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The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
THE IDEOLOGY OF HESDER:
THE VIEW FROM YESHIVAT HAR ETZION
 
 
by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
 
[This article first appeared in Tradition, 19(3), Fall 1981.]

 

 

            Half a dozen years ago, advocacy of the cause of yeshivot hesder before the American Jewish public would have seemed largely superfluous.  The impact of the Yom Kippur War was then still strong, the memory of hesderniks' role within it still vivid, the halo of the heroic student-soldier yet fresh.  The religious community, in particular, took great pride in a clearly perceived kiddush Hashem.  Almost everyone had seen some striking picture or heard some moving story:  of boys (they really were not much more) who had gone into battle wearing tefillin; of a group which had stunned its brigadier by inquiring, during a nocturnal lull in the Sinai campaign, whether and when they would be provided with a lulav and an etrog; of another which, after a disheartening day on the battlefield, improvised Simhat Torah dancing and hakafot by the banks of the Suez Canal.  Almost everyone had read comments of leading Israel Defense Forces commanders praising the courage and commitment of bnei yeshivot, noting both the inspirational qualities which had done so much to boost collective morale and their vital role in the forefront of the actual fighting.  And there was, of course, the litany of suffering, the grim statistics of the yeshivot's highly disproportionate casualties, to attest to that role.  Within the context of pervasive sadness and pride, the ideological presentation of hesder seemed largely unnecessary.  The reality spoke for itself.

 

            Today, thank God, such a presentation is in order.  Time has healed many wounds and dimmed many memories.  Above all, it has opened fresh vistas and posed new challenges, these hopefully unrelated to the battlefront.  We have seen the first glimmers of peace; and, for the moment at least, the country appears relatively secure.  And as our sense of danger is dulled, as our roseate hopes lull us into a sense of imagined security, as the perception of just how close Syrian armored columns had come to swooping down upon the Galil and beyond becomes blurred - hesder and its cause evidently needs, if not an advocate, at least an expositor.  This brief essay is therefore presented as a modest exposition of the essence of hesder and its significance - at least as viewed from the perspective of Yeshivat Har Etzion.

 

            The typical graduate of an Israeli yeshiva high school is confronted by one of three options.  He can, like most of his peers, enter the army for a three year stint.  Alternatively, he can excuse himself from military service on the grounds that torato umnuto, "Torah is his vocation," while he attends a yeshiva whose students receive the Israeli equivalent of a 4-D exemption.  Finally, he can enroll in a yeshivat hesder, in which case, over roughly the next five years, he will pursue a combined program of traditional Torah study with service in the Israeli army.  While at the yeshiva, he will learn full-time (hesder is not an Israeli R.O.T.C.), but there will be two protracted absences from it, one of nine months and the other of six months, for training and duty.

 

            Of these three courses, hesder is, in one sense, perhaps the easiest.  Properly speaking, however, it is also the most arduous.  The advantages, judged from a student's perspective, are fairly clear.  Most obviously, the tour of actual army service is shorter.  While a student is tied down by hesder for almost five years, he only spends, unless he becomes an officer, about sixteen months in uniform.  Most important, however, hesder provides a convenient framework for discharging two different - and to some extent conflicting - obligations.  It enables him, morally and psychologically, to salve both his religious and his national conscience by sharing in the collective defense burden without cutting himself off from the matrix of Torah.  Socially - and this of course has religious implications as well - hesder offers him a desirable context as, even while in the army, he will often be stationed with fellow hesderniks.  And hesder enables him, pragmatically, to keep his future academic and vocational options open.  Unlike his peers at non-hesder yeshivot, he can, upon completing the hesder program, legally pursue any course of study and/or employment within the mainstream of Israeli society.

 

            These are legitimate and even important considerations.  But they are not what hesder, ideally considered, is all about.  Properly understood, hesder poses more of a challenge than an opportunity; and in order to perceive it at its best we need to focus upon difficulty and even tension rather than upon convenience.  Optimally, hesder does not merely provide a religious cocoon for young men fearful of being contaminated by the potentially secularizing influences of general army life - although it incidentally serves this need as well.  Hesder at its finest seeks to attract and develop bnei torah who are profoundly motivated by the desire to become serious talmidei hachamim but who concurrently feel morally and religiously bound to help defend their people and their country; who, given the historical exigencies of their time and place, regard this dual commitment as both a privilege and a duty; who, in comparison with their non-hesder confreres love not (to paraphrase Byron's Childe Harold) Torah less but Israel more.  It provides a context within which students can focus upon enhancing their personal spiritual and intellectual growth while yet heeding the call to public service, and it thus enables them to maintain an integrated Jewish existence.

 

            To be sure, the two aspects of hesder, the spiritual and the military, are hardly on a par.  The disparity is reflected, in part, in the unequal division of time.  Primarily, however, it concerns the realm of value, within which two elements, each indispensable, may yet be variously regarded.  When the mishnah states, "If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour," it hardly means that both are equally important.  What it does mean is that both are, in fact, equally necessary, although, axiologically and teleologically, flour exists for the sake of Torah and not vice versa.  "Il faut manger pour vivre, il ne faut pas vivre pour manger," (One should eat in order to live, not live in order to eat), declaims one of Moli?re's characters; and so it is with hesder.  The yeshiva prescribes military service as a means to an end.  That end is the enrichment of personal and communal spiritual life, the realization of that great moral and religious version whose fulfillment is our national destiny; and everything else is wholly subservient.  No one responsibly connected with any yeshivat hesder advocates military service per se.  We avoid even the slightest tinge of militarism and we are poles removed from Plato's notion that the discipline of army life is a necessary ingredient of an ideal education.  No less than every Jew, the typical hesdernik yearns for peace, longs for the day on which he can divest himself of uniform and uzzi and devote his energies to Torah.  in the interim, however, he harbors no illusions and he keeps his powder dry and his musket ready.

 

            In one sense, therefore, insofar as army service is alien to the ideal Jewish vision, hesder is grounded in necessity rather than choice.  It is, if you will, b'diavad, a post facto response to a political reality imposed upon us by our enemies.  In another sense, however, it is very much l'chathillah, a freely willed option grounded in moral and halakhic decision.  We - at Yeshivat Har Etzion, at any rate - do not advocate hesder as a second-best alternative for those unable or unwilling to accept the rigors of single-minded Torah study.  We advocate it because we are convinced that, given our circumstances - would that they were better - military service is a mitzvah, and a most important one at that.  Without impugning the patriotism or ethical posture of those who think otherwise, we feel that for the overwhelming majority of bnei torah defense is a moral imperative.

 

            Hence, to the extent that the term hesder, "arrangement", connotes an accommodation arrived at between conflicting sides, it is somewhat of a misnomer.  Hesder is not the result of a compromise between the respective positions of roshei yeshiva and the Ministry of Defense.  It is rather a compromise with reality.  We do occasionally argue with the generals over details and they do not always sufficiently appreciate the preeminence of the spiritual factor.  The basic concern with security, however, is ours no less than theirs.

 

            Of course, that concern must be balanced against others.  Knesset Israel needs not only security but spirituality - and ultimately, the former for the sake of the latter.  Those who, by dint of knowledge and inspiration, are able to preserve and enrich our moral vision and spiritual heritage, contribute incalculably to the quality of our national life; and this must be considered in determining personal and collective priorities.  Hence, while we of yeshivot hesder, feel that training and subsequent reserve status for men should be virtually universal - spiritual specialization being reserved at most for a truly elite cadre - the length of post-training service should be justifiably briefer than that of those unable or unwilling to make a comparable spiritual contribution.  The military establishment, I might add, generally understands this.  Junior officers, currently concerned with keeping good soldiers in their units, sometimes complain about what they regard as this inequity.  However, higher level commanders, more keenly aware of the total picture and the longer term, recognize the value of the spiritual aspect of hesder as inspirationally significant, for bnei yeshiva as well as their comrades, in the event of war.  It should be emphasized, however, that from a Torah perspective, the justification for abbreviated service does not rest solely or even primarily upon the yeshiva's stimulus to bravery.  It is grounded, rather, in the intrinsic and immeasurable value of Torah per se - indeed, in the faith and hope that it moves us towards the realization of the prophetic vision, "neither by force nor by might but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts".

