The question has arisen whether it is in accordance with Jewish law to volunteer for the chaplaincy and thus take on the dangers of military life.
There is no question that, in Jewish law, military service, when it is required by the government, must be accepted wholeheartedly by subjects or citizens of Jewish faith. The duty to respect the commands of the government is clearly stated and emphasized in Jewish law. This attitude of respect and loyalty to the government is summarized, for example, in the introductory statement (on page 10) of Isaac Elchanon Spector's "Eyn Yitzchok Hasheni" (who quotes Proverbs 24:21, Aboth 3:2, Jer. 29:7, Yoma 69a - Simon the Just to Alexander). The specific duty to serve in the army is described in detail by the Chofetz Chaim (Israel Meir Hacohen of Radun) in his Introduction to "Machane Yisroel": "It is a great sin," he says, "to evade service in the army."
This, of course, refers to compulsory service which, being the command of the government (Zivvuy Hammemsholo), according to Jewish law must be obeyed. But our question does not directly concern itself with obeying the command to serve (about which there is no doubt) but volunteering on one's own initiative. Is such volunteering in accordance with Jewish law?
The basic question involves the laws of Sakkana, danger to life, as to whether one may put himself in danger and also whether there is not to the contrary the duty to escape from such dangers. There is a definite command in the law to avoid all dangers. This law has a number of different aspects. One of them is based upon the verse (Deut. 4:9): "Be careful and preserve your soul." The Talmud (Berachoth 3a & 8b, et al) speaks of the obligation to guard against endangering oneself by entering a ruin, drinking unsafe water, etc. Maimonides codifies these various dangers (Hil. Rozeach u-Shemiras Nefesh XI, 4 & 5). So does the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 116). See especially the long note by Isserles. Maimonides says that whoever does not avoid such dangers but insists that he takes them at his own risk and that, therefore, it is his own affair, should be flogged for endangering himself (Makkas Mardus). (So too in Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpot, 427 #9.)
In addition to these dangers with regard to which one should avoid exposing himself, there are also the dangers concerning which one should avoid exposing others. These are based upon the command (Deut. 22:8) to put a parapet around the roof of the house. This verse ends with: "Lo sosim domim b'vesecho," which becomes the key verse in all the later discussions. In the Sifre (ad loc.) this law is extended to similar neglect of safeguards, such as leaving a well uncovered, or leaving a stumbling block in the road. This duty to avoid causing danger to oneself and to others is codified in Maimonides (Hil. Rozeach XI, 4) and Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpot 427.
There is a third type of danger due not to carelessness or to neglect, as are the above types, but to special circumstances involving the relative safety of a man and his fellowman. Thus, the famous case given in the Talmud (Baba Metziah 62a), of the two men in the desert with drinking water enough for only one. Whose life is to be preserved? This is based upon the verse in Leviticus 25:36: "Thy brother shall live with thee," (and is first found in Sifra to this verse), and ends with Akiba's statement: "Your life must come first."
Finally, there is the danger involved in the duty of martyrdom. Under which circumstances should one prefer to die rather than commit a sin? This involves the three cardinal sins, the question of whether it is in public or in private, or whether the purpose of the persecutor is to destroy the faith. (Cf. Maimonides, Hil. Yesoday Torah V,1, and Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 157.) Yet even in those cases where it is a duty to accept martyrdom, if he decides to commit the sin and thus avoid the martyrdom, he is considered an "Onus", i.e., one who sins not of his own free will, and is to be forgiven. Thus it is clear that in all these four classes of danger, carelessness as to one's food, etc., neglect of precautions such as covering a well, special experiences such as the desert journey, and martyrdom, in all of these it is a general duty to avoid danger.
All the cases mentioned deal with one's personal obligations and, except directly by way of analogy, do not concern the personal danger in fulfillment of one's duty to the government. There is, for example, no direct law which makes use of the verse in Psalm 110,3, Amcha nedavos b'yom chaylecho, which Rashi and Kimchi understand to mean that the people gladly volunteered for war service in the wars of King David. Of course in any obligatory war no one was freed from the danger of war but all were obliged to go. (M.Sota VIII, 7, Maimonides, Hil. Melachim V,1-2.) All this refers to the wars of Israel. Of course there is, as has been stated, no question as to the duty to obey the command to serve in the armies of the lands of our citizenship, but to what extent is it a moral or religious duty to take on voluntarily the dangers of such war?
