Amending the prayer for the IDF
All too often, soldiers (and Israelis in general) fail to make the distinction between genuinely evil and innocent protesters.
In recent months, thanks to the combination of cell phone cameras and YouTube, we’ve witnessed Israel Defense Force soldiers acting in deeply troubling ways. We’ve seen soldiers standing by while a civilian shoots live ammunition at Palestinian protesters, we saw Lt. Col. Shaul Eisner assault an unarmed Danish civilian with the butt of a rifle, and, before that, the killing at close range of Mustafa Tamimi, a protester in the Palestinian village Nebi Saleh. Many of these occurrences are regularly reported in Haaretz, but they don’t find their way as often, or as prominently, into other media outlets.
The most generous explanation for this phenomenon is that individuals, in a series of isolated incidents, fail to uphold the IDF code of conduct. More sobering explanations point to a widespread culture in the IDF whereby such conduct is tolerated and routine. Indeed, when the Eisner case was reported, the most shocking aspect of the YouTube video was the utter indifference to Eisner’s act by the six or seven other soldiers milling around. What we saw as a horrific, unforgiveable, outrage, they saw as boring and un-noteworthy.
I was on the receiving end of such an incident last year, while I was observing a non-violent demonstration against the occupation in the West Bank, and got caught up in tear gas that was fired indiscriminately at women, children, and observers. Since then, I’ve found it hard to say the prayer for the IDF that appears in all Israeli prayer books, and which my community, like most synagogues in Israel, reads aloud every Shabbat.
The prayer, written by Rabbi Shlomo Goren in the early years of the state, does not, to my mind, adequately respond to the ethical challenges that IDF soldiers face in exercising power over civilian communities, where things are much more complicated than state-against-state war.
But our response to troubling issues cannot simply to be cease from engagement with the issue. That’s true if the troubling issue is, say, Eishet Hayil (the poem traditionally sung by a husband to a wife on Friday night; while parts of it are beautiful, parts of it are also rather sexist); and it is also true if the troubling issue is inappropriate use of force by the IDF.
As engaged Jews who love the Jewish tradition but are troubled by particular aspects of it, my wife and I sing an amended version of Eishet Hayil on Friday nights. In doing this, we join countless other Jews who try to develop an active relationship with liturgy that more closely reflects their values.
As engaged Jewish Zionists, the time has come to do the same with the prayer for the IDF. Below is my suggested rewrite. The text is the regular version of the prayer found in the popular Rinat Israel siddur. The bold sections are my suggested additions.
מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבותֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקב הוּא יְבָרֵךְ אֶת חַיָּלֵי צְבָא הֲגַנָּה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, הָעומְדִים עַל מִשְׁמַר אַרְצֵנוּ וְעָרֵי אֱלהֵינוּ מִגְּבוּל הַלְּבָנון וְעַד מִדְבַּר מִצְרַיִם וּמִן הַיָּם הַגָּדול עַד לְבוא הָעֲרָבָה בַּיַּבָּשָׁה בָּאֲוִיר וּבַיָּם. יִתֵּן ה' אֶת אויְבֵינוּ הַקָּמִים עָלֵינוּ נִגָּפִים לִפְנֵיהֶם. הַקָּדושׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִשְׁמר וְיַצִּיל אֶת חַיָלֵינוּ מִכָּל צָרָה וְצוּקָה וּמִכָּל נֶגַע וּמַחְלָה וְיִשְׁלַח בְּרָכָה וְהַצְלָחָה בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵיהֶם. יִתֵּן ה' לְחַיָלֵינוּ חָכְמָה, בִּינָה וְדַעַת, שְׁלֹא יִסְפּוּ צָדִיק עִם רָשָׁע, כְּמוֹ שְׁכָתוּב בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ, חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְ--הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. יַדְבֵּר שׂונְאֵינוּ תַּחְתֵּיהֶם וִיעַטְרֵם בְּכֶתֶר יְשׁוּעָה וּבְעֲטֶרֶת נִצָּחון. וִיקֻיַּם בָּהֶם הַכָּתוּב: כִּי ה' אֱלהֵיכֶם הַהלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם לְהִלָּחֵם לָכֶם עִם איבֵיכֶם לְהושִׁיעַ אֶתְכֶם: וְנאמַר אָמֵן:
May God, who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea to the Aravah, on land, in the air, and on the sea. May the Lord cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy Blessed One preserve and rescue our soldiers from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may God send blessing and success in their every endeavor. May the Lord give our soldiers wisdom, understanding, and insight, so that they do not destroy the righteous with the wicked, as it is written in Your Torah: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating them the same. Far be it from you – should the Judge of all the Earth not do justice?” May God cause our enemies to submit before our soldiers, and may God grant them salvation and crown them with victory. And may there be fulfilled for them the verse: “For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you,” and let us say, Amen.
The Biblical verse quoted is from the story of Sodom and Gemorrah, where Abraham berates God for seeking to harm innocent people along with the wicked. To my mind, it’s an extremely appropriate analogy to much of what goes on today: there are wicked people out there who seek to harm us, and it’s good that the army protects us from them. But all too often, some soldiers (and some Israelis in general) don’t do enough to distinguish between those who are genuinely evil, and innocent people (including Palestinians, left-wing Israelis, and internationals) who are legitimately protesting the occupation. Amending the prayer for the IDF is one way to raise awareness about that uncomfortable fact, and begin a public, Jewish, Zionist conversation about it.
Dr. Alex Sinclair is director of programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He runs Kesher Hadash, the Davidson School of JTS's Semester in Israel program. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of JTS.