 

            The case for hesder rests, then, upon several simple assumptions.  First, during the formative post-secondary years, a ben torah should be firmly rooted in a preeminently Torah climate, this being crucially important both for his personal spiritual development and for the future of a nation in critical need of broadly based spiritual commitment and moral leadership.  Second, the defense of Israel is an ethical and halakhic imperative - be it because, as we believe, the birth of the state was a momentous historical event and its preservation of great spiritual significance or because, even failing that, the physical survival of its three million plus Jewish inhabitants is at stake.  Third, in light of the country's current military needs - and these should admittedly be reassessed periodically - yeshiva students should participate in its defense, both by undergoing basic and specialized training, thus becoming part of the reserves against the possibility, God forbid, of war, and by performing some actual service even during some period of uneasy peace.  The need for such participation is based upon several factors.  By far the most important is the fact that in the eventuality of war the Israeli army may very well need every qualified soldier it can muster.  And lest one think that the number is militarily insignificant, let it be noted that, while indeed they may not seem all that many, nevertheless the boys currently enrolled in hesder, not to mention those who have moved on to the reserves, can man over four hundred tanks - surely no piddling figure.  This factor relates to training more than to peace-time service but with respect to the latter as well both common fairness and self-respect dictate that the Torah community make some contribution even if it be justifiably smaller than others'.  Moreover, the ethical moment aside, such a contribution is a matter of self-interest as well - and not only because it is, after all, our own home that we are defending.  Service enables the religious community as a whole to avoid both the reality and the stigma of parasitism.  It helps build personal character, on the one hand, and open channels of public impact on the other, by producing potential leaders attuned to the pulse and the experience of their countrymen.  To be sure, the prospect of secular criticism should not routinely be the decisive factor in determining religious policy.  Nevertheless, it cannot be totally ignored.  Hazal, at any rate, did not regard hillul Hashem and kiddush Hashem lightly.

 

            If the rationale underlying hesder is relatively simple, its implementation is anything but.  I described it at the outset as the most difficult of the options open to a yeshiva high school graduate; and, seriously taken, it is precisely that.  The difficulty is not incidental.  It is, rather, grounded in the very nature and structure of hesder; and it is threefold.  First, there is the problem of dual commitment per se, the possible loss of motivation and momentum and the division of time, energies, and attention inherent in the fusion of the study of Torah with any other enterprise, academic, vocational, or what have you.  "If I had been present at Mount Sinai", said Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, "I would have asked of the Merciful One that two mouths should be created for every person, one with which to study torah and one with which to all his [other] needs" (Yerushalmi, Berachot, 1:2).  His wish is deeply shared by hesderniks and their masters.

 

            With reference to hesder, specifically, there is, however, an additional problem:  the conflict of values, life style, and sensibility between bet midrash and boot camp, especially in a predominantly secular army.  The danger is not so much that students will lose their faith and become non-observant.  On this score, yeshivot hesder have a track record as least as good as their immediate Eastern European predecessors'.  It is, rather, a problem of possible attrition - the loss of refinement and the dulling of moral and religious sensitivity which may result from exposure to the rougher aspects of a possibly dehumanizing and despiritualizing existence.  As the Ramban (Devarim, 23:10) noted, the qualities of aggressiveness and machismo which are so central to military life naturally run counter to the Torah's spiritual discipline, and a genuine and conscious effort is needed in order to avoid moral corruption and spiritual corrosion.

