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Rambam, Yeshiva Exemptions, and Intellectual Dishonesty

Rambam would not support the subsidized yeshiva system currently in place in Israel.
If defending the land of Israel is considered a "milkhemet 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."

If defending the land of Israel is considered a "milkhemet 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."
Photo Credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

A while ago, 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 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 “milkhemet 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 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 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.

f 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. 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).
  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.

About the Author: Rabbi Joshua Yuter was ordained in 2003 from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He also holds a B.A. in Computer Science from Yeshiva University, an M.A. in Talmudic Studies from Yeshiva University, and a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. Rabbi Yuter is also an alum of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is currently the rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul on New York’s historic Lower East Side.


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14 Responses to “Rambam, Yeshiva Exemptions, and Intellectual Dishonesty”

  1. Anonymous says:

    If it was a milchemet mitzvah then we would be obligated to use our soldiers and resources with the intent to defeat our enemies not just hurt them and not win because of political considerations. What are we going to recruit the hareidim for- to give them rubber bullets and orders not to get our enemies upset so we don't look bad to the enemy. That's no Milchemet mitzvah. We have all the resources to destroy and defeat our enemies- why waste precious Torah learning of chareidim for political reasons and politically correct sound bytes like "sharing the security burden" that mean nothing.

  2. Eric Leibman says:

    Does the author really think that if the Rambam were alive today he would approve of sending yeshiva students into an avowedly secular institution of a secular state, where, especially in the military, l "date rape" and sexual harassment of women is a daily occurence? Isn't it more likely that the circumstances the Rambam envisioned concerned a state run according to Torah Law? The yeshivah world guarantees the continuity of the Jewish people and the state of Israel does not. The state must not be allowed to attack the yeshivah world with forced conscription. I say that as someone who strongly supports the hesder yeshivot and the towns of Judea and Samaria. My support for them does not mitigate the reality I see.

  3. Yossi Baumol says:

    No need to guess – the Radvaz on the spot at Shemita Ve’Yovel 13:12-13, clearly states that given the views of the Rambam on Torah & Parnassa, these unique individuals need to "become Levites" at their own expense – not on the public dole.
    In addition, there is no way that the unique situation described here can be forced on the public, or even expected as a rule. These exceptions – unique, one of a kind elevated souls are on such a one to one basis, that it is clear that even the Rambam didn't consider himself on such a level.

  4. Yossi Baumol says:

    To the previous commentators – I have no words to counter the loshen hara and hotzaat shem ra on an entire tzibbur you express. In addition – study a bit of Jewish history before the early 1800's when Orthodoxy was hijacked by those who stray from halacha pasuka in shulchan aruch (see yoreh deah 250 on taking tzedaka for personal us by talmidei chachomim). Try studying why Eliyahu ran in front of Achav's chariot, even though he was an idol worshipper, try understanding that both the Macabbes and Mordechai and Esther had "Charedi opposition" which the overcame.

  5. Eric Leibman says:

    repeat: Do you really think if the Rambam were alive today that he would support the idea of drafting yeshivah students in to an army where mitvah violations are rampant, sexual harassment is the rule and the government which controls it all supports abortion on demand, homosexuality and Shabbat desecration wherever it thinks it can get away with it?

  6. Françoise Siboni Michaelis says:

    I tell you a story:
    A cheap horse is rare.
    Everything rare is expensive.
    So a cheap horse is expensive.

  7. I find it strange that the author lives outside of Israel but is "teaching" Israelis about conscription. Is he also familiar with what Rambam says about doing mitzvot outside of Eretz HaKodesh?

  8. Sarah Graber Nehrer says:

    That wasn't the point of his article and he says so distinctly.

  9. Sarah Graber Nehrer says:

    And glad to have you back with us. :-)

  10. Rivka Gornall Leiner says:

    I hear these things all of the time. Jewish psika begins and ends with my favorite Rambam.

  11. Lynn Epstein says:

    Well, don't you guys tell us about America?

  12. Gideon Yavin says:

    How does 4000 abortions performed in Military medical facilities every year sound? Who has an abotrion? Someone who came from a promiscuous background and had plans on having fun? The opinions of the Rambam are nothing, out of context of the Tanach, Gemorah and the Halachic authorities that preceded him. In fact, you are making an Avodah Zara out of him. Whenever I see, today someone quoting the Rambam, I know that he is going to misquote at random to back up his ideology. Nothing to do with Torah or Hashem. The Rambam's 8th principal of faith states that the Torah that we have in our hands today is complete and exact as given at Har Sinai because Hashem is safeguarding it. In his introduction to the Yad Hachazaka the Rambam explains the the only valid mechanism for transmission of the Torah is from Godel Hador to Godel Hador. Therefor YOU are obligated to follow the guidance of the Gedolim and not invent your own interpretations of the Rambam. It is a mitzvah to counter this opinion and is Lashon-Tov

  13. Yossi Baumol says:

    As far as following Gedolim – do you mean Rav Shteinman or the Brisker Rosh Yeshiva or Rav Rosenberger from the Eidah HaChareidis who called Rav Shteinman a "Maysis U'Meidiach? I will bring you what Gedolim themselves say about following Gedolim:

  14. Yossi Baumol says:

    Who Went Off the Derech?

