Torah, War, and the "Gentle Heart" Today: Israeli Soldiers' Refusal to Serve in the Occupation Army

Rabbi Arthur Waskow* 09/09/2001

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. See They have named themselves "Omets 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. If after thinking the question over you wish to help Omets Lesarev, there is information on how to do so near the end of this post.

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.

About three centuries after the Maccabeean 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.

The Tosefta Sotah 7:22 quotes Rabbi Akiva as saying, "Why does the verse then say 'and the disheartened'? To teach that even to the mightiest and strongest of men if he is compassionate (Rachaman) he should turn back." (See Jacob Milgrom, ed., The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, note 22 on p. 379, citing Tosefta 7:22 . See also Midrash B'reshit Rabbah 76:2 and Rashi on Genesis 32:8, which use similar logic to understand Jacob's feeling both "fear" and "distress" at Esau's approach: fear lest he be killed, distress lest he kill. Thanks to Rabbi Everett Gendler, Rabbi Marc Gopin, and Devorah Shubowitz for helping guide me along this midrashic path.)

Notice that the gentle-hearted MUST be exempted; if that is how they feel, there is no discretion, not the Army's and not theirs, to conscript them.

And notice that the Torah's concern is both for conscience and for practicality: if they stay in the Army, their example may bring other soldiers to become unwilling to kill, or to die.

This provision operates also as a rough public check-and-balance to measure whether the people really believes a specific war is worth dying for and worth killing for.

If many soldiers begin to take the position that a specific war is not worth their dying or killing, the war may become impossible for the nation to fight.

If on the other hand, most eligible fighters rally vigorously to the cause, the war can probably be fought.

In the Talmud (see especially Sanhedrin 2a [the Mishna], 16a, and 20b, and Sotah 44a-b), the rabbis limited the exemptions by distinguishing different types of wars — an "obligatory war" from a "voluntary war" (milchemet chovah vs. milchemet reshut) — and said that the exemptions named by the Torah applied in the second case but not in the first.

But what is an obligatory war? Not so easy:

Raba said (Sotah 44b) : The wars waged by Joshua to conquer Canaan were obligatory in the opinion of all; the wars waged by the House of David for territorial expansion were voluntary in the opinion of all; where they differ is with regard to wars against heathens so that these should not march against them.

Note that there was a real difference of opinion about whether a preventive / defensive war was voluntary or obligatory.

So one could argue that only a war to establish a Jewish place in the Land of Israel, like Joshua's wars and the war of 1948, was obligatory; once that place for sustainable self-government was carved out, all other wars were (thought by some to be) voluntary. So in our own day, the occupation of the West Bank & Gaza could be argued to be an expansion of territory beyond what is necessary for a sustainably self-governing Jewish community, and therefore a voluntary war in which the exemptions would apply.

It is certainly not an open-and-shut case that the Occupation is a milchemet reshut; but it seems a reasonable extrapolation.

The fact that the electorate & Knesset may have authorized the present level of war to control the West Bank/Gaza does not settle the matter.

To declare a VOLUNTARY war, according to the Talmud, required the approval of a Sanhedrin of 71. So even if the Sanhedrin (or an elected analogue today) voted for such an expansionist war, the exemptions would still apply.

In assessing the situation we face today, there is a second dimension to apply:

There are many aspects of our lives, and this is one, that are profoundly different from the context in which the Talmud evolved.

Indeed, the Maccabees, far more nearly than most later rabbinic communities, lived in the situation of a state or state-in-the-making in the Land of Israel that would have to decide whether and how to make war.

One would think that if ever there was a war the rabbis might have defined as "obligatory," in which the Deuteronomic exemptions would have been suspended, it would have been the kind of war the Maccabees were fighting against Antiochus. Yet the Maccabees understood the Deuteronomy text to apply even in their extreme situation. They applied the Torah, and evidently because many of the people did support that war, they fought and won.

Of course "the Book of Maccabees" does not control the halakha, and was not even canonized by the Rabbis as sacred text. But it does make clear what Jews who lived in this situation thought and did. So today we might take their responses into account.

