The Golden Days of the I.D.F. Rabbinate

Should I Resign?

Q: I am a military rabbi. After what you wrote in last week’s column, should I resign?

A: You do not have to resign, but you must realize that you do not serve in a rabbinical role, and you certainly are not a ‘mara d’atra’ (local halachic authority). Rather, you are a military chaplain whose job is to help soldiers fulfill mitzvoth and connect them to Judaism. On the other hand, the Chief Rabbi of the I.D.F. himself should have resigned, or make amends by announcing publicly that in no way will there be coercion against Jewish law in the army, and any soldier who wishes to leave and not hear women sing in any army ceremony whatsoever, can do so with the full backing of the I.D.F. Rabbinate.

Criticizing the I.D.F. Rabbinate

Q: Aren’t you concerned that strong criticism of the I.D.F. Rabbinate will harm its status, and frustrate its capability to maintain religious life in the army?

A: On the contrary. Perhaps because of this criticism, the I.D.F. Rabbinate will be able to restore its previous status. Baruch Hashem, I was privileged to receive considerable backing from a number of former I.D.F. rabbis who are very familiar with the military framework, and they supported what I wrote. They told me that without a doubt, had the Chief Rabbi of the army threatened to resign, the General Staff would not have dared to force religious soldiers to transgress Jewish law. A perfect example is the case of Rabbi Ra’avad from the Air Force who only threatened to resign from a certain task the army had placed upon him – half a year before his compulsory retirement – and within two days, the heads of the army announced that Haredi soldiers would not be compelled to anything against their will, and all the terms guaranteed them would be fulfilled completely. Nonetheless, in the weakened condition of the I.D.F. Rabbinate, I am not sure who will oversee this.

In any case, by virtue of the former I.D.F. rabbis remarks and support, I will relate a few stories from the days when the military rabbis fought for their standpoints, and were able to instill in the army the proper approach to the sacred values of Judaism. And the conditions under which the rabbis operated back then were much more difficult, for there were relatively few religious soldiers, and almost no religious officers.

Rabbi Gad Navon ztz”l

Once, during tense days in the south of Israel, a large number of soldiers arrived at the command headquarters before Shabbat. The regional Commanding Officer, Moshe Dayan, ordered that food be cooked for them on Shabbat. However, Rabbi Gad Navon, the rabbi of the Southern Command, who was present at the base for Shabbat, opposed Dayan’s order because it was possible to provide the soldiers with ‘manot krav’ (C rations). Upon hearing this, Moshe Dayan entered the kitchen, and in front of Rabbi Navon, ordered the chefs to cook. Rabbi Navon argued with him. Meanwhile, as one of the cooks was about to place a pot on the burner, Rabbi Navon unhesitatingly grabbed the pot in order to spill its contents. Moshe Dayan then quickly came to the assistance of the cook, and the two attempted to place the pot on the burner. But Rabbi Navon persisted, and for a number of minutes they stood there arguing, pulling the pot from side to side, until Dayan gave up, let go of the pot, and stormed out of the kitchen. When the cooks saw what had happened, they handed out ‘manot krav’ to the soldiers and did not desecrate the Shabbat (‘Not by Might, Nor by Power’, pg. 141).

Are today’s military rabbis prepared to stand up in front of an I.D.F. commanding officer in order to defend Judaism’s sacred values and the Jewish character of the I.D.F., or would they claim that it is national ‘pikuach nefesh’ (life-threatening situation) not to quarrel with the regional Commanding Officer?

Another former senior I.D.F. rabbi told me that Rabbi Navon was wise and clever, and would not allow the Rabbinate to be humiliated. He was capable of making far-reaching ‘kulot’ (leniencies) in the private sphere, but publicly, he safeguarded the honor of the Rabbinate, not allowing it to be manipulated by external pressures. He also was a wise advisor to the Chief of Staff, preventing him from getting into trouble by making offensive statements towards the religious public and Jewish law, like the present Chief of Staff recently did.

Rabbi Goren ztz”l

In addition to his genius in Torah, Rabbi Goren ztz”l, the first Chief Rabbi of the I.D.F., was courageous. He publicly stated that every time a soldier receives an order contrary to a mitzvah, he must refuse the order. He was accustomed to reiterate and repeat this to the soldiers on numerous occasions.