As to that, there can be no religious mandate, just as there is no secular mandate. Yet David Hoffman in Melamed L'ho-il, Orah Hayim 42, in discussing the duty to serve in the army, makes clear the fact that it involves Sakana, and Sakana can lead to violation of the Sabbath; nevertheless he indicates that such violation of the Sabbath involving danger is permitted if the journey or the enterprise is for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah (based chiefly upon Bes Joseph to Tur Orah Hayim 248). Then he continues that not to serve in the army involves more than the failure to observe a mitzvah but actually a sin of the profanation of the Name because of the effect that such evasion could have on the good name of the Jewish community. With regard to the chaplaincy, both elements are involved. There is certainly the mitzvah of making possible regular worship for the soldiers and also the avoidance of profanation of the Name if too few chaplains would be available. For these two reasons it is permitted to accept Sakana which would lead to violation of the Sabbath. Yet there is a religious duty to keep others from danger and to diminish their peril. He who does not do what he can to save others, violates the command, "Stand not idly by the danger to thy brother" (Lev. 19:16). So Maimonides takes this verse in Hil. Rozeach 1:14. See also Naftali Berlin (Neziv) to Sheeltot Exodus 38, who says that one should strive with all his strength to save another up to the risk of his life.
Does then the work of the chaplaincy tend to strengthen and preserve the life of the soldiers in their time of danger? There is some bearing on this question in the Chofetz Chaim's Machane Yisroel. In two rather touching chapters (38 and 39), he speaks of the Jewish soldier in the danger of actual battle and dwells upon the duty of prayer and confession and trust in God, assuring his readers that the sincere religious life strengthens the heart, and will, in God's goodness, bring protection in time of danger. So, too, we would say that the soldier's spiritual confidence enhances his morale and increases his inner strength and his safety. The chaplain, as he performs his task, fulfills a religious duty. The Gaon Achai said in Sheeltot (Exodus #38): Adif kamay Shemaya l'kayaym neshamah, "It is a high spiritual duty to preserve the body and the spirit."
There is a further question which is dependent upon the one which has been discussed above. The above discussion dealt with whether a man has the right to put himself into a place of danger, but there is also the question as to whether one has the right to put others in a place of danger. In other words, the question hitherto has dealt with the Chaplain and his right to volunteer. The second question now deals with the committees of the various organizations and their right to organize the draft or the volunteering.
It should be clear at the outset that it is irrelevant to cite in this discussion the Mishnah in Terumos VIII, 12 (Maimonides Yesode Torah V,6, and Isserles in Shulchan Aruch Yore Deah 157,1), namely, that if the Akum demand that a Jew be handed over to them for death (or dishonor) we should not do so (except under certain special circumstances). Meir Eisenstadt (Imre Aysh Yore Deah #52) shows quite clearly that entering military life is not at all analogous to this demand of persecutors. It is of interest to note that Meir Eisenstadt in the responsum cited above discusses the question of whether it is right for an individual to hire another individual to do his army service for him, which was a rather widespread custom in eastern Europe a century ago, and, indeed, was an American custom during the Civil War. In this discussion he deals with all the relevant principles, such as handing over a child of Israel to non-Jews, etc., and he decides that such an action (i.e. providing a substitute for oneself) is in no way forbidden by Jewish law.
In general, military life does not involve the question in the Mishnah of being put to death but only the problem of Sakanah. If we would decide that it is wrong for a man to accept this Sakanah, then it would follow that it would be wrong for us to arrange for him to accept it, for then we would be aiding in the committing of a sin. If to volunteer for military service (danger) were a sin, then also the arguments concerning the benefit which such volunteering might bring to the good name of the community would be an insufficient argument. It is a principle in the law that we do not say to a person: Sin thou that we may acquire merit. (B. Shabbas 42, etc.)
But since, as we have indicated in the discussion above, to accept the danger of military chaplaincy is not a sin, but is to a considerable extent a mitzvah, then our question virtually solves itself. To help in the performance of such a mitzvah constitutes a duty on the part of the community and its organizations.