 

            Probably the greatest difficulty, however, concerns neither the practical ramification of the diffusion of effort nor the grappling with potentially inimical influences.  It concerns the very essence of hesder:  the maintenance of a tenuous moral and ideological balance between its two components.  At issue is a conflict of loves, not just of labors.  At one level, this is simply the problem of religious Zionism writ large.  On the other hand, it inculcates spiritual perspectives and values which are to serve as the basis for a radical critique of a secularly oriented state and society.  The problem acquires another dimension however, when that loyalty includes the readiness to fight and die.  Moreover, it involves, at a second level, issues which are specifically related to a student-soldier per se.  Like all yeshivot, a yeshivat hesder seeks to instill a love for torah so profound and so pervasive as to render protracted detachment from it painful - and yet it demands precisely such an absence.  It advocates patriotic national service even at some cost to personal development, and yet prescribes that students serve considerably less than their non-yeshiva peers.  These apparent antinomies are the result of the basic attempt to reconcile conflicting claims and duties by striking a particular balance:  one which should produce an aspiring talmid hacham who also serves rather than a soldier who also learns; one which perceives military service as a spiritual sacrifice - we don't want students to be indifferent to their loss - but which proceeds to demand that sacrifice; one which encourages a hesdernik to excel as a soldier while in the army but prescribes his return to the bet hamidrash before that excellence is fully applied or perhaps even fully attained.  From the yeshiva's perspectives, these antitheses are fully justified.  Indeed, they constitute the very essence of hesder as a complex and sensitive balance.  However, preserving that balance, with its multiple subtle nuances, entails traversing a narrow ridge - and here lies the primary difficulty, existential and not just practical, of hesder.  Small wonder that many only achieve the balance imperfectly.  It is, however, in those who do succeed in attaining the balance and who, despite the difficulty, are genuinely at peace with themselves, that hesder at its finest can be seen.  And it is inspiring to behold.

 

            These problems are very real.  They pose a formidable educational challenge; and while they are by no means insuperable - the history of yeshivot hesder can attest to that - we ignore them at our peril.  Moreover, it is precisely the adherents of hesder, those of us who grapple with its sophisticated demands on a regular basis, who are most keenly aware of the problems.  Nevertheless - although stateless centuries have tended to obscure this fact - hesder has been the traditional Jewish way.  This is not the place for the exhaustive analysis of proof-texts.  But what were the milieux of Moshe Rabbenu, of Yehoshua, of David, of Rabbi Akiva, as Hazal conceived and described them, but yeshivot hesder?  Indeed, on the Ramban's view, the institution can be traced back to our very fountainhead.  In explaining why Avimelech was so anxious to conclude a treaty with Yitzchak, he conjectures that it may have been due to the fact "that Avraham was very great and mighty, as he had in his house three hundred sword-wielding men and many allies.  And he himself was a lion-hearted soldier and he pursued and vanquished four very powerful kings.  And when his success became evident as being divinely ordained, the Philistine king feared him, lest he conquer his kingdom.... And the sons emulated the fathers, as Yitzchak was great like his father and the king feared lest he fight him should he banish him from his land." (Ramban to Bereishit, 26:29).  This account of lion-hearted avot and their sword-wielding disciples may fall strangely upon some ears.  Although we don't like to admit it, our Torah world, too, has its vogues, and, in some circles, much of the Ramban on Bereishit - the real Ramban, honestly read and unflinchingly understood - is currently pass?.  The fact, however, remains: the primary tradition is hesder.

 

