Rambam, Yeshiva Exemptions, and Intellectual Dishonesty

While reviewing the laws of Purim I noticed in the back of a popular vocalized edition of the Mishna Berurah an appendix titled Kuntres Hahanhagot Ve’Inyanei Mitzvot Hateluyot Ba’aretz, which ostensibly covers contemporary practices and laws exclusive to Israel. The title page gives no source or attribution for these rulings, though I’m sure one of my more inquisitive loyal readers will track down the author. But knowing who wrote these decisions is irrelevant for this post, only the content of the argument. In particular, it is a wonderful example of intellectual dishonesty from the selective citation of sources.

The topic under consideration is the exemption of yeshiva students from serving in the Israeli army. This controversial policy was recently challenged by Israel’s highest court, and will no doubt continue to be debated for years to come. But beyond any social implications there are important halakhic considerations to this exemption. If defending the land of Israel is considered a “mikhemet mitzvah” then everyone is obligated to serve, even, to use the Mishna’s idiom “a groom from his room and a bride from her wedding canopy” (M. Sotah 8:7).[1. If current military operations are considered “milchemet reshut” then all would be prohibited since it would lack the sanction of the Sanhedrin (M. Sanhedrin 1:5).] Thus regardless of any civil exemption provided by the government, yeshiva students who are theoretically concerned with keeping Jewish law, must also rely on a religious exemption from performing their military obligations.

The Kuntres offers such a solution based on Shemita Ve’Yovel 13:12-13. In the first entry under “laws of the community” the Kuntres writes:

בן ישיבה אינו לוי מהצד ההלכתי, אבל מהצד הרעיוני, הוא בגדר שבט לוי. וכך דברי הרמב”ם בסוף הלכות שמיטה ויובל: “הובדלו מדרכי העולם לא עורכין מלחמה כשאר ישראל… אלא הם חיל ה… ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו לעמוד לפני ה” עכ”ל. מכאן שזכות גדולה לעם ישראל בשחררו בני תורה מגיוס, ואפילו במלחמת מצוה.

A yeshiva student is not a Levite from a halakhic perspective, but from a logical perspective he is within the scope of being of the tribe of Levi. And this is what Rambam writes at the end of the laws of Shemita and Yovel, “[the Levites] are separated from the ways of the world, they do not arrange wars like the rest of Israel…rather they are soldiers of God…and not only members of the Levite tribe alone but rather any person from the people of the world who dedicate their spirit to stand before God.” From here [we infer] that it is a great merit for the Jewish nation to free the children of Torah from the draft, even for a war of obligation.

Based on the portions of Rambam cited, the argument is as follows:

  1. Levites are supposed to be exempt from war because they are soldiers to God
  2. Anyone who dedicates a life of service to God is considered like a Levite
  3. Yeshiva students dedicate their lives to serving God
  4. Therefore yeshiva students ought to be exempt from the draft.

While this is not the only halakhic defense for the yeshiva exemption one can find, it is perhaps one of the most dishonest. First, the kuntres assumes that Levites are exempt from milchmet mitzvah – not just milchemet reshut – yet Rambam states that a king can “force the nation” to go to war with no mention of any Levite exemption (Melachim 5:2).

But perhaps more importantly, Rambam would not support the subsidized yeshiva system currently in place in Israel. According to Rambam anyone who gets married before securing an income to support himself is a “fool” (De’ot 5:11), but specifically those who decide to study Torah without working under the expectation that they will be supported through charity, “desecrates the name of God, shames the Torah, extinguishes the light of the law, causes evil to himself, and removes his life from the world to come – for it is prohibited to benefit from the words of Torah in this world” (Talmud Torah 3:10).

This is evident from the passage referenced by the Kuntres but conveniently excised in his ellipses, in which Rambam defines for these “soldiers of God”[2. Given Rambam’s phrasing of “כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם” “any person from the people of the world” one may infer that he is describing a lifestyle which could even be applicable to non-Jews.] what appears to be a monastic lifestyle. In Shemita Ve’Yovel 13:13 Rambam continues:

ויהיה י”י חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה”ז דבר המספיק לו כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים

God should be his portion in the world, and he should merit to have in this would what is sufficient for him, just as the Priests and Levites.

If an individual wishes to dedicate his life to God, that is of course his decision. However, there is no indication according to Rambam that he is in any way entitled to public funds or has a right to demand support from the community.

In truth following Rambam consistently may actually help alleviate some of the resentment towards career yeshiva students in Israel who do not serve in the army yet receive substantial benefits from the state. Were we to accept the Kuntres’ read of the Rambam, then while students would be exempt from being drafted they should also not expect, demand, or possibly even accept state funding.

The point of this post is less to argue for or against a yeshiva exemption, but to point out just one example of intellectual dishonesty in halakhic discourse through the selective citation of sources. In this case the author of the Kuntres has a predetermined position which he wishes to validate and legitimize by ascribing the position to a prominent halakhic authority. In order to make this point the Kuntres must omit and excise contradictory data, because what Rambam actually says is a minor inconvenience to the ultimate position the Kuntres wishes to advocate.
The discerning scholar should be aware of such methods in halakhic rhetoric and example all arguments critically, regardless of the source or the position being advocated.


  1. Ezzie Goldish
  2. Tamir Evan
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