Are yeshiva students exempt from the army?

Ask the Rabbi: No definitive precedent to issue blanket exemptions for anyone desires to exclusively study Torah.

Haredi, soldier at IDF recruitment office 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi, soldier at IDF recruitment office 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The failure to replace the “Tal Law,” which exempted haredi men from serving in the army, has caused widespread disappointment that government leaders have not found a fair and realistic solution. Without entering the political fray, I will try to provide halachic background to this debate by elucidating the alleged basis for exempting yeshiva students from military service.
The Torah speaks very harshly of groups of people who attempt to evade service.
When two tribes requested to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan River before the Israelites began their conquest of the Land of Israel, Moses exclaimed, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6). Moses ultimately consented to their request, but only after they pledged to join their brethren in battle.
The Torah does exempt the tender-hearted and recent home builders from serving in battle.
These exemptions, however, only apply for optional wars intended to expand Israel’s borders, but not for “mandatory wars” (milhemet mitzva), which are necessary for conquering the land or defending Israel against its enemies. As the Mishna states, “Regarding an obligatory war, all go out, even the groom from his chamber and the bride from the canopy.”
Following the loss of national sovereignty, Jews, as a group, were rarely drafted into the army. This changed after the Emancipation and, as Dr. Judith Bleich has documented, the phenomenon of Jews serving in non- Jewish armies greatly divided rabbinic scholars. Some, like rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Moshe Glasner, were enthusiastic supporters of such patriotic service. Others, including rabbis Samuel Landau and Meir Eisenstadt, expressed grave reservations about the halachic propriety of the aggressive warfare as well as the laxities imposed on religious observance.
While expressing similar reservations, Rabbi Moses Sofer noted that it was within the rights of governments to “tax” citizens with a military draft. When draft quotas were imposed upon the Jewish community, he insisted on using a lottery to choose draftees, with no distinction made between observant and non-observant Jews. However, citing talmudic-era exemptions for taxes toward municipal fortifications, he argued that rabbinic students and clergy were exempt from military service, as they were in his bailiwick and in many other cultures.
The notion that spiritual leaders are exempt from warfare might have biblical support in the exclusion of the tribe of Levi from the military census, even though the Talmud never mentions such an exemption. Maimonides, in noting the unique role of the Levites as spiritual leaders (“the Lord’s corps”) who lived among the other tribes, asserts that they did not go to war. He further adds that “any person throughout the world whose spirit has uplifted him… to stand before God, to serve Him… and has cast aside the many considerations that men have sought…” will share the same lot as the Levites. Based on these sentiments, Rabbi Yehiel M. Tukichinsky and others asserted that dedicated rabbinic students should be excused from military service, especially since their studies provide central spiritual support for the national cause.
This thesis, however, is rejected by many rabbinic decisors who stressed that defending Israel’s inhabitants is a positive commandment that allows for no broad exemptions.
They note that Maimonides’s statement was a homiletical exhortation for spiritual excellence which also included non-Jews (“any person throughout the world”) and that he never mentioned such an exemption in his codification of the laws of war. They also argue that the historic exemption from certain tax payments does not mean that scholars should sit aside and not protect their homeland and brethren. As Rabbi Shlomo Zevin wrote to other rabbinic leaders in 1948, in the spirit of Moses, “It is your obligation to encourage young and healthy scholars to fight. Will you send your brothers to war and yourselves sit at home?” Some have retorted that even religious Zionist figures like Rabbi Isaac Herzog supported the exemption of yeshiva students during the state’s earliest years. Yet this was an exemption for 400 students at a time when yeshiva study desperately needed resuscitation after the Holocaust. Today, 10 percent of the draft-age population claim exemptions and Torah study flourishes, including in many yeshivot dedicated to producing students who will also serve as soldiers. Prof. Benny Brown has further argued that even legendary ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Abraham Karelitz, who lobbied David Ben-Gurion for yeshiva exemptions, did not believe that the discharge should be applied to every haredi Jew, perhaps out of fear that widespread abuse would ultimately lead to this privilege being revoked from those who truly study with vigor.
Torah study represents a supreme value, and the state should be saluted for creating different types of arrangements that allow students to flourish as soldiers and as scholars. But no definitive precedent exists to issue blanket exemptions for anyone who claims that they desire to exclusively study Torah.
The writer, online editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.