(Photo: Yeshivat Har Etzion).

The Ideology of Hesder


In the 1950s, Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh began to send yeshiva students to IDF training. This would become the start of the hesder movement – a movement of post high school yeshivot that combine both intensive Torah study and IDF service. Today, there are over 80 such yeshivot, with over 10,000 talmidim. In the current war, thousands of hesder students have fought for the IDF – and tragically, tens of them have given their lives for the Land, people and Torah of Israel.

In 1981, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, published a seminal essay in Tradition explaining the Torah hashkafa behind the hesder program. His article provides theological grounding for the program, explaining why hesder is not a compromise but rather the ideal form of avodat Hashem. 

In advance of Rav Lichtenstein’s 9th yahrzeit on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, we publish here excerpts from this landmark essay.

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 umanuto, 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, but there will be two protracted absences from it, one of nine months and the other of six months, for training and duty…

Hesder provides [a young man] a convenient framework for discharging two different – and to some extent conflicting – obligations… 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 Torah scholars 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… No less than every Jew, the typical hesdernik yearns for peace, longs for the day on which he can divest himself of uniform and Uzi 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’chatchila, a freely willed option grounded in moral and halachic decisions. 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…

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 Rabbeinu, of Yehoshua, of David, of Rabbi Akiva, as Chazal conceived and described them, but yeshivot hesder? Indeed, in 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 passe. The fact, however, remains: the primary tradition is hesder.

Yakir Hexter and David Schwartz hy”d, fallen soldiers who were in the hesder program at Yeshivat Har Etzion. (Artwork: Ilan Block)

The reason is not hard to find. The halachic 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, halachically, 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: gemilut chasadim, the empathetic concern for others and action on their behalf. This element defined by Chazal 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 Zara is pungently clear on this point: “Our Rabbis taught: When Rabbi Elazar ben Prata and Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion were arrested [by the Romans], Rabbi Elazar ben Prata said to Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, ‘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 gemilut chasadim 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 G-d. As it is written, “And many days [passed] for Israel without a true G-d” (Divrei Hayamim II 15:3). What is [the meaning of] “without a true G-d”? That one who concerns himself solely with Torah, is as one who has no G-d’” (Avodah Zara 17b). The midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:4) equates the renunciation of gemilut chasadim with blasphemy; and the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah states that Abaye outlived Rabbah because he engaged in both Torah and gemilut chasadim whereas Rabbah had largely confined himself to the former. When, as in contemporary Israel, the greatest single chesed 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 G-d, 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, halachic, 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 Torah scholar, hesder is at least as legitimate a path as any other. It is, to my mind, a good deal more; but surely not less.

While most of the relevant texts are aggadic, one locus classicus is purely halachic, and it may best be treated first. The Gemara in Bava Batra states that talmidei chachamim are exempt from sharing the cost of municipal fortifications inasmuch as they “do not require protection.” Analogously, it is contended that they should be exempt from military service. One may state, in reply, that this claim raises a very serious moral issue. Can anyone whose life is not otherwise patterned after this degree of trust and bitachon argue for exemption on this ground? Is it possible to worry about one’s economic future, in evident disregard of Rabbi Eliezer’s statement that “whoever has bread in his basket and says ‘What shall I eat tomorrow?’ is but of little faith,” and still not enter the army because one is presumably safe without it? I recall, some years back, admiring the candor of a maggid shiur who confided to me that he had moved from a neighborhood in which most young men served in the IDF to one in which they did not because, while he might be convinced intellectually that he ought not to serve in the army, he knew full well that he did not possess the depth of faith upon which such an exemption could only be granted. Hence, he felt too ashamed, especially as his sons were coming of military age, to remain in his old bailiwick… 

A second oft-cited source is the coda of Sefer Zera’im in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. The Rambam first postulates the spiritual character of the tribe of Levi as explaining its being barred from a share in Eretz Yisrael and its spoils, and then goes on to expand upon this theme:

“And why did not Levi partake of the patrimony of Eretz Yisrael and its spoils with his brethren? Because he was set apart to serve G-d, to worship Him and to teach His just ways and righteous ordinances to the masses. As it is stated, ‘They shall teach Jacob Your ordinances, and Israel Your law’ (Devarim 33:10). Therefore, they have been set apart from the ways of the world: they do not wage war like the rest of Israel, nor do they inherit or acquire unto themselves by physical force. They are, rather, the L-rd’s corps, as it is stated, ‘I am your portion and your inheritance’ (Bamidbar 18:20). And not the tribe of Levi alone but each and every person throughout the world whose spirit has uplifted him and whose intelligence has given him the understanding to stand before G-d, to serve Him, to worship Him, to know G-d; and he walks aright as he has cast off from his neck the many considerations which men have sought – such a one has been sanctified as the holy of holies, and the L-rd shall be his portion and his inheritance forever and ever, and shall grant him his sufficiency in this world as he has granted to the kohanim and the levi’im. As David, peace be upon him, says, ‘O L-rd, the portion of my inheritance and of my cup, You maintain my lot’ (Tehillim 16:5).”

