Whose Orders to Follow? Letter to a Hesder Yeshiva Student
From Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Union for Reform Judaism
Dear Yair, I understand your deep concern about the hesder yeshiva rabbis who have urged soldiers to defy orders to evacuate settlements. [Hesder yeshivas combine advanced Talmud study with military service, usually 16 months, in the Israel Defense Forces.] I am happy to share with you a few of my thoughts on this matter.
First, I know that most rabbis in the hesder program believe that calling on their students to disobey IDF orders is unacceptable, and that this is your view as well. I respect your position but see it differently. Soldiers have the right, and indeed the obligation, to resist orders that are contrary to their understanding of Torah, and even now, such a right needs to be affirmed. Armies and states including the IDF and the State of Israel are imperfect, human creations. Religious Jews, who engage in the study of Jewish law and tradition, know that their ultimate loyalty is to God. Granting absolute authority to any human enterprise is idolatry, and a religious Jew resists idolatry with all his might.
On the other hand, while the right to disobey an IDF order is inviolable, soldiers should exercise that right only with fear and trembling. After 2,000 years, the State of Israel has returned the Jewish people to history, granting them sovereignty in their historic homeland and control of their own destiny. A soldier who chooses to challenge the Jewish state on the grounds that it has violated the principles of Torah has an obligation to study those principles carefully. Further, he must accept that if he defies his government he must be prepared to pay a heavy price; after all, Israel is vulnerable and at war, and every soldier who refuses to obey orders adds to the security burden that the army must bear.
Sadly, from what I can tell, none of this has happened. The rabbis calling on their students to disobey orders have not initiated a serious, Torah-based debate meant to elucidate weighty questions of Jewish law. The young soldiers have little understanding of the issues involved, and their teachers seem mostly concerned with using their students as tools for their own political and personal ambitions. Worst of all, the rabbis promote resistance and then demand that the soldiers be immediately released from jail as Prisoners of Zion. Instead of hearing from their teachers that disobeying orders is an act of monumental significance with inevitable personal consequences, the soldiers learn that every effort will be made to help them evade responsibility for what they do.
My final thought is that the issue of insubordination in the army is not the most important question facing the hesder yeshivot. The real question is whether the current structure of the hesder program strengthens the State of Israel and advances the cause of Torah. The radical rabbis who have acted badly are few in number; they are a problem that can be dealt with. Much harder to overcome is the resentment felt by secular Israelis whose sons complete three years of army service while hesder students serve for only 16 months, with the remaining three years and eight months of the program devoted to Torah study. It is true that a high percentage of these students enter combat units; they, along with all other Israelis who make this choice, deserve our gratitude.
Nonetheless, the system is absurdly inefficient. Eliezer Stern, the general who headed the IDFs manpower division, pointed out that it takes 10 months to properly train a good combat soldier; therefore, the army gets only six months of productive service from hesder soldiers in combat units. For this reason, a 2006 report of Israels Treasury Ministry recommended discontinuing the program.
But far more important than practical concerns is the message that the program sends. Torah study is an obligation of every Jew. It is our first duty and our greatest joy, and a privilege for all who care about the Jewish future. However, it is not a perk; the minute that study of Torah becomes a spade with which to dig (Avot 4:7), bestowing special benefits on some while imposing additional burdens on others, the result is to bring those who love Torah into disrepute.
There were reasons for the hesder program to come into being in its current form, but they no longer apply. One option now would be to eliminate the program; another would be to reorganize it so that it includes the full three years of army service and two years of yeshiva study. But cant we agree that with Hamas ruling Gaza and Iran threatening Israel with extermination, the time has come to share the security burden equally? Such a step would be good for Israel and would bring honor to Torah and its students everywhere. I know that you and your friends have struggled with these issues, and how committed you all are to Zionism and Torah study. Please share with me your thoughts.
Originally published in The Jewish Week, January 12, 2010