Today’s pre-Purim video is from teachers in Australia’s Torah MiTzion program. The Torah MiTzion program brings graduates from the Israeli army’s Hesder programs to teach in Jewish Day Schools in Australia.
The Hesder program allows Israelis to combine army service with continued Talmud study. Participants serve in the army for 36 months like other Israelis. However, 20 months of that time is spent in Yeshiva and 16 months are spent in service. The IDF is also experimenting with expanding the actual army service to 18 months. Hesder yeshiva students chose to serve in combat units at a rate slightly higher than the general Israeli draft pool. 76% of the general draft pool enlisted in combat units in March, 2009. In March, 2010, the number was 73%. By contrast, 80% of Hesder yeshiva recruits enlisted in combat units in August, 2009.
The Hesder Yeshiva program dates back to 1953 when the yeshiva Kerem B’Yavneh was founded. The program was modeled on Nahal units that split their time between army service and work on farms. Today there are 68 Hesder yeshivot with more than 8,500 students.
In 1991 the Hesder program won the Israel Prize for its contribution to Israeli Society. Today, the program continues to have very strong support within the Religious Zionist community. MK Zvulun Orlev (Jewish Home) has also cited the Hesder program as living proof that army service and Torah life can be combined.
However, its reputation is facing significant challenge both within the IDF and general society. While some hesder yeshivas stand strong behind the government of Israel, others see the rabbis as an alternative center of power who can override IDF officer commands with any decision they deem halchic.
Most of the difficulties have come from two yeshivas: the Elon Moreh Yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, and the Har Bracha Yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed. Both rabbis believe that their rabbinic authority supercedes the IDF.
In 2009, both Levanon and Melamed got into trouble with the IDF for publicly applauding soldiers who hung banners declaring their opposition to dismantling illegal settlements. Barak demanded that the rabbis condemn their students’ public protests against IDF policy. Melamed refused. At the end of 2009, Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Independence) ousted the Har Bracha from the Hesder system. Initially Har Bracha tried to fight the ouster, but then gave in and decided to accept future students under the Tal framework of deferrment of service until age 23.
Levanon toed the line in 2009 and managed to keep his yeshiva in the Hesder system. More recently, he made the news last fall for instructing students that they should rather die than follow IDF orders to stay in the same room as a woman singing. In January, 2012 there were reports of him resigning so that his views wouldn’t hurt the Yeshiva. However, sources close to him immediately denied them.
Rabbis encouraging disobedience have caused some officers to question the Hesder program. It also helps build public sentiment against the program. It should be noted, however, that there are Hesder Yeshiva rabbis that have come out firmly in support of the authority of the IDF. Among them are David Bigman of the religious kibbutz movement’s Ma’aleh Gilboa Yeshiva, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Aside from challenges to the authority of offiers, parts of the IDF have expressed concern about the length of actual army service. Given the investment in training, some in the IDF feel Hesder students should be serving more than 16 months. Additionally, due to fears of a shrinking draft pool, the IDF wants to compensate for manpower shortages by either (a) eliminating or reducing enrollment in partial service programs like Hesder or (b) lengthing the amount of time spent in actual army service during the 3 years of mandatory service.
Secular Israelis have also complained that the program privileges religious studies over secular studies. This January in an HaAretz editorial, Nehemia Shrasler observed:
Why should an arrangement like this not be given to any secular soldier who wants to study computers, engineering, economics or history at university? Are these subjects not as important as Gemara?
The Hesder program’s framework and funding are part of the Tal Law. Last week the Supreme court determined that the Tal Law cannot be renewed. Any replacement law will have to decide whether to continue the Hesder program and under what terms.