Rabbi Podlashuk with his cousin and commander Steve Gar, who both made Aliyah from South Africa and served together in Gush Etzion.

Torah and IDF Service: A Conversation with Rabbi Doron Podlashuk

Rabbi Doron Podlashuk is the Founder and Director of the Tzurba M’Rabanan English Series, which has so far produced 18 volumes of Tzurba M’Rabanan, learned by tens of thousands around the world. He is also the head of The Selwyn and Ros Smith & Family Manhigut Toranit Program, a five year post-semicha program whose goal is to develop serious rabbinic leaders who will impact communities and strengthen their commitment to Torah, mitzvot and Torat Eretz Yisrael. Since November, he has served as a reservist in the Gush Etzion region. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Rabbi Podlashuk on Yom HaZikaron, the day after he completed almost 6 months of reserve service, to hear about his journey as a Torah teacher and a soldier.

Tell us about your background. What yeshiva did you go to, and where did you serve?

I grew up in South Africa, and came to study at Yeshivat Har Etzion as a shana aleph chutznik. I grew up in a strongly Zionist home and in Bnei Akiva, and decided to make Aliyah, stay for shana bet and join Hesder. My older brother made Aliyah before me, and I followed in his footsteps. I also had other role models from my community who made Aliyah before me, including a high school senior named Doron Perez.

I served in the Golani Brigade, in the 13th Battalion, as part of Hesder. In Hesder, you have a “machleket beinish,” a company of yeshiva students. So in my plugah of about 100 soldiers, we were a group of 30 yeshiva students serving together. After our training, we served in Lebanon for four months, in the security belt that was there before Israel pulled out in 2000.

As a Hesder student, how did you experience the relationship between your Torah learning and army service?

In the army you don’t have much time to learn, especially in the beginning during advanced training, but when I did find a few minutes to learn, it was very meaningful – I felt Hashem appreciated it more than usual! When you are in the army, you are also faced with new scenarios and new halachic questions you haven’t dealt with before. On one of my first Shabbatot on a base in South Lebanon, I was ordered to clean the floor of the cheder ochel on Shabbat. I felt that wasn’t allowed – at home, I would never wash the floor on Shabbat with water and a mop! I got into serious trouble for being mesarev pekuda (not following an order). However, in reality there is more leeway for a situation like this where it is for tzorchei rabim, the needs of the community, to ensure that hundreds of people aren’t walking on an unhygienic or slippery floor for hours. Another time, on Sukkot, we were out in the field and wanted to see if we could make a sukkah, and how to do that with the limited resources available to us. We ended up making creative use of some nearby trees, whose leaves we could tie together. One of our guys, Yitzchak Bart, would often call Rav Rimon to get answers to these questions.

Rabbi Podlashuk giving a Tzurba shiur in Eretz Hemdah, Jerusalem.

Hearing these kinds of stories, some people say, “It is too complicated, serving in the army leads to all sorts of halachic questions, and we can’t put 19- and 20-year-old religious men in these scenarios.” What do you say to that?”

There are a few things. Firstly, the army now has many programs designed for religious soldiers, from Hesder to Nachal Charedi and more. In these programs, you are with religious soldiers throughout your service, so you are not alone as a soldier with religious requirements. Throughout my service, I was able to daven three tefillot with a minyan almost every day, together with other yeshiva students. Secondly, a major difference between the army now and 25 years ago is how many religious commanders and officers there are. When the commanders themselves are religious, they understand the needs and requirements of religious soldiers. In fact, even when the commanders aren’t religious, the IDF has many pekudot matkal (orders of the General Staff) that protect the rights of religious soldiers to have time for tefillah, to be able to keep Shabbat, etc.

But on a more general note, any time somebody goes out into the world, whether it is in the workplace or traveling, one encounters new scenarios and questions, and the job of our educational system is to prepare people for that. As a religious community, we aren’t just dropping people unprepared into new scenarios. After years of education and preparation, when a 19- or 20-year-old joins the army in a religious unit, as part of a program like Hesder, we believe he is prepared and religiously able to deal with the questions that will arise. He is fulfilling a mitzvah by being in the army, and we have prepared him as best as possible to deal with the questions that will arise along the way.

Once you returned to yeshiva, what was your path then to becoming a teacher of Torah?

I completed Hesder, stayed shana vav, got married and joined the kollel. After completing the Rabbanut semicha, we went on shlichut to South Africa. I was in South Africa for six-and-a-half years and served as the head of a beit midrash and as a community rabbi. All of a sudden I had to deal with real-life questions. I had to learn sugyas that I never learned before. My learning was no longer hypothetical. My learning was also more focused, even though I had less time.

After returning to Israel, we moved to Yad Binyamin, and I have had the privilege, together with World Mizrachi and Eretz Hemdah, to be part of training the next generation of talmidei chachamim. After completing the program, these rabbanim go on shlichut and are having an immense impact on communities around the world. At Manhigut Toranit, together with World Mizrachi, we have also been privileged to produce the sefarim of Tzurba M’Rabanan in English for the past 7 years. We are about to publish volume 19, and they are being studied by tens of thousands of people around the world.

This has all gone hand in hand with serving for about 20 days of miluim each year. One particularly memorable miluim was 6 weeks after my twins were born!

What happened on Simchat Torah?

