Exemptions from Military Service in Judaism

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

In addition to the exemptions from military service noted below, one more should be mentioned. In an optional war, one who is engaged in a commanded religious activity is not required to cease this activity to take up arms. This is one of the sources for exempting yeshiva students in Israel from serving in the army. 

The Sanhedrin [the supreme rabbinic court, active until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, which must approve any optional war] is also to factor the issue of popular support into its endorsement of a war policy. This does not imply a government by referendum.

Even those who maintain that sovereignty ultimately rests with the community hold that, during their tenure, representatives are authorized to express the collective will. Even democracy, the contemporary halakhist Eliezer Waldenberg notes, does not necessarily entail government by referendum. After all, representative government is not government by the people, but government by its agents.

exemptions from jewish warConcurrent with theories of majority rule, however, Jewish political theory has made provisions for minority rights. Do such provi­sions also apply in war? Presumably not. Apparently, once the proper procedure has been complied with, the individual has no recourse but to fight. If the duly constituted authorities have determined the necessity of war, who is the individual to review the government’s decision?

Moreover, if it is a defensive war, how could anyone be exempt from the obligation of self‑defense, the duty to rescue others, and the need to come to the defense of the state whose very existence shields all?

Biblical Exemptions for Discretionary Wars

Do these considerations for individual as well as collective defense apply to discretionary wars as they do to defensive wars? That is the question. The answer involves a discussion of a peculiarity of the Biblical rules of warfare: exemptions from military service. According to the Torah, before commencing hostilities, the officials must address the troops as follows:

Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it…or planted a vineyard but has never harvested it…or spoken for a woman in marriage but has not married her?…Let him go back home, lest he die in battle and another (do) it.

The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, is there anyone afraid and tender‑hearted? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his. (Deuteronomy 20:5‑9)

Individuals in these categories are required to report for duty first before being assigned alternative service.

There is another category, which not only is exempt from reporting for duty, but is also excused from all alternative service such as provisions and weapon supply, road repair, special security expenditures, or even oversight of defensive installations. This category derives from the following verse. “When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married.” (Deuteronomy 24:5)

The Rabbis Extended the Exemptions

According to the Mishnah, the absolute exemption of one year for one who has consummated his marriage applies also to “one who has built his house and dedicated it” as well as to “one who has planted a vineyard and never harvested it.”

All the exemptions are characterized by their universal access. There are no exemptions based on birth, education, or professional class, not even on religious status. This fits the moral purpose of conscription, which is to universalize or randomize the risks of war across a generation of men. By not creating a special exclusion even for religion, the Torah underscores that when life is at stake there can be no respecting of persons.

The purpose of all of the exemptions is not made explicit. The most prominent seems to be that they seek to remove from the field those who cannot concentrate on the battle. The presence of such people increases fatalities resulting from disarray and failure of nerve. Other suggestions include the need to mitigate individual hardship, to give courage to those who remain, to maintain the sanctity of the camp, or to prevent depopulation of urban areas.

Four Sorts of Exemption Were Recognized

At any rate, the Talmudic rabbis, by grasping each case as illustrative of a principle, extended the exemptions to cover four categories of handicaps: the economic, the familial, the psycho‑moral, and the physical. Claims for economic and familial exemptions are subject to substantiation. The other two are assumed to be self‑evident.

Although the psycho‑moral exemption does not require independent confirmation, its meaning is far from self‑evident. The Torah mentions two categories: “afraid” and “tender‑hearted.”

According to Rabbi Yose HaGalili [a sage of the Mishnah], “afraid” means apprehensive about his sins, “tender‑hearted” means fearful of war lest he be killed. According to Rabbi Akiva [another Mishnaic sage], “afraid” means fearful of war, “tender‑hearted” means compassionate‑-apprehensive lest he kill. Taken together, there would be grounds for exempting the psychologically timid as well as the morally scrupulous.

Power to Object is Implicit, Says a Commentator

Besides having to be substantiated, the economic and familial exemptions share another common denominator. Projects such as starting a house, beginning a vineyard, or getting engaged mostly affect men in their prime, which is precisely the age of maximum combat readiness. A large number of exemptions for this age group can so hamper mobilization efforts as to impair the military effort.

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.”

The following is reprinted with permission from Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 49 (1987).

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