In front of the white sea of present and former students gathered in the Otniel Yeshiva’s Beit Midrash (study hall), I closed my eyes and tried to connect. After another week of basic training, we were surprisingly sent home for the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. I rediscovered Yom Kippur — a day of awe that somehow was reinterpreted as a day of mourning while I was growing up in the States — as a day where we stand in front of our Father in Heaven, praying for and believing in second chances. The dirt under my nails distanced the day’s meaning for me that year, but as I stood there trying to reflect on my place as a soldier in yeshiva, I began to understand the ideology of the Hesder yeshiva.
Otniel had readied me for both a spiritual and physical service. Through my learning there, I was instilled with ideology and a passion for my land, which, paired with the practical preparation classes offered in the evenings leading up to my draft, enabled me to serve my people with 100% of my abilities. Standing there, slightly out of place in my own home, I realized that I was gaining new skill sets from the army, and that they would in turn be enhanced upon my return to the final years of study in the Hesder program. Ultimately, the combination of yeshiva studies and IDF service would offer me the tools that I now use in the “real world” of Israel. A soon-to-be-teacher, I am ready not just to survive, but to thrive and give to my country as well.
The debate about the Hesder program, revived by my friend Michael Wiesen, whom I met coincidentally in Otniel, in light of the Tal Law discussions, is the most popular mahloket (argument) in Dati Leumi (religious nationalist) study halls. I have much respect for my friends who choose to serve three years, but I feel that they too often pigeonhole the program I proudly participated in, and offer a stereotypical view of Hesder students. Just as a kravi (infantry) might flaunt his combat status over a “lowly desk-job jobnik,” soldiers who serve three years tend to delegitimize the service of their Hesder compatriots. By the standards of army pride this might be their right, but this does not make their assessments accurate.
Religious or not, what stops our enemies will not be our books of Torah, but our willingness to sacrifice and give for something bigger than us, something that may not always be convenient, but something we all know to be true and right.
As a Bible major, I cannot help but be reminded of our people’s ancient wars. Leaders like Joshua, Saul, and David were indeed generals and warriors, ready to sacrifice their lives for the Jewish people — something “bigger than themselves,” to quote Michael. But behind every great king stood an even greater prophet (aside from Joshua, who pulled double duty as both). Before every battle, the prophet or High Priest was asked to request G-d’s blessing; only after receiving Divine approval would the army head to war.
Years later, can we really say that our spiritual connection is any less important to our survival?
We call ourselves “The People of the Book.” Since 1948, Jewish children have been raised on stories of G-d in the trenches, the various miracles and victories that soldiers experienced throughout the “against all odds” years of the IDF. As I once said to a friend before his draft, “In the army you are given a gun and a magazine containing bullets. One without the other is worthless.” So it is with religion, Torah studies, and the IDF.
Major-General Elazar Stern (now in reserves), commander of the IDF Human Resources Directorate during my service and one of the Hesder program’s greatest critics, once stated that Hesder service is similar to that offered to the country’s outstanding musicians and athletes. Israel needs scholars, experts in Judaism, not only for the “spiritual protection” mentioned above, but to guarantee the safeguarding of our heritage and culture — and that is worth the manpower sacrificed by the army.
True, there are other yeshiva programs, other study halls filled day and night with the same mission, that do not believe in a reduced service. Mehinot like Bnei David and Atzmona instill their students with a wealth of knowledge and values that serve them as they serve Israel. Maale Gilboa offers an outstanding program that allows for its students to study for a year before, and for an extended period of time in the middle, of their service. But a year and a half is simply not enough.
Post-high school and pre-college students have the freedom of mind to learn — no papers, no rent, no bills, no worries; a heavenly existence that offers Israel’s next generation the chance to bond with a rich cultural and religious history. The Hesder program dedicates three and a half of these years to Torah study, while understanding the importance of active duty. After a three-year army service, though, most soldiers are (deservingly) heading to Thailand, or preparing for the Psychometric exams and college. Real life hits hard and fast, and Torah studies take a back seat to the pressures of the future.
Still, I will be the first Hesder student to admit that the system is flawed. It is taken for granted and accepted as a given. Many see it as a natural continuation of their post-high school career, as opposed to a unique track for an elite group of students looking to grow in Torah and contribute to their country. A combination of numerous Hesder yeshivot with a low standard of acceptance allows those looking to abuse the system to find their niche. Low expectations and poor enforcement of rules result in the freedom that Michael rightfully decries in his post:
[Hesder students] spend five years in a program where for three and a half of those years [they] can go home whenever [they] want, sleep as much as [they] want, eat whatever [they] want, go on vacation whenever is convenient for [them].
Indeed, it is a reality that is disgraceful and disrespectful to soldiers who serve in active duty for three full years.
However, instead of eradicating a program responsible for many of today’s great Torah scholars, let us fix the weak points. To those who will inevitably challenge the program’s fairness with regards to non-religious applicants, allow me to submit that they, too, should be given the option to study in Hesder yeshivot, or in a parallel program in non-religious yeshivot.
Additionally, in order to mend the Hesder track’s lack of earnestness, potential students who have yet to officially join the program (this only happens at the end of the first year in yeshiva) should be properly monitored. Attendance should be recorded, and interviews given periodically to assess the student’s commitment. This will ensure that only the most serious of students are given this special opportunity, as well as reduce acceptance numbers. By doing so, the affiliated institutions will be able to offer a more personalized learning approach to those deserving of such. For the remainder of the Hesder students’ years in the program, high standards should be in place to guarantee that those students who refuse to conform to predetermined levels of scholarly excellence will be removed from the program and returned to a full three years of active service.
There are many more issues to discuss, and it won’t be a simple task by any means, but through honest conversation and evaluations by Hesder rabbis, students, and supporters, we can indeed succeed in returning the gold standard to one of the country’s most important army programs.