The stage was set for a traumatic split. An arrogant Defence Minister had jeopardised 50 years of partnership between the yeshivahs and the IDF by telling one of the rabbis what he could and couldn’t say. Now they were going to assert their independence and show Ehud Barak that he would not be allowed to push them around.
Fifty seven rabbis entered the conclave on Sunday in an atmosphere of fiery petitions and speeches. Four hours later, they emerged with a surprisingly pragmatic joint statement, opposing political demonstrations within the army and praising its officers and generals.
Even firebrand Rabbi Eliezer Melamed signed up, without demur.
What happened during those four hours of closed debate that took the sting out of the conflict and, for once, allowed the moderate wing to gain the upper hand?
No protocols or authorised versions have been released but one of the rabbis present said after the meeting, “this time, the responsible grown-ups took charge”.
While ostensibly an egalitarian movement, in which the head of every yeshivah has equal say, there is an unofficial leadership to the Hesder Association, though normally they keep a low profile.
These rabbis, who founded their yeshivahs two or three decades ago and have spent their lives educating young men and keeping out of politics, currently have two main concerns.
They are aware of the attraction charismatic rabbis such as Melamed hold for many of the young er generation in the national-religious community. They know that their confrontational attitude towards the secular political and leadership is popular, especially in a time when the government is freezing building in the settlements.
They fear that alienating these rabbis will push also many of their students into the radical camp.
But they are also aware that the relationship with the IDF and the defence establishment is a delicate one, and that Ehud Barak also has to satisfy his own political constituency and an increasingly hostile media.
That is why the senior figures within the Hesder yeshivahs spoke up at the meeting, loudly criticising Rabbi Melamed to his face.
They were not critical of his ideological and religious positions — in private some of them agree with him — but in the belligerent fashion in which he has been expressing them. They accused him of putting the entire structure of the Hesder, built upon cooperation and agreement between the yeshivahs and the IDF, in danger.
Another participant in the meeting described how Rabbi Melamed, and the rabbis allied with him entered the room defiantly, “but after he was told off, he agreed meekly to sign the joint statement, without a word of objection”.
One Hesder rabbi summed up the saga: “For now the voice of reason has prevailed, but the tensions still exist and we have only bought time.
“The moment Melamed or another rabbi or Ehud Barak for that matter will have an interest in more trouble and strife, we will have to start over again.”