Another of the most important differences between our lives and those of the Rabbis is that today we are intertwined with an effort by the human race to develop an international law of war which includes the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, etc., and includes not only an Israeli state but a law of that state itself REQUIRING a soldier to disobey an unlawful order, including one unlawful under international law.

This does not end our questioning, but does enrich and complicate it a great deal. We might even, borrowing from but not necessarily standing inside the rabbinic mindset, think of this whole weave of international law as the effort of the Children of Noah to develop the sheva mitzvot — the seven commandments — by which, according to the rabbinic mind, the whole human race is bound.

So the Talmudic law of milchemet chovah & reshut may not for us exhaust the question.

Finally, what weight and value do we give the life-experience of our own generation/s? Some of us would say that our lives continue to distill Torah, if we open our experience to God.

In that case for sure, and probably even if we would not go so far, it behooves us to listen to the direct reports of those involved.

The reservist refuseniks who have signed the recent statement do not think that the State of Israel is under occupation or in any danger of being occupied. Just the reverse. They do not believe that the occupation army is acting in a way that protects Israel. Just the reverse. Two reports:

Shuki Sadeh, a paratrooper reservist who was among the signers, told a newspaper how he had seen an Israeli soldier kill a young Palestinian boy at a distance of 150 meters. "What angered me at the time," Sadeh explained, "was that our soldiers said, 'Well, that's another Arab who has disappeared.'"

Ariel Shatil, an artillery master sergeant recently on duty in the Gaza Strip, recalled that while it's claimed that the Palestinians shoot first and Israelis just respond, in reality, "We would start shooting and they would fire back."

As an appendix to this essay, I am including the original statement of the Refuseniks, and their first public leaflet for other soldiers. I am also sending separately a longer statement by one member of "Omets Lesarev / Courage to Refuse."

So today some Israeli soldiers are, in a new situation, applying much the same basic sense of values that are marked out in Torah, attempting to distinguish defense from a war of conquest and occupation — and appealing to the individual "heart" as one of the crucial elements in making that decision.

At the level of reexamining, revitalizing, and renewing Torah, we might imagine bringing together some members of Omets Lesarev with rabbis of various streams of Jewish life and with ethicists who have addressed the questions of just war, nonviolence, and civil disobedience.

At the level of action, those who after mulling over this essay wish to support Omets Lesarev may draw on the information below.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Courage to Refuse: Reserve Combatants Letter

  • We, reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces,
  • who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel, who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission, light or heavy, in order to protect the State of Israel and strengthen it.
  • We, combat officers and soldiers who have served the State of Israel for long weeks every year, in spite of the dear cost to our personal lives, have been on reserve duty all over the Occupied Territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people.
  • We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this Occupation exacts from both sides.
  • We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the Territories, destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country.
  • We, who understand now that the price of Occupation is the loss of IDFs human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society.
  • We, who know that the Territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end.
  • We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.
  • We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.
  • We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel's defense.

    The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose and we shall take no part in them.



We all want to defend our country. We're all sick and tired of terrorism. We all want peace. But do our actions permit of an end to the cycle of bloodshed?

Since 1967, Israel has ruled over 3.5 million Palestinians, running their lives by means of a forcible occupation, with continual violations of human rights.

Ask yourself whether your actions in the course of your military service enhance national security? Or do those actions merely fuel the enmity and the acts of violence between us and our Palestinian neighbors?


When you take part in extrajudicial killings ("liquidation," in the army's terms), when you take part in demolishing residential homes, when you open fire at unarmed civilian population or residential homes, when you uproot orchards, when you interdict food supplies or medical treatment, you are taking part in actions defined in international conventions (such as the 4th Geneva Convention) and in Israeli law as war crimes.

Soldier, is there a people anywhere in the world that will not resist an occupation regime? If you were in the Palestinians' shoes, would you be willing to bow your head to a foreign ruler?


The occupation and the violence that it prompts drag the economy down into recession. Investors are in flight, tourists stay away, entire sections of the economy are in collapse.


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*This essay by Rabbi Arthur Waskow flows from his work as director of The Shalom Center . It is a division of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, but these thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of ALEPH as a whole.

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