Section 456 (g) 1 of The Military Selective Service Act (as amended through July 9, 2003) states: “Regular or duly ordained ministers of religion shall be exempt from training and service.” Based on this clause, clergy, including rabbis, have been exempt from the draft since the Civil War. The essential rationales for this exemption are twofold. The first is the realization that clergy serve an important role in society; to deprive people of their clergy would be detrimental in the long run. The second is that “those who are dedicated to preaching G-d’s peace should not have their hands stained with the blood of human war” (TIME Magazine April 7, 1967, “Should Ministers Be Draft-Exempt?”). Even though there are “just wars,” clergy who oppose war on principle should not be forced to serve.
Interestingly enough, at the height of the Vietnam War, there was opposition to this exemption from some clergy themselves. By being exempt, clergy who vigorously opposed the war could not protest the war by being conscientious objectors. By having the exemption withdrawn they would be able to register on record as objectors.
An interesting concern highlighted in the TIME article is more mundane. Some clergymen felt that “exemption from service unfairly and unnecessarily sets the cleric apart as a privileged member of society.”
The exemption of clergy from military service was not an American innovation. In fact, it was a carry over from Europe, where clergy had been exempt from service, as well as from various state taxes. A review of this week’s parshah demonstrates that clergy already enjoyed a protected status from Biblical times. When Yosef, at the height of the famine, redistributed the land in Egypt (40:21), he left the priests’ property alone. The Torah states (40:22): “Only the land of the priests he did not purchase, since it is a law from Pharaoh, and they ate their allotted portion that Pharaoh gave them, therefore they did not sell their land.”
Rashi, in his commentary to passuk 21, explains why Yosef moved all the Egyptian people from their original property after he purchased their land. Yosef was concerned that his brothers would be viewed with disdain since they were immigrants. By moving the entire population around, everybody in a sense was a newcomer, thus lessening his brothers’ embarrassment. While this explanation helps us understand why Yosef purchased the land and moved people around, it does not help us understand why he left the priests’ property alone.
A simple historical explanation is that in ancient times kings were very much at the mercy of the clerics. It is therefore no surprise that the priests were exempt from Yosef’s policy. Pharaoh could not chance alienating such an important group of people. The literal reading of the verse supports this since it attributes the policy to Pharaoh. The Rosh in his commentary, however, attributes the policy to Yosef. When Potifar’s wife accused Yosef, it was the priests who came to his defense by examining the location of the tear in Yosef’s garment. In appreciation of this gesture, Yosef returned the favor to the priests by not taking their land.
Later commentaries explain Yosef’s policy as a proactive measure to save Bnei Yisrael. By exempting all priestly classes in Egypt from taxes, Yosef paved the way for the tribe of Levi’s exemption from slavery. According to this approach Yosef was the initiator of the policy and Pharaoh went along with it. What Pharaoh did not realize was that by allowing the priests of all nations living in Egypt to enjoy a special status, he was ensuring that the guardians of Bnei Yisrael’s religious conscious and vision would be available throughout the hard years of slavery to encourage and inspire the Jewish people. Had the tribe of Levi been enslaved as well, all would have been lost. There would have been nobody to prevent total assimilation and spiritual despair.
As we saw with respect to the Military Selective Service Act, many countries for one reason or another, have found it prudent to exempt clergy from military service. Often the reasons are political and not spiritual in nature. However, we learn from Yosef’s example that every organization would be wise to have people who are assigned the responsibility to encourage others and help them stay focused on the vision. This is especially true on those days when the minutiae they are involved with threaten to overwhelm them.
I recall many years ago once being on a three- day overnight in camp. Being on the chinuch (educational) staff, I was not directly involved in setting up the campsite. While the counselors who were in charge of setting up the site were organizing their campers, it suddenly began to pour. The counselors began running around feverishly trying to set up the camp as quickly as possible. Although not directly involved in the setup, I went in the rain from counselor to counselor joking with them and encouraging them. Unfortunately, the trip was canceled, but I nonetheless learned a valuable lesson that day. When we returned to camp one of the senior counselors told me that he appreciated my being there. He especially appreciated that I was willing to get drenched to encourage them, and that I didn’t stay on the side in the dry shed. At the time I didn’t give it much thought. But I realized after his comments that I also played an important role that day.
Organizations need to follow Yosef’s example and make sure when the inevitable dark days come there will people available to direct its members towards the light.
Rabbi David Hertzberg is the Principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Questions and comments can be emailed to him at Mdrabbi@aol.com.