Friday, January 15, 2016

"Beheading" the IDF Rabbinate

By Rabbi Yisrael Rosen 
Dean of the Zomet Institute

"It sometimes happens that decrees are cancelled" [Ketuvot 3b].

According to recent news reports, the threat of budget cuts in the IDF includes the Rabbinate. This "decree" could be justified if it is being undertaken in the interests of greater efficiency, modernization, and the like. The Chief of Staff is leading a multiyear program of budget cuts in the parts of the army which are not directly involved in combat, by reducing staff and making changes in contracts of outside workers, along with other elements. I wish him well! Here is a news item from a few months ago giving some more details: "The IDF is proposing an across-the-board reduction of about 6% in staff as part of the multiyear 'Gideon' plan. The reduction will have an effect on such departments as military censorship, the Rabbinate, the legal department, the education corps, the department of behavioral science, the trackers, and others." Among other things, the commander-in-chief stated his position that there is no justification to pay for Galei Tzahal, the IDF radio station, from the budget of the Defense Ministry. More power to him! On the other hand, those who defend Galei Tzahal feel that a country like Israel which is under constant siege and is surrounded by enemies must operate a "spare" radio service for emergencies – but this is not our topic for this article.

In the realm of the IDF Rabbinate, I feel that there are three separate issues, and I would like to comment on them. They are: (1) Dissolution/ reduction of the "Jewish awareness" branch of the service, or transferring it to the Education Corps; (2) Transfer of kashrut issues in the IDF into civilian hands, doing away with the uniformed Kashrut supervisors; and (3) Demotions of a large number of rabbis to lower military ranks.

The Jewish Fighting Spirit

When the "Religious Service" of the IDF was founded in 5708 (1948), as a precursor of the IDF Rabbinate, it did not have a defined mission of "Instilling a Fighting Spirit" within the army. This branch was established by the Chief Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, and it was greatly strengthened by his replacement, Rabbi Avichai Ronsky.

(As it happens, the first head of the "Religious Service" was my late father-in-law, Natan Gordi, who was in charge of these matters in the Haganah, before the State of Israel was formed. The "Chief Rabbinate" of the IDF was established when Rabbi Shlomo Goren was appointed as its head.)

I fully support this mission of the fighting spirit, which is in line with the task of the "Kohen anointed for war," whose role was to encourage and to nurture high morale among the soldiers in ancient times. The success of this department was greatly begrudged by the "secular" Education Corps in the IDF. Much noisy and troublesome criticism was whispered into the ears of the Chiefs of Staff for many generations by the "education" officers who were jealous of their newer "colleagues." The "Jewish Awareness" branch is a case where the Chief Rabbinate put aside its more mundane tasks involving the utensils in the kitchens, supplying religious articles, and organizing funerals (all very important roles), and broke out into the realm of waging war. The branch fit very well with the growing trend of an increase in the number of religious soldiers in command positions. Those who oppose this trend invented a new derogatory term for this situation: " Hadata" – to make the army more religious!

As far as I am concerned, it would be best to cancel this function of "Jewish Awareness" in the IDF rather than hand it over to the Education Corps. Evidence of the "Jewish values" which characterize this body is the fact that an important position within the Corps is held by a woman who is a Reform "Rabbah."

Privatization of Kashrut in the IDF

As far as this issue is concerned, I am not one of those who react to the idea with "astonishment, shock, and agitation." More than once I stated my position in this column in favor of privatization of religious services, first and foremost in the realm of kashrut. Of course, this means that the Chief Rabbinate of the IDF will continue to be the "regulator" – in charge of setting standards, and hiring and firing the enterprises which will provide the service. But the actual kashrut supervisors will not necessarily wear an IDF uniform. On the contrary – in my dim memories of army service, I find it hard to remember meeting any soldiers who were highly motivated to be kashrut supervisors.

I am not at all sure that privatization of the kashrut in the IDF will save any money, and I do not see an eager work force just waiting to fill the ranks of the new companies. In any case, if food preparation will be removed from the direct responsibility of the IDF, and the legendary army cooks will be replaced more and more by external "catering services," there is no reason for kashrut alone to remain as a strictly military task. If the goal is modernization, go for it – as long as you are willing to pay the price. And here the price includes finding military roles for the IDF kashrut supervisors and their spiritual offspring. And I have one more secondary but significant comment: If anybody is lookingfor a suitable military role for the large number of Chareidim who are expected to join the IDF, it might be a pity not to continue the classic approach to kashrut, which is very suitable for Chareidim, family men who must do their service close to home. Has anybody thought about this aspect of the issue?

"Do not Touch my Rabbis"

The idea is to lower the military ranks of all of the rabbis in the IDF. Those who plan this feel, for example, that it is enough for a rabbi of a regional command to be a major and not a colonel, with all the lower-level rabbis to follow in the same pattern. The truth is that I am not familiar with all the military roles and the current hierarchy in the army. One thing I can say for sure: The rabbis in the IDF are appreciated and respected within their surroundings, wherever they go, because of their military rank. The hierarchy is the heart of the military structure, and a rank is not merely a medallion to be worn on the clothing. It provides status and authority, along with the personal leadership traits of the officer. I have nothing to say about the roles of officers who are not rabbis, but in general I say, "Don't touch my rabbis!"

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