Once, after publishing this position in the I.D.F. Rabbinate journal, he aroused the anger of the Chief of Staff, Chaim Laskov. The Chief of Staff claimed that this would undermine the foundations of discipline in the army, and ordered the immediate discontinuation of funding for the printing of the journal. But Rabbi Goren did not give in, involved the religious community leaders, by-passed the Chief of Staff, and demanded a hearing before the Minister of Defense and Prime Minister at the time – David Ben Gurion.

The Chief of Staff claimed that a soldier must first follow the order, even though it entails violating the Sabbath, and if he believes that the order contravenes Jewish law – after Shabbat he can file a complaint against his commander. Rabbi Goren answered that, in terms of halacha, this situation is similar to that of someone who was ordered to kill an innocent person; according to the words of the Chief of Staff, he should kill him first, and afterwards file a complaint with his commander. Just as the dead person cannot be brought back to life by means of a complaint, so too, the desecration of the Sabbath, whose punishment is as severe as killing a person, cannot be corrected retroactively.

Ben Gurion accepted Rabbi Goren’s position, and issued a reprimand in writing to the Chief of Staff. At that point, Rabbi Goren further complained that the Chief of Staff had discontinued funding for publishing the journal of the I.D.F. Rabbinate. Ben Gurion instructed the Chief of Staff to immediately return the funding for the publishing of the journal, and not only that, but ordered him to double its size!

Rabbi Goren would tell this story repeatedly, and would even describe in detail how the Chief of Staff Laskov entered Ben Gurion’s office with a salute, befitting a trainee of the British army, and how he meekly accepted Ben Gurion’s directives afterwards. Today, the students of Rabbi Goren can understand why he found it so important to tell this seminal story so many times.

Incidentally, it was clear to all that had the Chief of Staff interfered with the administration of religious life in the army, Rabbi Goren would have resigned, and this threat also served its purpose.

The Main Passover Seder

Once, when Moshe Dayan was the Chief of Staff, he brought to the main Seder ceremony a female singer, and requested that Rabbi Goren allow her to sing a few sections of the Passover hagadah. Rabbi Goren refused, saying that if she sings, he would leave and conduct his own Seder alone. Dayan got angry and threatened, but in the end he submitted, and Rabbi Goren conducted the Seder ceremony properly. (With a touch of irony, I must add that it’s interesting to note that despite Rabbi Goren’s stubborn refusal to accept the Chief of Staff’s orders, the I.D.F was not destroyed, and the State of Israel still exists…).

A Surprise Visit

Once, Rabbi Goren received an anonymous letter from a soldier who wrote that on the Air Force base, soldiers were being forced to drink milk after eating meat, because the doctors said that drinking milk helps solve the problem of dust that existed in the area. Rabbi Goren decided to make a surprise visit. Since the location of the base was secret, Rabbi Goren asked his driver to wait in a hidden place next to the base, and when an army vehicle arrived, he told his driver to follow the vehicle until they reached the base. When Rabbi Goren entered the kitchen, he was told that indeed, soldiers were ordered to drink milk after finishing a meat meal. Inquiring who gave the order, he reached the Battalion Commander, who told him that those were the orders, and there is no way to change them. Rabbi Goren told him that he is the one who dictates the orders, and seeing there was a medical reason, he permitted the soldiers to drink milk one hour after finishing a meat meal. Afterwards, he left the base and went to say tehillim at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Calculating that the soldiers had finished their lunch, he instructed his driver to return to the base, and found that once again, the soldiers were ordered to drink milk immediately after the meat meal. In the wake of this, Rabbi Goren summoned the Battalion Commander to a military trial in front of the Chief of Staff Yitzchak Rabin. The Battalion Commander informed Rabin that if he is made to stand trial, he would resign from the army. The Chief of Staff requested Rabbi Goren forgo the trial, and even noted that the Battalion Commander under question hailed from a very important family. But Rabbi Goren insisted that he be put on trial, even if as a result, he resigned. And thus it was, Yitzchak Rabin z”l tried the commander, and he resigned from the army (Rabbi Aryeh Shalom related this story).