    The opinions of many "Charedi" Rabbis who prefer not to advance the Geula by natural human efforts is supposedly based on "Daas Torah". Are they therefore infallible? Is it possible that they can be mistaken? Maybe even it is the Sitra Achra (the Devil) causing them to say these things? Let's look at a few sources:

    1) The Rambam in Igeret Teiman: "Anyone who believes that he can live in his place until Mashiach comes to save him – is a sinner and one who ensnares the public in sin!"

    2) The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh* (Vayikra 25,25):
    "And the Torah notifies us that the Geula should come by the hands of a Tzaddik who is close to Hashem….but the Geula will come when the hearts of (common) people are woken up and say to themselves: "How can it be good for you sitting outside, exiled from your Father's table, How can life be sweet without the high company when we used to sit around our Father's table?…And it is because of this that all the Gedolei Yisrael the mighty of the world will be punished – Hashem will demand them to pay for the disgrace of his humiliated house!

    3) The Vilna Gaon is quoted in "Kol HaTor" (written by his student and close relative Rabbi Hillel Rivlin of Shklov) a number of times where he speaks about the Satan thrashing around in panic towards the end of days, spreading the big Lie as his weapon (see for example the middle of part II of Chapter 5). He clearly states that all that happened to Yosef, will happen to Zion (same Gematria – 156), and just like Yosef's brothers didn't recognize him, so too, when the redemption comes holy brothers will not recognize it (it may be a question of a beard!). See Kol HaTor Chap. 2, paragraph 39 – "And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they didn't recognize him."

    4) Rav Eliyahu Gutmacher** wrote:
    "The great importance of [the settlement movement] is apparent from the fact that the Kelipa (kabbalistic forces of evil) overpowers even the greatest Tzadikim, convincing them to oppose this good. For the entire power of the Kelipa depends on the Galut and this power will be nullified by the termination of the Galut."

    3) Rav Akiva Yosef Schlesinger*** wrote:
    "One who disparages Yishuv Haaretz because of the involvement of sinners and undesirable elements is the spiritual patron of Edom, whose name is known [i.e., Sama'el – the devil], and … the foolish old king [ a term for the Yetzer Hara]." (Shimru Mishpat.)

    4) The Chatam Sofer, (Volume VI of his responsa, Section 59) writes: "Among students of Torah and even rabbis, distance your path from anyone who does not speak truth in his heart, who does not employ integrity and righteousness as his tools."

    5) The Tzanzer Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (1793-1876), in the Divrei Chayim (omissions from Parshat Vayakhel) writes: "'[Israel is inherently holy,] but as for the erev rav (mixed multitude) any kindness they perform is performed for their own benefit. It appears clearly that most of the rabbis, pious individuals and laymen of this generation are from the erev rav, due to our many sins, and they wish to dominate the community. All of their deeds are performed for their own sakes, to accrue honor and wealth. Therefore, one should not associate with them, but only with those who serve G-d sincerely and make sacrifices in His Name, not for any selfish benefit.
    6) The Sforno – Explaining the passage in Devarim 32:15 referring to the generations before redemption who will get fatter and fatter: “Verily you- “Yeshurun” – the community of Torah keepers and Torah learners have turned to the physical pleasures…and therefore the masses have abandoned the Torah!”

    All the Torah giants quoted – Chasidic, Lithuanian, Hungarian and Sephardic lived before the 20th Century and made some very clear statements about Rabbinical infallibility. It is not a question of this Rabbi's opinion or another – it is the attempt of today's Charedi leaders to re-write history in a way that makes THEM the ONLY true disciples of the great Rabbis of former generations. This is not the case.

    We, the National Religious Jews are the true bearers of the torch down through the ages.
    This is the chain:
    * We follow Rav Kook.
    * Rav Kook had 2 pictures of Rabbis in his living room – The Vilna Gaon and the Baal HaTanya,
    * Rav Kook lived next door to the offices of the United Kollel Knesset Yisrael.
    * In the mid-nineteenth century, the United Kollel Knesset Yisrael was lead by Rabbi Yosef Rivlin, grandson of the author of Kol Hator.
    * Knesset Yisrael was a virtual Jewish municipality of Yerushalayim which was formed by a union of 3 groups – the Gra's students, the Baal HaTanya's students and the Chatam Sofer's students, who also formed a strong alliance with the Sephardic establishment in Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in "Kol Hator" represented the opinions of authentic Torah Jewry in Jerusalem of all streams until after the mid-nineteenth century and was the basis of the very strenuous activities of "Knesset Yisrael" to further the Geula by natural means.

    Hungarian Jews began the split off from this united front. Religious researchers of the period like Professor Arye Morgenstern and Professor Rivlin have advanced various explanations of this split – ranging from a desire to get a larger part of the Halukah money to a delayed over-reaction to the few extremists from the Gra's students camp who had insisted that Mashiach was sure to come by 1840. The hashkafic backpedaling and excuses came later.

    These opinions held by our Rabbis are based on our sources and rooted in deep mystical understanding of the twin redemptive forces of Mashiach Ben Yosef and Mashiach Ben David. These opinions were also based on preceding generations of groups of Talmidei Chachamim who risked their lives to settle in Eretz Yisrael in every generation.

    If anyone can show any sources supporting the Charedi view of non-pro-action for the Geula predating 1840, I would love to see them.

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