Noah E Abramowitz
ואף על פי כן, נוע תנוע

No more half measures; the end of hesder

As a young man in Bnei Akiva, we were introduced to the age-old debate: Torah vs. Army. The discussion was, as religious people, we should understand that doing God’s Will is inherently tied to personal, familial, and national success. As part of the declarations we say every day in the Shema readings, we read Moses’ promise that God will award compliance and devotion with rain, the key to fiscal success in an agrarian society. One of those actions of devotion is “you shall place these, my words, on your heart… and teach them to your children, that they may speak of them”.

From this verse, the principle of Torah study became linked to the discussion of success. Regarding protection, there is a Talmudic discussion as to whether Torah scholars need to pay the security tax, which the Talmud answers in the negative; their Torah protects the people as well.

There may well be those who consider Torah study to be of protective powers; those people are of course entitled to believe that. The same way that there are those who believe that crystal therapy works, and that specific spice blends will prevent cancer. As they say in this neighborhood, tfadal.

But when poor health practice becomes an issue of public health, normally someone says something.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, I think many of us may have seen the diverse reactions to public action against the spread of the disease. Some of us who observed policy and regulations strictly still may have harbored doubts about the necessity of the reaction, or perhaps the extent thereof. But even if we had these doubts, many of us decided that rather than voice dissent against government action, in the interest of not strengthening the absurd voices of protest and conspiracy, the better and more effective strategy for everyone was to simply allow these concerns lay silent for a bit. Partial agreement with a claim gives strength to those who believe it to be fully and unalterably true. I wasn’t willing to give voice to those who would say that vaccines were some kind of absurd government plot, and therefore I, and many others, kept my criticisms of mandates, masks, and lockdowns to myself.

And the time has come that the national religious population determines that this is the case for our agreement with the Hareidim about their thoughts on Torah study.

While many of us do believe that there is some spiritual weaponry provided by performing the will of God, many of us also understand that when push comes to shove, one cannot simply say psalms or study if there is to be any significant change or advancement in national defense, especially after a blow like the October 7th disaster. On that fateful day, no thinking human thought to themselves that the lack in defense had come from a lack of pages of Talmud having been studied.

There are those who will say that the Hareidi community contributed to the way in which we dealt with the tragedy. As someone who did runs to the border in the week after, I can tell you that this is true; I met many Hareidi volunteers while I was there, and the kindness they showed is noteworthy. But the two are not truly comparable, for a simple reason: one group of people ran into the fire, whereas one ran after it.

And if we understand the importance, in moments like this, of military prowess and expertise, then we are obligated from a moral, strategic, and, more likely than not, religious perspective, to put an end to the things which impede that.

To say the least, the most worrying case possible is the creation of an elite within society whose blood is darker than another’s. Or perhaps, as our chief rabbi has told us, there is already an elite. An elite which feels so detached from the life we have built here, that they can pick up and leave, similar to those who I am sure they disparage for seeking careers and financial success abroad.

But many of those came home after to defend the state when there was danger. Rav Yitzchak Yosef threatens to do the opposite, discarding the very impaired, if extant at all, legitimacy of the claimed Hareidi contribution to security. But no serious servant of Heaven truly believes that one can ever claim to study Torah as a substitute for performing Mitzvot.

And if military service is a Mitzvah, then there is no excuse for studying at the expense of military service. Or in exchange for military service. Perhaps some may claim that the tribe of Levi, at least according to the sages, were exempt from war. Except that the simple reading of the text does not allow for this. The Levites were the first to take up blades after the sin of the golden calf. The Levites were constantly involved in physical labor. More so, they were still obligated in the commandments.

One must still separate Terumot from their food, even if they study. Were one truly considered a Levite, they wouldn’t have to separate Terumah, because they would be permitted to eat it. Lehalakha, one is not a Levite, and therefore, I will not have them wash the priests hands, I will not allow them to get the second Aliyah during leining, and I will not accept a bogus excuse for not serving.

And that is why we must not give any legitimacy to their claim. And the only way to do that is to eliminate it from our side as well.

None of us would be willing to consider praying less just because we studied more. We would not consider not shaking Lulav and Etrog just because we were in the middle of a Sugya. And that is why I find it odd that we consider Hesder to be a legitimate system.

While many people in the Hesder system would prefer to eat food under specific stringent standards of “Mehadrin”, they allow themselves to keep to follow a less stringent practice of army service.

And if we have ceded one inch on the matter of service, we risk ceding the mile. We cannot risk that. But unfortunately, for years, we have. How many times have I heard Rabbanim in the National Religious camp say that on a level of principle, we agree with the Hareidi priority of placing Torah learning at the highest rung. However, I believe statements like these have cost us far too much.

They fall into the general field of the type of Bratslav Hassidic sentiment to always find the best in others (Liqutei Moharan 282). Often I find friends using sentiments like, even if you disagree with XYZ’s politics, you should admire his/her positive quality of ABC, and look how much you have in common with them! While on a mystical level there is little wrong with trying to find the best within others, when creating state policy, one must remember to be pragmatic. There is little good in trying to find the positive in those who are actively or passively harming you or the people for whom you care. The talk of “we are brothers” is a true statement with little practical ramification. I would not be able to handle it if my brothers took advantage of me to provide their finances and security, while they perform the spiritual equivalent of writing the next great American novel: if there indeed is a God who cares about the study of a Book He may have written, then we all stand to gain, and if not, we all know starving novelists. Most of us haven’t given them startup funding, let alone Round A, B, and C.

And the truth is, we don’t actually agree with them. The Talmud doesn’t either. The Torah, the Halakha, and the whole institution of religion are not a study; they are a way of living in a world. The Torah is a means to an end. The Talmud establishes that study is greater than action, because it is what facilitates action. If one stays with their Shulhan Arukh studying how to give charity but never leaves the study hall to give it, we wouldn’t call them a saint; we’d call them confused.

So we don’t agree with the Hareidi ideal, and we have little to gain from adopting the principle of seeking the best in a flawed way. We have little to gain and have let so much be lost. No longer.

Mike Ehrmantraut tells Walter White during one of their conversations of a lesson he learned by only being willing to dole out a half measure without “going all the way”. The failure, Mike told him, left him responsible for the death of a young woman. This failure taught him that the time for half measures was gone. Sometimes one must commit to the full measure.

The responsible thing for us is at this Rubicon in Israeli history to choose the side which will promise to us the continuation of the Jewish state, Jewish defense, and a genuine Torah perspective. We should not budge the inch at the expense of the mile which we stand to cede. We do not buy into the Hareidi system. At all.

Hence, it is the time now to end the Hesder system. Those who consider this state a part of our redemption need to remember, that those who serve the state serve our redemption. Those who do not, as much as I wish they could, cannot claim to be an active part in the national redemption. And those of us who wish for our national redemption, must serve the state LeMehadrin, as those who do any other Mitzvah with a full heart must.

I met three young men from Lakewood on a train last week; one of them asked me how I could possibly think the state was holy if the amount of attacks against Jews had only increased in the Land of Israel since the founding of the state. I told him that he should only have to imagine what would have been if there was a Jewish state in 1932. His friend looked at him, smirked a bit and said, he has a point.

ובוזיי ייקלו. ואכמ״ל.

About the Author
Noah E Abramowitz, a diehard O's fan, aspires to be the next Uri Orbach, and enjoys freshly picked dates, black gritty coffee, and brewing and mixing quality drinks with friends. On Wednesdays We Wear Pink.
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