I am 46 years old, and so my miluim service has been finished for some time. My unit was closed down even before I turned 40; many units are shut down by age 35. So I haven’t done miluim for a while. I live nearby and work closely with Rabbi Doron Perez, and seeing what he was going through was very painful. On the third day of the war, we were already visiting injured soldiers in Beilinson hospital in Petach Tikvah – my niece’s husband, Neria, was up north in yishuv HaZor’im when he heard about the invasion in the south. He put on his uniform and hitched a ride to the Gaza envelope. He fought and freed people from their shelters in Kissufim, until he was shot and airlifted out. He is a samech M.P. (deputy company commander) in tanks, and six weeks later he was back in Gaza as a tank commander. He’s now in Rafah. My other niece’s husband, Aryeh Eitam, is in Egoz. He was wounded by an RPG in Gaza, and is still in recovery two months later.

Seeing everyone around me doing their part, I felt that I needed to do something. Most of our avreichim were called up immediately. One who is in artillery on the northern border, spent months in the rain and cold in the field, shooting at Hezbollah. Other avreichim are in tanks and infantry in the south. I felt I needed to do my part, so I called up my cousin Steve Gar, who is a commander in a unit called Hagmar Etzion. I said, “If you need chayalim, tell them they can call me, I can still fight.” He gave me the number of the logistics soldier but when I called, he said: “We aren’t calling anyone.”

A week later he called and said: “Tzav shmoneh (emergency call-up), come tomorrow!” My wife was okay with it – none of us thought I would serve for over 5 months, but I would do it again and so would my wife. I joined because all my avreichim, family and friends were serving, and I felt they were doing a lot more than I was. By reenlisting and serving in Gush Etzion, it allows other people to serve in Gaza.

What is Hagmar Etzion, and what was your role during your half a year of miluim?

Hagmar Etzion is in charge of protecting yishuvim in Gush Etzion, from Tekoa to Beitar Illit, which is a city of 70,000 Chareidim. I moved around the area, spending a month-and-a-half in Beitar Illit, where I met Charedi soldiers, which was interesting. We were also on hilltops that are strategically important. I spent a lot of time with noar gvaot, hilltop youth, as well as several yishuvim that I got to know.

For Seder night I was in Beitar Illit, with other soldiers – myself, another soldier who is secular, another guy who is Druze – and all of this at the home of a Chabad family. I did shmira with a Karliner Chassid, and  spent a month with a soldier from such a secular background that he had never heard kiddush until he met his girlfriend’s family at the age of 23. We had lots of interesting discussions – I had a long chat with an officer, a lawyer from Tel Aviv, who said: “Isn’t it amazing that I am prepared to die for you and you for me, but we can’t agree on how to live together.” Another soldier I served with was living in Hungary, and he felt moved to come back to Israel to fight for his country. He has served for several months.

My cousin Steve Gar who I grew up with in Johannesburg, also went to yeshiva and the army and now he is a commander. In South Africa we would walk together every week 9 kilometers to a shul to do kriat haTorah. Now he is my commander and we are walking and patrolling Judea and Samaria together. It’s amazing being able to learn in yeshiva together and serve in the IDF together.

Can you give some examples of halachic questions that came up during your reserve duty?

Serving in miluim, our avreichim from Manhigut Toranit have a WhatsApp group together, where we get to discuss the different halachic questions that arise.

Here is a classic example that came up the whole time: If I need to get to a guard post in the middle of Shabbat to take over on shmira, can I drive myself there, can I flag down a passing patrol car, or should I walk? In different places, that answer is going to be very different – it depends on how dangerous it is to walk, what the threat level is, and what is going on at that base at the time. In the same base, at one stage of the war I felt it was forbidden to drive to the post and I walked in the middle of winter, but two weeks later I drove on Shabbat because they have changed the definition of the guard post, and it was significant to the operational needs at that time for soldiers to be driving to get there. It’s a continuous dynamic. We have guys serving all over the country, and the realities on the ground are different depending on where you’re serving.

Another example of this is when it comes to kashrut – some soldiers asked about kashering pots in requisitioned homes in Gaza before eating from them. Rambam in Hilchot Melachim says that in war, soldiers can eat non-kosher me’ikar hadin, so the soldiers do not really need to kasher the pots. Does that mean that a person on a base in Judea should do the same? Of course not. You have to realize where you are, what are the needs of the situation at that time.

We have a group of rabbis serving in different places and they give different answers to these kinds of questions, but every situation is different and dynamic. There was a leniency for a soldier to leave Gaza in the middle of Shabbat, but that doesn’t apply necessarily in Judea and Samaria.

What are your reflections on being a Torah teacher and IDF soldier?

There are shivim panim l’Torah, seventy faces to the Torah, and many different opinions about whether yeshiva students should be exempt from service. I am not judging anyone else, but I feel it has been a merit for me and my avreichim to have learned Torah day and night, but also dedicated to fighting and being part of this milchemet mitzvah. Sometimes “bitula ze hu kiyuma, nullifying learning is what keeps it going.” Sometimes we have to close the Gemara to go to battle, just like the students of Yehoshua Bin Nun and David HaMelech. Yes, there are other opinions. But speaking for myself and my avreichim, we feel it’s a big merit for our program and all of us to serve.

Because of miluim, since the war began, we have only been together once. Yet it is a great merit. Sometimes, this is what the Torah demands of us.

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