one may be coerced, through
an order from a superior officer,
2 to violate a halacha. He envisioned two
possibilities of such occurrences: a command to travel on Shabbat which would be
in violation of the laws of this day or a command to identify dead soldiers or
mark graves which would be in violation of the laws for kohanim limiting contact
with the dead. He concluded, however, that concern for such possibilities need not
be an issue and that, as such, “enlisting as a chaplain in the armed forces
is permissible according to the Halakhah.” He did not end here, though, but also
further raised an additional question: “Does the Halakhah merely permit enlistment
as a chaplain or does it approve of and recommend such action?” In touching upon a variety of ethical, policy issues, the Rav further concluded that it was not only
permitted but clearly meritorious for one to join the American Armed Forces as
a chaplain.
3 Orthodox Jewish chaplains were necessary and the Rav clearly felt
that, notwithstanding the challenges that may be faced in this regard, for one able to
so serve, becoming a chaplain was clearly a positive undertaking.

            Of additional interest in reading this response is that, in developing
his argument, specifically on why this possibility of coercion would not be a bar
to enlistment, the Rav further touched upon the entire issue of coercion and the
concern for life as factors in halachic decision making. In this regard, he identified
four different types of ones [coercion], the last one being in the category of what
he termed, ‘appetitive compulsion’. He writes: “Under involuntary conduct
we understand not only wrongs which were committed under external pressure
– physical force or threats – but also those committed under pressure either of
man's routine (his legitimate habits and attitudes), or man’s appetitive drives…To
lay down a universal rule that one enjoys the privilege of free choice even under
the most coercive circumstances would be like disregarding basic facts of
human nature.” With these words, the Rav further informs us that the laws of the
Torah do not exist in a context of the theoretical, ideal human personality but, rather,
is fully cognizant of the true nature of the human being. We are not fully rational
beings with total control of our emotions and drives and, thus, able to make
all decisions in an a priori manner. We are subjects of our psychological beings
and this reality must also be recognized in our analysis of Torah. It is in this regard
that teshuva [repentance] is fully appreciated in that it is the process by which we
gain further rational control of our psychological being – a process that covers a
full lifetime and can only be measured in increments of success rather than full
success. It is also in this regard that we can gain a fuller understanding of
the multi-dimensional nature of the Torah directives as it instructs us not solely in
rigid, black-and-white rules but with a recognition of the subtle distinctions in
human behaviour that must always be considered. 

            An example of the necessary awareness we must have of divergent
human behaviors is found in the varying directives the Torah presents us in how we,
the Jewish nation, are to respond to those who historically injured us. Devarim
informs us that, in response to how these nations treated us, a Moabite or
an Ammonite can never enter into the congregation of Israel, namely that such
a convert or one of his descendants can never marry a born Israelite. Devarim
then informs us that this bar on Egyptian or Edomite converts is only to last
three generations. On the surface we may wonder why there is a distinction – all
these nations were hostile and expressed hatred and harm towards the
Jewish People. The answer lies in the subtle distinction that existed in how they
acted and in the relationships that formed over time with each of them.
4 As with
all aspects of human nature, hostilities also reflect differences. No two enemies
are exactly the same and while they may share the same basic negative
motivation and emotion towards the Jewish People, sensitivity to the human
condition demands a distinction in response that reflects the subtle distinctions
that may exist even in this realm of hostility.

            Perhaps the strangest aspect of this lesson lies in the fact that this sensitivity
to the human condition may actually result in a conclusion that runs contrary to
what would, at first, be expected. Of the four nations mentioned in these verses,
one would most likely think that Egypt   and then Edom were the worst to the Jews
and that Edom and Moab were not as evil. The resultant consequences mentioned
in the verses obviously show that in the perception of the Torah, the opposite is
actually the truth. Life does not exist in a vacuum of rigidity and to truly perceive
and understand what is happening around us, we must continuously be sensitive to
the full dimension of the human personality and condition.  

                                                                                                     Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 This response is published in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Community,
Covenant and Commitment, Communal and Public Policy Issues 1.3, On Drafting
Rabbis and Rabbinical Students for the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplaincy

2 This coercion would emerge from the negative consequences that would unfold in disobeying
this order from a superior. Fear of the punishment that would be the result of such an action
would be considered a form of coercion.  

3 When one considers such laws as the one concerning the yefat to’ar, the beautiful captured
woman (Devarim 21:10-15) who was deemed permitted only because of the heightened drives of
wartime (see Rashi), and the one concerning the demanded cleanliness of the military camp (see
Devarim 23:13-15
), the following words of the Rav are most on point in presenting this
argument. “The Halakhah, which displayed so much alertness to and understanding for all
human weaknesses and frailties, has given much thought to the unique psychology of the warrior
who, living in constant danger, loses the perspective of spiritual values and ethical norms, and
throws himself into a wild pursuit of carnal pleasures and the gratification of desires without limit.
Judaism, therefore, sought to rehabilitate the camp of the warriors and to raise it to a high level of
morality and dignity. If the rabbis of today wish to continue this glorious tradition of giving their
service where it is needed most, the military camp is the place.”    

4 See, further, Rashi, Devarim 23:8,9. It is interesting to further note, in this regard, the deviation
from the simple meaning of the verse in Rashi, Devarim 23:5.

Nishma 2014

Nishma 2014



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