At first glance, these lines seem to sanction, in principle, a ben Torah’s total divorce from military service. In truth, however, they are of little, if any, relevance to our subject. On one level, there arises the obvious difficulty of squaring this statement both with the Rambam’s personal history and with his repeated vehement critiques of those who exploit the study of Torah to worldly advantage by abstaining from all gainful activity in the expectation that they will be supported by the public treasury. Even if we confine ourselves to this text, however, we shall find that its presumed sanction is weak, at best.

First, the initial postulate – that every Levite enjoys a dispensation from army duty, has no source in Chazal. On the contrary, it contravenes the evident purport of the Mishnah in Sotah: “But in [case of] wars of mitzvah, all go out, even a groom from his [wedding] room and a bride from her wedding chamber.” As has often been noted, if the Rambam’s formulation is understood as a total bar on army service by shevet Levi, it seems to be clearly contradicted by a Gemara in Kiddushin. Would or should bnei Torah readily lean upon such a thin reed in order to exempt themselves from, say, the mitzvot of lulav or shofar?

Second, it seems most unlikely that this statement is indeed all it is presumed to be. If the Rambam had truly intended to postulate a categorical dispensation for bnei Levi or bnei Torah, would he have presented and formulated it in this manner and context? Given his sharply honed discipline and sense of order, would he not have cited it in Hilchot Melachim u’Milchamoteihem together with all the laws of warfare rather than as a peroration to Sefer Zera’im? The implication is clear. What we have here is a hortatory coda, analogous to the conclusions of many of the books of the Mishneh Torah… but is not to be confused with a clear halachic mandate. It provides a vivid evaluation of an inspiring personality but does not dictate how it or others should act.

Even if this contention is rejected, however, Rambam’s statement remains largely irrelevant to the contemporary problem of hesder. For it should be noted, third, that the spirituality of the Levite does not preclude military service entirely. It only absolves him from waging war “like the rest of Israel.” At most, he can be exempt from the gamut of wars included within the mitzvah of milchamah per se. This exemption has no bearing, however, upon his duty to help fight or prevent a defensive war that threatens the survival of his community and his peers. Is a spiritual order excused from saving human lives? To the extent that this obligation is rooted in the overall norm of gemilut chasadim, it encompasses everyone. The world of the ben Torah, too, rests upon three pillars. Of course, no one would suggest that all bnei yeshiva stop learning and turn to cardiology. There is, however, a clear difference between abstaining from specializing in humanitarian endeavors and forgoing a universal effort. And above all, the issue is not one of suspending talmud Torah, G-d forbid, but of balancing and complementing it.

Finally, even if we grant that the Rambam’s statement does imply a categorical dispensation in purely halachic terms, it remains of little practical significance. We have yet to examine just to whom it applies. A Levi is defined genealogically. Those who are equated with him, however, literally or symbolically, are defined by spiritual qualities; and for these the Rambam sets a very high standard, indeed. He presents an idealized portrait of a selfless, atemporal, almost ethereal person – one whose spirit and intelligence have led him to divest himself of all worldly concerns and who has devoted himself “to stand before G-d, to serve Him, to worship Him, to know G-d; and he walks aright as the L-d has made him and he has cast off from his neck the yoke of the many considerations that men have sought.”

To how large a segment of the Torah community, or of any community, does this lofty typology apply? Two percent? Five percent? Can anyone who has negotiated the terms of a salary… look into a mirror and tell himself that he need not go to the army because he is kodesh kodashim, sanctum sanctorum, in the Rambam’s terms? Can anyone with even a touch of vanity or a concern for kavod contend this? Lest I be misunderstood, let me state clearly that I have no quarrel with economic aspirations or with normal human foibles. Again, least of all do I wish to single out bnei yeshivot for undeserved moral censure. I do feel, however, that those who would single themselves out for exemption from normal duties on the grounds of saintliness should examine their credentials by the proper standard…

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 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 gemilut chasadim, 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… Hence, within the context of our “station and its duties,” hesder is, for bnei Torah, the imperative of the moment. May G-d 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… Standing in tears atop Har HaZeitim, the bleak sight of kol hamekudash mechavero charev yoter mechavero stretching before him, what would the Ramban have given to head a yeshivat hesder?


● This essay is excerpted from “The Ideology of Hesder” which appeared originally in TRADITION (Fall 1981) and appears here with permission. Visit TraditionOnline.org to access the full essay.

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