When the Chief IDF Rabbi Becomes a Religious Adviser

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

The IDF General Staff continues to erode Jewish tradition and those who abide by it * Because of pressure from the Left and feminists, the Military Rabbinate was forced to find a halachic allowance to hear female singers * According to the majority of halachic authorities it is forbidden to hear female singers; although a minority permit it, the army should be stringent and take into account all soldiers – as it does in other areas * Since army rabbis were denied independence, and are subject to their superiors, they do not have the authority of ‘mara d’atra’ (local rabbinic authority) * Nevertheless, their job is still extremely important – safeguarding the spirit of Torah and fulfillment of Halacha in the IDF * The obligation to oppose orders that harm Jewish tradition

The IDF’s Eroding Attitude towards Jewish Tradition

It was recently reported that further erosion has occurred in the rules of ‘Appropriate Integration’ (‘Ha’Shiluv Ha’Ra’ui’) in the IDF; not only are religious soldiers forced to listen to female singers, but commanders are now allowed to force them to serve in mixed-gender units. Since the applicability of this command is still not clear to me, I will focus on the relatively simpler issue of forcing soldiers to hear female singers, from which one can learn about the negative attitude of the General Staff towards Jewish tradition, and towards soldiers who come from Torah educational frameworks in which the laws of modesty are meticulously maintained (and this being one of the reasons for the establishment of such schools).

The Issue of Female Singers

Almost all poskim (Jewish law arbiters) forbid men to hear a live performance by a female singer because of the laws of modesty. This has always been the custom of members of the Torani community, and the custom in the IDF was not to force religious soldiers to hear female singers. In 2011, when soldiers in an IDF officers’ course were ordered to hear female singers and some of them walked-out, the Commander of Bahad 1 (the well-known school for officers) Eran Niv, and the Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Uzi Kliger, decided to dismiss them from the course. The incident got wide coverage, and sparked a public uproar. The “high priests” of the Leftist faith and feminism resented the insult to women singers and the principle of equality, and demanded that it be unequivocally determined that henceforth, religious soldiers would be forced to participate in ceremonies where female singers appeared. All of the establishment, secular-leftist media took their side, demanding that in the name of “principles of freedom and equality”, the IDF General Staff compel religious soldiers to hear female singers.

The General Staff obeyed the media’s orders, and arranged a discussion on examining the integration of men and women in the IDF. It was decided that in official state events, such as memorial services and training completion, all soldiers would have to attend – even if women sang – and this, “without leaving room for the discretion of commanders.” The Chief of Staff also determined that “women soldiers will continue to sing at all IDF events.” Nevertheless, in other recreational events which included women singing, commanders would be allowed to permit soldiers not to participate. In other words, even in recreational events, if the commanders ordered a soldier to participate in an appearance of a female singer – if the soldier left the event, he would be punished for violating the order.

The Demand of the Military Rabbinate

In order to pass this decision, senior IDF officers requested from the Military Rabbinate to determine halakha that soldiers are permitted to hear women sing. The Military Rabbinate was put in an awkward position; public outcry was fierce, and the attacks against the Rabbinate increased. There was fear that insisting on the right of a soldier to walk out of a performance by a woman singer would lead to an enormous onslaught by the “high priests” of the Leftist faith and the media in opposition to the Military Rabbinate, and would thus jeopardize more important principles.

Members of the ‘Halakha Branch’ of the Military Rabbinate, headed by Rabbi Eyal Krim, found a heter (halachic permission), according to which religious soldiers could lower their eyes, and remain in their program while women sang.

The Halachic Issue

Our sages said: “A tefach (handbreadth) exposed in a woman constitutes sexual incitement”; and, “A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement” (Berachot 24a). In the opinion of the majority of Rishonim (leading poskim from 11th to 15th century) this refers to “fences” the rabbis set owing to modesty, in order to distance men and women from the serious sin of incest and the break-down of families. Some Rishonim are of the opinion that this is a special prohibition concerning devarim she’b’kedushah (matters involving sanctification) that when recited, one is required to avoid things that could distract his attention.

In practice, almost all Achronim (leading poskim from the 16th century to the present) are machmir (stringent), and this is the custom of all members of the Haredi and Torani communities. However, seeing as there are Rishonim whom those wishing to be lenient and hear women singing in a dignified and modest framework can rely upon, some religious people in civilian life act leniently, and they should not be opposed (see a summary of the issue on the website of Yeshiva Har Bracha). If many contemporary poskim were to lean towards the lenient opinion, in the future this position may become the accepted ruling. But only on condition that it is accepted for the right reasons, in other words, out of internal considerations and pressures of the religiously observant, wishing to clarify the correct and appropriate way to balance between modesty and the desire to give maximum expression to the talent of female singers. However, in no way can the pressure to be lenient come from secular coercion, let alone from military commands. On the contrary, the more tainted the ruling is by outside influences, so will its significance be reduced.

The Responsibility of National Frameworks

In a compulsory and enforced national framework such as the IDF, all categories of society, to the greatest extent possible, should be taken into account in order to create as common and as broad a base as possible. Thus, regarding the laws of kashrut for example, we tend to lean towards the side of chumra (stringency), in order to include the opinions of most halachic authorities. The same holds true concerning matters of hygiene and rules of conduct, in which we operate according to strict criteria despite the very high costs – including throwing out a lot of food for fear of it being damaged.

Likewise, the principles of the liberal Left are also taken into great consideration, as also reflected in decisions of the Supreme Court, according to which there are now many women soldiers integrated into combat units, despite all the difficulties and operational failures this type of integration causes.

At the very least, shouldn’t the same respect and treatment be given to Jewish tradition, which symbolizes the broadest and most solid basis for the state and the army, and for that reason, determine that even if ceremonies with women singers are held, at the very least, an observant soldier has the right not to attend the ceremony, or the segment which opposes his values ​​and way of life?

A Military Rabbi is Not the Mara d’Atra

As a result of the steady erosion of the status of the Military Rabbinate, which also reflects a dismissive attitude towards Jewish tradition, I wrote a number of times that unfortunately, the IDF Chief Rabbi no longer has the authority of mara d’atra (the local rabbinic authority), whose instructions and halachic rulings are binding, seeing as he does not have the independence required to be a mara d’atra. This does not mean that the role of Chief IDF Rabbi and other army rabbis are not important; on the contrary, their value is immense. The task of giving expression to the spirit of Israel in the army, helping soldiers observe the Torah and commandments, and preserving the sanctity of the military camp rests on their shoulders. Even from the perspective of halakha, military rabbis should ideally be asked all questions, since they are familiar with the subject, and with their answers, can also solve the problem from its core, seeing as they are in constant contact with the soldiers and commanders alike. And needless to say, I have no intention of marring the personal merits of the Chief IDF rabbis, to whom I have great respect as Torah scholars and men of virtue, and with whom I am friendly.

The job of Chief Rabbi of the IDF is not easy. For example, the present Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Peretz, has a particularly problematic Chief of Staff and IDF Chief of Human Resources (Rosh Aka) to deal with, yet thanks to the virtue of his personality, he has been very influential. But not all matters are in hands, because he is subordinate to them.

What is a Mara d’ Atra?

The literal meaning of mara d’atra is ‘master of the place’; in other words, the person who everyone listens to. In the past, the intention was a rabbi who was listened to in all matters of religious law and morality, including wage agreements and strikes. When the status of the rabbinate became weakened, the authority of the rabbi was reduced to the field of halakha alone. Nevertheless, when a community chose a rabbi, they undertook to abide by his halachic rulings. The Chief IDF Rabbi, however, is dependent on his superiors; it is forbidden for him to publish any halachic decision that has public implications without express approval of his superiors and the IDF spokesman. If he publishes a halakha in contradiction to the position of his superiors – he is discharged. In such a situation, he clearly lacks the authority of mara d’atra, rather, that of a senior officer and advisor of religious affairs to the Chief of Staff, as defined in the IDF commands. Moreover, a mara d’atra has to be chosen by God-fearing people with the purpose of strengthening Torah and observance of mitzvot, and not by secular officers whose interests are vastly different.

The Military Advocate General is Not Subordinate

One can learn about the status of the Chief IDF Rabbi by comparing it to that of the Military Advocate General. In an effort to strengthen the status and independence of the Military Advocate General, it was determined that in terms of matters of command, he is subordinate to the Chief of Staff, but in matters of law, he is not subject to him, but to the law. In addition, to strengthen his standing it was determined that he would be appointed by the Minister of Defense with the recommendation of the Chief of Staff, and that his rank would be Colonel, as opposed to the Chief IDF Rabbi who is appointed by the Chief of Staff, and has the lower rank of Brigadier General.

The Selection Process of Rabbi Krim

To our shame, this also happened in the election process of the next Chief IDF Rabbi, Rabbi Eyal Krim, shlita, who is a great Torah scholar and an outstanding combat officer, who served as a commander in the Sayeret Matkal (Special IDF Forces), and commander in the Sayeret Tzanchanim (Special Paratrooper Forces). For many generations the Jewish nation has waited for rabbis who combine safra and seifa (book and sword) as wonderfully as he does. However, the manner in which he was appointed shows just how subordinate he is to military leaders, and not free to express the position of Jewish law.

When allegations arose against his appointment to be the Chief IDF Rabbi, the head of Human Resources, Major General Hagai Topolanski, summoned him for a clarification discussion. As a soldier before his superior, the future Chief IDF Rabbi had to explain his remarks, and declare that he opposes the implementation of the law concerning eishet yifat toar (a non-Jewish woman captured in battle) in our times, and that he supports the service of women in the IDF (Arutz Sheva, 6 Tammuz, 5775).

When the complaints increased, Rabbi Krim had to publish a letter of clarification to all IDF soldiers, which stated in part: “The Chief Rabbi of the IDF, like all IDF soldiers and officers, is subject to the Chief of Staff and the military hierarchy. It is inconceivable that a soldier or commander go against orders. This is true both in non-combative times and in times of conflict…” Afterwards, the Chief of Staff summoned the future Chief Rabbi for an urgent clarification meeting, in which Rabbi Krim explained to the Chief of Staff that “he sees it as an obligation and necessity for women to serve in the IDF.” At the end of the conversation it was published, in the name of the Chief of Staff, that the appointment of Rabbi Krim remained in effect (Arutz Sheva and Channel 2, 3 Tammuz, 5775).

How Should Representatives of the Military Rabbinate Act?

It would be appropriate for representatives of the Military Rabbinate to say to their commanders: Being subject to military command, we have no authority to discuss this issue. Therefore, it is better we focus on fulfilling our role prescribed by law, to advise commanders on matters of religion. In other words, to describe the halachic issue to the General Staff, and the accepted custom among the various religious circles, to recommend not to force religious soldiers to hear female singers, and thus, conclude their share in the issue.

Therefore, it is important to emphasize that the Military Rabbi, however important, does not have the authority of mara d’atra. In the present situation, such a position will not weaken the status of the Military Rabbi, but enhance it, as a mediator between the IDF and independent rabbis free to represent Jewish tradition.

The Obligation to Rise in Opposition

For the sake of the Israeli army, which is obligated to honor Jewish tradition, it is our duty to rise up in opposition against these orders. This obligation is imposed on public officials, first and foremost, the Defense Minister and his deputy, and upon every soldier and officer.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.