Another Battalion Commander’s Dismissal

Another time, a Battalion Commander wanted to check to see if his religious soldiers would obey his commands, and instructed them to attend to their tanks at the time of the ‘seudat mafseket’ (meal before the fast) before Yom Kippur, and thus, they entered the fast without having eaten a proper meal beforehand. Rabbi Goren would not agree to any compromise other than the immediate dismissal of the Battalion Commander from the army. This is how Rabbi Goren always acted – together with the deep friendship he had with many officers, when mitzvoth and the Torah were at harm – he did not compromise. Quite a few officers were dismissed, or their professional advancement was stopped as a result of damage caused to the sacred values of Israel and the fulfillment of mitzvoth. Rabbi Goren’s position was that if the sanctity of Israel’s traditions is not foremost in the mind of an officer, he is unfit to be a commander in the I.D.F. and send soldiers to battle for the sake of the Jewish Nation.

Self Examination

It would be fitting for the I.D.F. Rabbinate to make a ‘cheshbon nefesh’ (reckoning): Why aren’t there rabbis today who are willing to confront the Chief of Staff? Would they be prepared to place a Battalion Commander on trial for harming the sacred values of Judaism? Why didn’t they demand the dismissal of the Brigade Commander in charge of the officer’s training base, Eran Niv, and the Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Uzi Kliger, who ordered the religious cadets, Yeshiva graduates, to hear female singers, and when they refused, dismissed them from the officer’s course? The Rabbinate did not concede on their individual honor, but rather on the honor of Israel’s heritage.

The present capitulation of the I.D.F. Rabbinate to the pressures of the Chief of Staff entails a serious accusation towards the secular public, as if to say the secular are unwilling to respect those who guard Israel’s heritage. However, the truth is that the vast majority of the secular public respects the religious, and had it been explained to them clearly that according to the opinion of the majority of ‘poskim’, hearing women sing is forbidden, similar to eating a meat and cheese sandwich, almost certainly they would agree that religious soldiers should be exempt from this. But in the army, being an aggressive organization by its very nature, a clear explanation is not always enough; therefore matters must be presented firmly and courageously, and rabbis must even be willing to resign – just as soldiers are willing to endanger their lives in war. Not having acted in this manner, the Rabbinate has achieved contempt and disgrace.

A Firm Stand Increases Admiration and Unity

Rabbi Goren’s firm stand did not prevent him from having good relations with secular officers. On the contrary, precisely because of his firm stand, they respected him and appreciated his friendship. For example, after Rabbi Goren’s struggles in the army, to which he recruited the religious leadership in the Knesset and the government, he set-up a ‘chevruta’ (a learning session) in Bible studies with Ben Gurion. And even with Moshe Dayan, with whom he had several confrontations, he had good relations. Incidentally, Rabbi Goren commended Yitzchak Rabin, for when he served as the Chief of Staff, he cooperated with the requirements of the Rabbinate without conflict.

In the Wake of the Oslo Accords

Following the Oslo Accords, Rabbi Goren ztz”l instructed that it was forbidden for a soldier to participate in the evacuation of a settlement or army base from the Land of Israel. Although personally he was very friendly with Mr. Rabin, he could not forgive him and his government for the Oslo Accords. His regret over this knew no bounds.

Rabbi Goren cast all of his public influence behind the campaign to save the Jewish communities of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. At that time, I served as the secretary for the Committee of Rabbis from Yesha, and Rabbi Goren published his opinions, ‘da’at Torah’, in our journal, that one is obligated to sacrifice himself for the conquering and defense of the Land, and is required to refuse any order which contradicts the mitzvah of settling the Land. Additionally, he ruled that the Rabin government, which relied on Arab votes, had no authority to decide on matters concerning the Jewish nation. His words sent shock waves through the country, and some even wanted to prosecute him for this. But his words, which emanated from a storm in his heart, stirred the hearts of many others.

