By Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
In recent years, various people have criticized and attacked the Hesder program of Torah study and army service because of its shortened military track. True, they acknowledge that the Hesder yeshiva students are good soldiers, but they claim that specifically because of this, the argument is even stronger: Why shouldn’t they contribute three years like their secular brothers?
Let’s go back to square one.
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The Value of Torah Study
Israel’s existence depends on its connection to the Torah. When we kept the Torah, we flourished; when we abandoned the Torah, we were defeated by our enemies and exiled from our land. Even during the lengthy exile, we survived in the merit of Torah study.
The more Torah is studied in a straightforward manner, the greater positive influence it has. Some of Am Yisrael’s troubles stemmed from Torah study that was not properly oriented, for example, studying Torah without first reciting a blessing (Nedarim 81a) – in other words, lacking emunah (faith) in God, the giver of Torah, or without recognizing the specialness of Am Yisrael and its unique role, as we recite in the blessing: “Who chose us from among all the peoples, and gave us His Torah.”
In the Zionist yeshivas, Torah is studied in a straightforward manner, and as a result, this type of learning showers blessings on all areas of national life. The quality of the soldiers is one example of this.
The Percent of Combat Soldiers
The percent of combat soldiers from Hesder yeshivas is especially high – approximately 85%. There is no other group with such a high percentage of combat soldiers. This figure is even more amazing when considering the vital statistics of yeshiva students; they do not have particularly combat-fitting profiles. Today, many young religious men, who are emotionally and physically fit for combat service enlist for three years and serve in elite units. The young men who go to Hesder yeshivas are ordinary guys, with a desire to learn Torah.
In other circles many of them would be considered “nerds” – guys in mediocre physical shape with glasses, who would prefer to avoid combat service. But in the framework of Hesder, they enlist for combat units. Despite their seemingly poor opening data, the Hesder platoons are usually the outstanding units in the battalions, and in most competitions, they come in first place – both in physical fitness, and expertise. Ten percent of Hesder soldiers continue to become commanders and officers.
The Welcome Impact of the Learning
The welcome impact of the learning continues later on, as well. Among the graduates emerging from Hesder yeshivas are rabbis, educators, researchers, community activists, workers and businessmen helping to develop the Israeli economy.
Many of them earn above-average salaries, remain in the country, and pay taxes. Several are privileged to establish sizeable families – larger than their parents – and thanks to them, the Jewish nation gradually recovers from the curse of the exile.
When people talk about the ‘brain drain’ of academics leaving Israel to go abroad, everyone knows they are not speaking about Hesder yeshivas graduates. They stay in Israel. Prof. Moshe Kaveh, former president of Bar-Ilan University, commented to me that more than any other students, Hesder graduates are worth investing in, because they return the full investment.
Many of the yeshiva graduates settle in Judea and Samaria, fulfilling the vision of the prophets and attempting to save the people of Israel – survivors of the sword – from the terrible threat of withdrawal from our old-new homeland.
The vast majority continue serving for decades in reserve combat units – this, while only ten percent of the total population serve in reserve duty.
Many of the teachers, rabbis in Secondary and Higher yeshivas, rabbis in synagogues, communities, and neighborhoods are Hesder yeshiva graduates. They carry on their backs on a daily basis the mission of educating. Thanks to them, religious education is gradually advancing, and developing generations of students loyal to the Torah, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel.
The Welcome Impact on the I.D.F.
In the first decades of the State of Israel, the religious community was made up of good Jews who clung to the Torah under harsh conditions, but unfortunately, were not b’nai Torah (leading their lives according to Torah). Their positive influence was minimal. They raised youth who were ashamed of wearing a kippah, and many of their children abandoned religion. They were not prominent in the army, and only a few reached elite units.
The main reason for the improvement of the level of military service among the religious is the Torah study in yeshivas. Out of the learning halls of Mercaz HaRav and Beit El yeshivas emerged Rabbi Eli Sadan and Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, who established the Pre-Military Academy (mechina) in Eli. And all the other preparatory academies received their inspiration from the grand spirit blowing in the study halls of the yeshivas where Torah was learned as it should be learned in the land of Israel – Torat Eretz Yisrael. Even the boys who served in the army without first studying in a mechina, received a boost and inspiration from their peers who studied in yeshivas.
Until that time, the majority of yeshiva students were Hareidim who learned the Torah of chutz l’aretz, the Diaspora, and failed to appreciate the Israeli army; consequently, the religious who did serve, walked with their heads lowered. But as the Zionist yeshivas became stronger, they began to walk erect. They knew that in the sacred Zionist yeshivas they were very much appreciated, and their service was accompanied with love and prayer. The contribution of the religious soldiers gradually increased, until they became the leaders in the combat units.
The Claims of the Ignorant
Anybody observing the enormous blessings the Hesder yeshivas have produced realizes that the more students they include, the better off the State of Israel and the I.D.F. are. Still, there are some fools, who insist on harming the Hesder yeshivas by limiting the number of its students, or by reducing the months spent learning Torah.
They fail to understand that the study of Torat Eretz Yisrael in the holy Zionist yeshivas – both in Hesder and higher yeshivas, is the reason for all this wonderful prosperity. Those who think that by shortening Torah study they will gain more months of combat service, are similar to a fool who slaughters the chicken that lays the golden eggs.
Those same ignoramuses also fail to understand that the difficulty of maintaining a religious life in the army caused many not to enlist, and shift to the Hareidi community. Thanks to the yeshiva students, the Jewish character of the army was strengthened – first in the Hesder divisions, and from there, its influence spread throughout all of the I.D.F.
Harming the Dignity of Hesder yeshivas
The criticism from members of the religious public causes the greatest harm, aiding and abetting the attacks of the secular public on the Hesder yeshivas. The person who essentially led this assault, more than anyone else, is MK Elazar Stern. I believe his intention was good, but in practice, no one slandered the Hesder yeshivas and the religious public more than him. He began vilifying Hesder when he was the head of Human Resources ("Aka") in the I.D.F., and continues today.
The average secular Jew greatly appreciates the Hesder yeshiva students, but after a religious person with senior military status like himself sharply criticizes their shortened army service – it is difficult to expect a secular person to understand the importance of Torah study more than he does. Yet, many of them do understand, as evidenced by Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yiftach Ron-Tal.
The Claim of Equality
And still, there are those who ask: Isn’t this preferential treatment of the Hesder yeshiva students who serve only sixteen months, as opposed to the rest of the soldiers who serve thirty-two months?
The answer is there is no preferential treatment whatsoever, because any young man who wants to study Torah in a Hesder yeshiva, can do so. All he has to do is commit to serve five years, of which sixteen months are spent in the army, and the rest of the time in yeshiva. Anyone who is willing to sacrifice another two years of his life for this purpose – welcome!
We recently hosted three soldiers for a Shabbat meal – two regular soldiers and their commander, a Hesder yeshiva student. I asked the two soldiers if they would prefer to continue on a Hesder track and finish serving two years later. Both of them preferred to finish the army in three years and be freed of any obligation.
Ask soldiers yourself what they would prefer – serving three years, or five years with most of the time spent in yeshiva, and you will immediately realize there is no preferential treatment. After all, the teachers in yeshiva high schools try to convince the students to go to Hesder yeshivas, but many of them fail to be convinced, because although they understand the importance of Torah study, the task is too difficult for them.
If Only Everyone Served in Hesder
If only all I.D.F. combat soldiers served in the Hesder framework! As a result, our security situation would be improved. Straightforward Torah study shapes the entire value system, and improves the soldiers in all respects – reliability, responsibility, expertise, and above all else – high motivation.
If the majority of soldiers were to begin their army service after learning in a Hesder yeshiva, loaded with such values, military service could be streamlined, its duration could be shortened, and better results could be achieved. Incidentally, the Hesder model of army service is the only one that can cause a genuine recruitment of members of the Hareidi community.
The Proper Policy
The exaggerated yearning to receive approval and agreement from others is one of the difficult problems of representatives of the religious community. They should have opposed adding even one month of service, calmly explaining the huge contribution Torah study holds for Israeli society at large, and at the same time, work to increase the number of applicants to Hesder yeshivas for next year. Fixing the situation begins with an inner-belief in ideas and values, and in the ability to maintain them even in difficult times.
Opposite all the attacks, we must say that we also have claims and proposals for change. For example, eliminating the compulsory conscription of women, a conscription whose national, economic, and moral damage outweighs its benefit. Likewise, a thorough investigation should be conducted as to why the percentage of army evaders and yordim (emigrants) among the secular is so high.
Isn’t it about time they inserted a little more genuine Jewish and Zionist education in the schools? Isn’t it about time they reinforced family values and modesty? If equality, then why only in the narrow question of the length of regular army service? Why not demand an equal percentage of recruits to all combat units from all groups and sectors? And why not demand an equal percentage of reserve duty soldiers? Why does the religious community have to contribute to the army several hundred percent more than its proportionate share?
The ‘Yesh Atid’ party arose out of the claim that the middle-class, who bear the burden of the State’s existence, could not be squeezed any further. If so, the National-Religious community is the quintessence of bearing the burden! More than anyone else, it enlists in the army en masse for both regular and reserve duty, guards the legacy of Torah study and mitzvoth, establishes large families, pays above-average taxes, regularly volunteers, encourages aliyah and prevents yeridah, settles the land, and sacrifices lives in defense of the nation and the land beyond all others – as attested to by the kedoshim (holy ones), whose bodies lie in the cemeteries.
There is a limit to how much more can be squeezed from it. And all these contributions are thanks to the significant education and Torah study in the Hesderyeshivas.
This article appeared in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.