Exemptions from Military Service in Judaism

An incomplete lifecycle process or an unsuitable attitude may exempt you from service.

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Nahmanides [1194-1270] says it in so many words when he notes that "Were it not for [the requirement of substantiation], a majority of the people would seek exemption on false pretenses." Nahmanides' fears were borne out by the experience of the biblical judge Gideon who, upon making provisions for the psycho‑moral exemption, lost two‑thirds of his fighting forces (Judges 7:2‑3).

But this is precisely the point. There is a loophole in the war legislation, a loophole so gaping that it allows those not convinced of the validity of the war to reassert their sovereignty through legal shenanigans. Doubts about the validity of the war will stir up their own social momentum and induce many to seek wholesale exemptions. The result is a war declared by the executive and approved by the Sanhedrin, which sputters for failing to persuade the populace of its necessity.

Mobilization cannot succeed without a high degree of popular motivation. Many will express their half‑heartedness by dragging their feet in the hope of being, as the Talmud says, "The last to go to war and the first to return." By expressing their reluctance to fight, the populace retains a semblance of sovereignty, and indirectly passes judgment on whether the military venture is both necessary and serves legitimate political ends.

The upshot is that mandatory and discretionary wars both require a moral and a political base. Otherwise, the war effort threatens to be undermined by the morale of that community which constitutes the resource of power. David Ben-Gurion summed it up well when he said, "Two‑thirds of military prowess is popular morale."

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Dr. Reuven Kimelman

Reuven Kimelman is a Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.