Rabbi Goren’s family was worried that I was dragging him into difficult public debates, but as time went on, they realized that he was actually the one leading the campaign. Quite the opposite: on two occasions I asked him not to publish his sharp words, lest they be misunderstood. In his great wisdom, Rabbi Goren grasped the magnitude of the disaster in the Oslo Accords, and therefore spared no effort trying to foil the evil decree. I remember on the day of the signing of the accords in Cairo, when Arafat, yimach shmo, abused Rabin by not agreeing to sign, and finally of course did sign, I sat with Rabbi Goren in his house for close to four hours discussing Israel’s national situation and about the Torah world; he was pained and hurt as if he was in mourning. For him, the withdrawal from Yesha was a real destruction.

When I asked him how people who participated in the liberation of Judea and Samaria could be so willing to relinquish it, he replied sadly, that they never wanted it to begin with. It was from the heavens that we conquered Yesha, and from the start, they searched for any way to withdraw from there. With help from Heaven, they haven’t succeeded until now. Rabbi Goren was very bitter about the late Prime Minister, Mr. Begin, who opened the door to the Oslo Accords. He added: “I will no longer have the merit, but you might get to see the application of Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.”

Self-Sacrifice

After the possibility of evacuating Hebron’s residents from their houses was raised in the Rabin government, Rabbi Goren announced that we must fight about it with ‘misirut nefesh’ (utmost devotion), adding that he personally was willing to die to prevent the evacuation of Hevron. His statements were broadcast and caused shock waves. For a whole day, he gave interviews to radio and television networks from Israel and abroad. And when the reporters asked him if he was not afraid of inciting the public against the government, he opened his tail coat up to his heart, and declared that he was ready to be shot right now, but on his position he would not give in. For people who saw him in those days, it was clear that he was truly willing to give up his life wholeheartedly to save Hevron.

Following that turbulent day, he told me on the telephone that it had been an important day, and with God’s help, he was able to broadcast his statements far and wide, and hoped they succeed. There is evidence that as a result of his courageous statements, Rabin retreated from accepting the suggestion of his advisors, and the Jewish community of Hevron was saved from expulsion.

In spite of the difficult tensions surrounding the Oslo Accords, Rabin remained in personal contact with Rabbi Goren, and I heard that Rabin mentioned several times that Rabbi Goren was angry with him, and it upset him. After Rabbi Goren passed away, Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and his wife paid a ‘Shiva call’ to the Goren family.

Yeshiva Har Bracha

In those days, Rabbi Goren served as the Head of Yeshiva Har Bracha, and since the Union of Hesder Yeshiva’s did not want to certify it as a Hesder yeshiva, Rabbi Goren turned directly to Mr. Rabin, who served as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, and he gave him the certification. After Rabbi Goren passed away, we joined the Hesder organization.

My Promise to Rabbi Goren

On one of the turbulent days surrounding the Oslo Accords, Rabbi Goren was pained by his fellow rabbis who published a ‘psak halacha’ saying that soldiers are obligated to refuse orders and not participate in the expulsion of Jews from the Land of Israel, without mentioning his name as being the first rabbi to clarify this issue, and base its ruling in Jewish law. He also talked about this in a radio interview. I immediately called him, attempting to appease him so he would not be angry with the rabbis, and especially not to speak about it publicly, because doing so harms the struggle for the Land of Israel. He was already ill at the time, and spoke to me openly. When I promised to do my best to publish his rulings properly he consented, while expressing great fondness towards me. He pointed out that only because of his trust in me, did he agree to my request. Baruch Hashem, I was privileged to publish his words many times in my newspaper column ‘Revivim’. Also, in ‘Pininei Halacha’, the volume entitled ‘Ha’am v’Haaretz’ (The Nation and the Land), I published seventy pages of Rabbi Goren’s halachic answers which he sent me.

Ehud Barak

At present, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is well-known for his rudeness, has severely damaged the I.D.F. Rabbinate, which has become a choir whose task is to respond ‘amen’ after secular orders. Barak also revoked the ‘hesder’ (agreement) with Yeshiva Har Bracha, students who follow in the path of Rabbi Goren ztz”l. Also, the controversy in the General Staff and the widespread corruption there, as it emerges from the case of former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Boaz Harpaz, is akin to Barak’s style of ‘leadership’. Thus, even the positive side of Yitzchak Rabin’s legacy, he demolishes.

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