Right of Reply: Misunderstanding the hesder program

Anyone unconvinced of the centrality of Torah study cannot justify a program whose goal is to provide intense learning.

Torah 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Torah 521
(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
In his February 18 article on the hesder program “Toward a new gold standard,” Rafi Goldrich, although writing with admirable sincerity and passion, manages to misrepresent both the theory and practice of the hesder yeshivot, which combine yeshiva study and army service.
In a sense, there is nothing surprising in the fact that an outsider who doesn’t subscribe to the program’s ideology does not provide a coherent account of its inner logic, nor should one be amazed that a mechanical engineer is not the ideal candidate to account for the philosophy of a yeshiva program. Nevertheless, the record must be set straight.
THE STARTING point and sine qua non for an understanding of the hesder program is the recognition that it is an attempt to strike a balance between two positive values whose practical demands compete with each other. These two ideals are Torah study and serving the nation. Both are perceived as imperative from a religious standpoint, yet total devotion to one value precludes participation in the other. When confronted with such a scenario in various life situations, there are two possible approaches: one may either choose one option exclusively and reluctantly forgo the other or attempt to create a dialectic that participates in both endeavors, fully aware that both pay a price in order to accommodate each other.
The first alternative is the path chosen by national religious yeshivot gevohot and the mechina (preparatory) programs. Students of the former choose Torah study over IDF service, while the latter opt for the army at the expense of the beit midrash, both preferring absolutes to dialectic action. Hesder, like modern Orthodoxy, is predicated upon the attempt to engage both values. It recognizes the inherent costs of such a decision, attempts to minimize them as much as possible, yet accepts that both Torah study and military service must be undertaken in order to allow participation in both. Although both are qualitatively enhanced by their mutual contact, this does not negate the quantitative issue or relieve the inherent frustration in the attempt to balance conflicting values.
Needless to say, anyone unconvinced of the centrality of Torah study cannot justify a program whose goal is to provide intense learning, the establishment of a learning community and the nurturing of budding scholars who will be the rabbis and educators of the next generation, at the expense of others who are serving full tours of duty. Such a person can only recognize it as a political or legal reality which he can attack from a moral perspective and/or complain about to his political leadership. However, its moral justification must be accepted on its own terms as being predicated on the importance of Torah study for all community members as a basic Jewish value.
THEREFORE, GOLDRICH’S presentation of various apologetic responses as the national religious community’s answers for hesder misrepresents its raison d’être. Regardless of the validity of the apologetics he quotes – and some are much more convincing than he is aware of – the essence of hesder is rooted in its allegiance to a dual value system and the inherent tension within. Goldrich’s characterization of hesder as a loophole or compromise and his subsequent dismissal of compromise as a negative term, reveal either a lack of understanding of the basic dialectic tension inherent in life and the constant obligation to balance competing needs, or a lack of appreciation of the value of Torah study in a yeshiva framework. Thus, they are either simplistic or unfair to the inner logic of the program, if not both.
Further, Goldrich axiomatically assumes that the majority of hesder students joined out of convenience and are not devoted to their studies. His qualification that “to be fair there certainly are boys who take their yeshiva studies seriously” just serves to subtly reinforce the impression that they are the exception rather than the rule.
However, aside from making a broad generalization, no evidence is provided to back up this claim. We aren’t even provided with anecdotal evidence, to say nothing about true research or objective data. I can just as readily make counter-claims that are rooted in my experience, but it seems an exercise in futility to toss unsubstantiated sayings back and forth. Although no one denies that the hesder program, like all other institutions, has individuals who don’t belong and I wholeheartedly second Goldrich’s call for better supervision, casting the exception as the rule and presenting the unserious student as the representative poster-boy, without any evidence to support such a presentation is a manipulative form of argument.
Moreover, not only is hesder’s image distorted by this tactic, it is further blackened by the implied comparison with the general community. When relating to society at large, Goldrich exchanges his negative mind-set for rosy spectacles and seems to imply that all serve for three years, 24/7, in combat units. Thus, not only does he misrepresent hesder by highlighting the weakest members of the program and inaccurately presenting them as the standard, he then proceeds to engage in a logical fallacy by comparing the weakest members of hesder with the strongest members of general society.
There, for some reason, all seem to do perfect service, none seem to opt out of duty, soldiers are never home for Shabbat and obviously forfeit their social life for three years.
In reality, the vast majority of hesder students could readily have found comfortable positions in various non-combat units that actively recruit them, served three years in relative comfort, free to pursue other interests, and smug in their feeling that national religious society is applauding their service.
Instead, the hesder student chooses combat service and a five-year commitment to serve society’s needs in a dual capacity. Although there is room for legitimate debate regarding the hesder track, the claim that the program is chosen for reasons of comfort seems to be oblivious to the options available to the prospective soldier and unaware of current norms within the national religious community as well as other segments of Israeli society.
THE FINAL point that requires attention is the commitment of the hesder program to combat units and its significance to the equation. The real issue that Israeli society is currently facing regarding the burden of military service is not the time but the willingness to self-sacrifice, since large segments of society are attempting to dodge combat service out of fear and convenience. The essential moral imperative is the willingness to serve in combat units and accept the risk involved; therefore, those concerned about society should encourage any program that educates its members to serve in combat units and insist that they do so.
Additionally, Goldrich’s focus on the time as he does the math of extended reserve duty vs three-year service misses the essential point of the reserve units. He states: “Hesder boys do 20 months less active duty than regular soldiers. Considering that there are about 7,500 hesder students today, this translates into about 30,000 months of service annually that have to be covered by reservists (some of them even from hesder). It takes a hesder boy 20 years to make up what he missed as a conscript.”
Hesder boys’ main contribution to Israeli security is not the few weeks that they spend in the field but the fact that they are ready to be mobilized year round. Having served in the Armored Corps for 25 years, my main contribution was the fact that 365 days a year I had a tank that I was assigned to and that our unit was responsible for a specified area to defend in time of war. The importance and centrality of this role was constantly emphasized by senior commanders, and rightfully so.
This was also not abstract theory: We participated in a war and two intifadas during this time. My commanding officer when I was a regular soldier, who served for five to six years and has been living in New York and Chicago ever since, may have slept more nights in a tent if we do Goldrich’s math, but his contribution to the overall security of the nation and his availability in time of crisis was limited to those six years as opposed to my 25.
Let me conclude by restating my appreciation of Goldrich’s concern for the religious Zionist community, my recognition of the importance of the issues at stake and thanking him for emphasizing the need to improve the performance of the hesder program.
Nevertheless, a more nuanced understanding of the ideology as well as more accurate and substantiated information is necessary to create a fruitful dialogue that will hopefully allow us to engage each other in a stimulating and challenging debate and disagreement, in the best tradition of the beit midrash.
The writer is rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion.