Reform the army rabbinate

Published in The Jerusalem Post on February 6, 2000

Within ten days, the Winograd Committee will report on its investigation of the misidentification of IDF naval commandos killed in Lebanon two years ago. The report will place heavy responsibility for the tragic mix-up of bodies on the army rabbinate, and thus will re-open calls for the resignation of IDF Chief Rabbi Maj. Gen. Gad Navon and for reform of the rabbinical corps.


Indeed, it is high time to radically revamp the rabbinate in our armed forces. Over the past two decades, the army rabbinate has faded into virtual oblivion, shorn of real responsibility or influence – beyond the keeping of kosher and minimal preservation of the Sabbath in IDF facilities. The main reason for this decay is the creeping haredization of the army rabbinate.


You can count on one hand the number of IDF rabbis (out of 90 or so in professional service) who have served full combat duty out of Zionist commitment or who possess an academic degree. Few of *their* sons serve in the IDF. Few of them can be found on weekends and holidays on base, talking and ministering to the troops.


Ironically, today there are more national-religious soldiers in active service and in combat and senior officer posts than ever before. But they have almost no need for, or recourse to, the marginalized army rabbinate. Today’s religious soldier, likely a paratrooper or tank specialist, has his Hesder Yeshiva rabbis to turn to when necessary. And he most likely has a superior officer — himself religious and halachically-knowledgeable – to consult with, as well.


Worse still is the fact that the army rabbinate’s voice is not heard, neither in the religious nor secular communities, on the key moral issues of the day: sexual harassment and violence in the army, the advancement of women, the treatment of terrorists and prisoners, limits on the use of force in a democratic society, conflicts between religious belief and the chain of command, the religious and moral ramifications of shirking reserve duty, etc.


Instead, the army rabbinate has ghettoized itself, haredi style, and limited its scope of concern to narrow sectoral and halachic-technical issues. No doubt that this situation suits some IDF senior brass just fine. I think that it is a shame and a missed opportunity.


Gad Navon, who is almost the last of the Zionist IDF rabbis, is expected to retire this year after 23 years (!) in office. All of a sudden, Shas and Degel Hatorah are very interested in the army chief rabbi post. The army rabbinate has become a great *kollel* for them – lots of tenured jobs. Their man is the ultra-conservative Col. Yisrael Zingerovitch, one of Navon’s deputies.


If there is to be any hope of transforming the rabbinical corps into a spiritual and educational force relevant to secular Israel and the Israeli army of the twenty-first century – Zingerovitch is the *last* guy who should get the job!


The next IDF Chief Rabbi should be an enlightened figure, someone capable of connecting to modern Israeli and army reality. He should be somebody who cares to teach Jewish values to secular soldiers; and democracy to religious soldiers. He should be someone who unabashedly upholds the positive religious and Zionist ideal of army service as a *mitzvah*.


Properly re-oriented with “Klal Yisrael” as its focus, the IDF Rabbinate also can serve as an important counter-weight, even an alternative, to the haredized civilian Chief Rabbinate run by Rabbis Lau and Bakshi-Doron. In matters of personal status such as marriage, conversion and the freeing of *agunot*, the army rabbinate should return to the liberal and activist role it played under its founding Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren.


The Minister for World Jewish Community Affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchior, recently suggested utilizing the army rabbinate as a friendlier, more moderate vehicle for the conversion of Russian immigrants – a promising, wonderful idea.


But for this to be possible, the next IDF Chief Rabbi also must be a Zionist Torah scholar with broad halachic shoulders, capable of ruling authoritatively in controversial matters – without constantly having to look over his right shoulder.


One possibility is Col. Yoel Nachshon, a Navon deputy of all-together different mettle. Nachshon is a hesder graduate and a paratrooper who holds two graduate degrees (history and law) and who has distinguished himself in Zionist educational service beyond the army, in Israel and abroad. There are other forward-thinking rabbis like Nachshon in the reserves, as well.


The IDF does not need a Major General as rabbinical commissar to blow-torch pots before Passover; provide *kiddush* wine; or to ride shotgun on the Sabbath, hopelessly attempting to close down Friday night discos on base. Any chaplain can do this.


The Israel Defense Forces does need a charismatic high-ranking Rabbi-educator to overhaul the rabbinical corps; to play a central role in crafting the moral character of our fighters; and to help produce an Israeli soldier and citizen who is more knowledgeable of his and her Jewish heritage and more committed to the homeland.


Let’s hope that the right choice is made.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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