As a Religious IDF Officer, Which Version of Yizkor Do You Prefer?

Head to Head: an interview with Elazar Stern.

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Elazar Stern, chairman of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, headed the Israel Defense Forces' manpower branch from 2004 to 2008. Before that, he held various command positions with the paratroopers, led the Bahad 1 officer training school and was chief IDF education officer.

In his various positions, he often dealt with civilian issues, and as a senior religious officer, he was criticized by the extreme right and the religious establishment during the Gaza pullout. He was also criticized for his attempt to lengthen active service for hesder yeshiva students. Since his discharge, he has dealt mostly with social and educational projects.

stern - Tomer Appelbaum - June 21 2011
Tomer Appelbaum

Elazar Stern, were you surprised by the intense emotions in the debate on whether to recite the words "May God remember" or "May the Jewish people remember" at military memorial ceremonies?

I was very surprised by the debate because I have never dealt with this. I've been to ceremonies, and one time I heard "May the Jewish people remember" and another time "God," and it never bothered me. On the other hand, the emotions did not surprise me at all - memorializing in the State of Israel is a powerful and loaded subject.

As a religious person and a former senior IDF officer, what do you consider the preferable version?

It's important to stress that at ceremonies we always recite two prayers - Yizkor and El Maleh Rahamim [God Who is Full of Compassion]. And so far no one has gotten up and complained about El Maleh Rahamim, so the Lord of the Universe surely remembers the fallen soldiers from Israel's wars.

The challenge for us is to ensure that the Jewish people remember, and in the absence of religious protocol on this ... our remembering is a very important challenge. So it doesn't bother me at all that "May the Jewish people remember" is recited, especially as it is said alongside El Maleh Rahamim, because I really think we have to make a concerted effort for the people to remember.

But many religious people feel that Berl Katznelson's wording is a blow to the religious source, the Yizkor prayer, and removes God from the picture.

I actually think it's a very nice adaptation. Taking things from the tradition and applying them to the Israeliness of today does not damage the tradition. There is no contradiction here, there is the depth of the word "Yizkor" from the perspective of taking it out of the synagogue but still leaving it connected. It's clear to us where the whole concept of this prayer is coming from.

But some see the attempt to recite "May God remember" as another sign of the religious community's growing influence in the IDF.

Not necessarily, after all, when Chief IDF Rabbi Shlomo Goren instituted this in the 1960s, the religious were a small minority in the army. I would separate this entire discussion from the number of religious soldiers in the army ....

So you think that the chief of staff should change the order to recite "May God remember"?

It's a discussion that should take place well beyond the army. There is a committee in the Defense Ministry that deals with matters of memorializing, there are also representatives from academia and Yad Labanim [a group that deals with soldiers' welfare and commemoration of the fallen]. They should be the ones to discuss the matter.

It didn't just happen that the military cemeteries are not the chief of staff's responsibility. They belong to the nation .... If I were to appear before this committee, I would say let them recite "May the people remember" and El Maleh Rahamim.

Are you aware that there are secular people who feel it's a form of religious coercion by the army?

During the Second Lebanon War, bereaved families contacted me and requested that a reform woman rabbi recite something, in addition to the religious military ceremony in the cemeteries. I said I had no problem with that, and then they asked what would happen if she recited a prayer, and I said it wasn't a problem. I don't check ahead of time the texts to be recited by the people a family wishes to have speak. I approved it and it was also acceptable to representative of the IDF rabbinate .... These fights in the end take us to the wrong places.

Are you worried that the religious community's insistence on reciting "May God remember" may distance secular people from the Memorial Day ceremonies?

Every time religiosity comes from a place of force, we get burned in the end. I certainly wouldn't fight over this. Take Tisha B'Av for example. The memorial day for the destruction of the Temple has a religious protocol only, and in practice it doesn't interest secular people. There's a danger that this can happen with us too, perhaps not today, but please God, in the future when there is peace. We know how the Americans treat their Memorial Day. There it's basically a day for shopping. We want to mobilize the entire nation in the effort to remember the IDF's fallen soldiers and not leave it in the small domain of the religious.

This is not the first clash between religious and secular values when it comes to remembering the IDF's fallen soldiers. There was a similar debate on whether it is permissible to add the secular date to the inscriptions on tombstones in military cemeteries.

There is a minefield here between the desires of the collective and the individual, between constantly clashing values. And the trick is not to fight against them but to find a way to include them all, to recite "May the people of Israel" alongside El Maleh Rahamim. We don't have to worry about God remembering our fallen soldiers. He surely remembers them.