The blessings of the hesder yeshiva program are apparent to all. Young men devote three years and eight months to serious Torah study. In addition, they serve for 16 months in the Israeli army. We know that many of these men enter combat units, and a high percentage serve with great bravery and distinction; they, along with all other Israelis who make this choice, deserve our profound gratitude.
Nonetheless, there are three reasons why the time has come to reconsider the hesder yeshivot.
First, they are absurdly inefficient. Experts in military matters point out that it takes 10 months to properly train a good combat soldier; therefore, the army gets only 6 months of productive service from hesder soldiers in combat units. For this reason, a 2006 report of Israel’s Treasury Ministry recommended discontinuing the program.
Second, they generate resentment. Most Israelis, whether secular or religious, give three full years to army service, and inevitably they wonder why hesder participants should serve less than half of that time. And it is not sufficient to say that time not served in the army is given over to Torah study. After all, Torah study – our first duty and our greatest joy – is an obligation of every Jew. In addition, it is a privilege and not a perk. The minute it becomes “a spade with which to dig” (Avot 4:7), it brings Torah into disrepute by bestowing special benefits on some while imposing additional burdens on others.
Third, and most important, they keep in place the walls of separation that divide Jew from Jew in the State of Israel. In the early decades of the Jewish state, the divisions between religious and non-religious Jews were far less pronounced than they are today. Jews of all religious outlooks lived in the same neighborhoods and residential buildings and interacted with ease and understanding. Furthermore, the Israel Defense Forces were the great melting pot of Israeli society, bringing together Jews of all ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. For a variety of complicated reasons, Israel no longer works that way, and of all the divisions that exist today, the gap between religious and non-religious Jews is perhaps the most profound. Therefore, to allow religious Jews who are committed to the security needs of their homeland to serve apart from secular Jews is a terrible mistake.
In his autobiography, General (res.) Elazar Stern, who headed the IDF’s manpower division, discusses his decision not to join a hesder unit. He emphasizes his desire to meet people who are not from his community, and then explains how, as an Orthodox officer, he used his position to create understanding between secular and Orthodox soldiers who, in almost all cases, wished to and were able to find a way of living together and serving together as Jews. Surely such shared service is an important means of spreading the message of Torah.
There were reasons for the hesder program to come into being in its current form, but they no longer apply. I suggest that the time has come to eliminate it. Such a step would be good for Israel and Israel’s army and would bring honor to Torah and its students everywhere.