The word, ‘Hesder’ in Hebrew loosely translates into English as, ‘arrangement.’ It’s a curious word to assign to an education academy. But it’s accurate.
A Hesder Yeshiva (Torah academy) is a place where young men over the age of eighteen go for advanced Talmudic study in an ‘arrangement’ with the government of Israel (hence, the title, ‘Hesder’). The ‘arrangement’ is that these draft-eligible young men don’t go directly from High School into the army. They do something else.
Normally, an eighteen year old Israeli male serves from one-to-three years in the IDF, depending upon the details of his personal situation. Once his service period ends, that young man either goes directly into the work-force or, commonly, into college.
Those who volunteer to go through the Hesder ‘arrangement’ don’t commit to serve a one-to-three year period. They typically commit to a five year stint that requires a pre- and post-army Torah commitment. This means that a young man will serve 16 months in the army as a full-time soldier and 44 months in the Yeshiva as a full-time student.
It’s a concept that works. It attracts approximately one of every five Religious Zionist High School graduates. It allows these religious youth to fulfill an ideal of full and active participation in Israel’s army, while still engaging in intense Torah study during their formative years (“About Yeshivot Hesder – Combining Military IDF Service with Advanced Talmudic Studies”, eTeacherHebrew Homepage, no date). According to one census, there are some 68 Hesder programs with perhaps 8,500 participants.
Hesder isn’t a way to get out of serving. It isn’t a way to avoid combat. In fact, almost all Hesder students volunteer specifically for combat duty.
The Hesder program has created an entirely new phenomena for Israel: combat-experienced Rabbis, Yeshiva leaders and army officers who serve their country and their G-d. They are changing the face of Israel, the face of the IDF and the chain-of-command within the IDF.
One of the leaders of the Hesder ‘arrangement’ is Rabbi Eli Sadan, who has been called a pioneer of the Hesder concept. He is credited with being one of the founders of the first Hesder Yeshiva, in the town of Eli. At his Yeshiva, more than half of his Hesder graduates have served as officers in combat units.
He’s an important man. When he speaks, people listen.
Yesterday (October 20, 2014), he spoke. In an interview broadcast on Israel TV, he suggested that he would oppose any attempt to appoint a religious IDF Chief-of-Staff.
In the religious-military world of IDF-Hesder, you might expect a different point of view. You might expect him to be the first to call for a religious Chief-of-Staff. But he doesn’t.
He argues that Israel isn’t ready for a Torah-committed Army leader. He believes that, today, too many people in Israel would fear seeing a religious man in such a position. He believes that the majority of Israelis don’t want a religious Chief-of-Staff. He said, "I don't want there to be, for even one moment, a feeling in the country that the religious are forcing themselves on the public and leading the country to a place that most people don't want to go. That would be terrible, it would destroy the country” (“Rabbi: Religious IDF Chief of Staff Would be Calamity”, Arutz Sheva, October 20, 2014). Therefore, he concluded, he would oppose it.
What do you think of that?
Certainly, he’s correct to be sensitive to the realities of religious politics in Israel. Too often, religion is a ‘hot-button’ used by politicians and the media to incite against the religious. Being sensitive to such hate is smart.
Nevertheless, Rav Sadan could have been more judicious. He should not have given the media the chance to highlight so negative a comment.
Religious Zionism will not build its base by telling Israel’s TV audience that Israelis are afraid of religious Jews.
Perhaps his Religious Zionist message should have been: ‘Religion is important. But it shouldn’t be the main criteria for appointing a Chief-of-Staff. It also shouldn’t be the reason to reject a candidate for Chief-of-Staff. The only criteria should be competence. Therefore, if the best candidate is observant, I can see no reason to reject him. I believe that the Israeli people would understand that. I believe that Israelis understand how important a competent Chief-of-Staff is to our communal survival. I believe that the Israeli public would accept a G-d-fearing leader—if he’s the best choice.’
Religious Zionism gains strength in the political and public arena. It will reap benefits when it remembers that negative comments can be unproductive.
Fortunately, his negative words will not end the world. Perhaps the next time he speaks on the subject he could think more creatively. Perhaps he can suggest that Israelis are actually more willing to accept religious leaders than most of us believe.
There are always two ways to say the same thing. Religious Zionists might want to remember that.