            The reason is not hard to find.  The halakhic rationale for hesder does not, as some mistakenly assume, rest solely upon the mitzvah of waging defensive war.  If that were the case, one might conceivably argue that, halakhically, sixteen months of army service was too high a price to pay for the performance of this single commandment.  The rationale rather rests upon a) the simple need for physical survival and b) the fact that military service is often the fullest manifestation of a far broader value:  g'milut hasadim, the empathetic concern for others and action on their behalf.  This element defined by Hazal as one of the three cardinal foundations of the world, is the basis of Jewish social ethics, and its realization, even at some cost to single-minded development of torah scholarship, virtually imperative.  The gemara in Avodah Zarah is pungently clear on this point:  "Our Rabbis taught: When Rabbi Elazar ben Prata and Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion were arrested [i.e. by the Romans], Rabbi Elazar ben Prata said to Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion, 'Fortunate are you that you have been arrested over one matter, woe is to me who have been arrested over five matters'.  Rabbi Hanina responded, 'Fortunate are you that you have been arrested over five matters but are to be saved, woe is to me who have been arrested over one matter but will not be saved.  For you concerned yourself with both Torah and g'milut hasadim whereas I concerned myself solely with Torah.'  As Rav Huna stated; for Rav Huna said, 'Whoever concerns himself solely with Torah is as one who has no God.  As it is written, "And many days [passed] for Israel without a true God" (Divrei Hayamim II, 15:3).  What is [the meaning of] "without a true God"?  That one who concerns himself solely with Torah, is as one who has no God' (Avodah Zarah, 17b).  The midrash (Kohelet Rabbah, 7:4) equates the renunciation of g'milut hasadim with blasphemy; and the gemara in Rosh Hashanah states that Abbaye outlived Rabbah because he engaged in both Torah and g'milut hasadim whereas Rabbah had largely confined himself to the former.  When, as in contemporary Israel, the greatest single hesed one can perform is helping to defend his fellows' very lives, the implications for yeshiva education should be obvious.

 

            What is equally obvious is the fact that not everyone draws them - and this for one of several reasons.  Some (not many, I hope) simply have little if any concern for the state of Israel, even entertain the naive notion that, as one rosh yeshiva put it, their business could continue as usual with Palestinian flags fluttering from the rooftops.  Others feel that the spiritual price, personal and communal, is simply too high and that first-rate Torah leadership in particular can only be developed within the monochromatic contexts of "pure" yeshivot.  Still others contend that, from the perspective of genuine faith and trust in God, it is the yeshivot which are the true guardians of the polity so that any compromise of their integrity is a blow at national security.  These contentions clearly raise a number of basic moral, halakhic, and theological issues with respect to which I obviously entertain certain views.  However, I do not wish, at this juncture, to polemicize.  These are matters on which honest men of Torah can differ seriously out of mutual respect and I certainly have no desire to denigrate those who do not subscribe to my own positions.  What I do wish to stress minimally, however, is the point that, for the aspiring talmid hacham, hesder is at least as legitimate a path as any other.  It is, to my mind, a good deal more; but surely not less.

 

            In making any assessment, it is important that we approach the subject with full awareness of the military ramifications - a point not always sufficiently heeded.  The story is reliably told of a leading rosh yeshiva who, at the height of the controversy over giyus banot, "the drafting of women", back in the fifties, attended a wedding near the Israeli-Arab border in Jerusalem.  At one point, gunfire was suddenly heard and he scurried under a table, exclaiming passionately, "Ribbono shel olam, I want to live!  There is much torah which I yet wish to learn and create!"  Whereupon a rather insensitive observer approached him and asked, "Nu, rebbe, was sagt ihr itzer wegen giyus banot?" (Well, rabbi, what do you say now about giyus banot?")  And he kept quiet.  I cite the story not because I favor the induction of women - under present circumstances, I very much oppose it - nor to impugn the memory of a truly great person, but in order to point out that, at a certain distance, one can lose sight of the simple truth that a Jewish soul can only exist within a Jewish body.

 

            That nagging truth persists, however, and its appreciation is central to the understanding of an institution designed to reconcile the conflicting claims of spirituality and security, of talmud torah and g'milut hasadim, of personal growth and public service.  The present dilemma posed by these claims is not of our choosing.  The response, however, is; and, in this respect, yeshivot hesder are a conspectus of our collective anomaly:  a nation with outstretched palm and mailed fist, striving for peace and yet training for war.  For the foreseeable future, this is our situation.  While, as previously noted, our position appears more promising than in the past, we are far from being genuinely secure and can hardly afford to weaken our defenses complacently.  Hence, within the context of our "station and its duties" (to use F. H. Bradley's term), hesder is, for bnei torah, the imperative of the moment.  May God grant us a better station.  In the meantime, however, if it is to become no worse, we must keep both our spirits and our guard up.  Animated by vision and yet chary of danger, we, of yeshivot hesder, pray that He may grant us the wisdom and the courage to cope with the challenges of time.

 
 
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