Rabbinate Without Borders

The IDF is changing before our eyes. It speaks a different language than it did a decade ago.

Capt. David Shapira, the paratroop officer who stopped a killing spree in Jerusalem's Mercaz Harav Yeshiva last March by killing the terrorist, recalled his experience on Monday in an interview with Army Radio. Divine grace, he told interviewer Ilana Dayan, was with him that night. He did not assault the terrorist with his M-16 rifle alone; he was guided by the divine power of faith.

Shapira is not exceptional. At an Israel Defense Forces conference a few weeks ago a battalion commander protested what he viewed as the critical tone of guest lecturers from outside the army. "I have soldiers who were killed for the sanctity of the land in Gaza," he said. The lecturers were upset: since when do IDF soldiers talk like that? But the officer refused to concede. Upon leaving the conference, he encountered a brigadier general who encouraged him. Don't let them confuse you, the brigadier general advised the lieutenant colonel. You're right. Incidentally, both officers are secular.

The IDF is changing before our eyes. It speaks a different language than it did a decade ago. This change has not been imposed from above; it came from below, from the platoon and company commanders. There is no point or justification for fighting this development when some 40 percent of recent officer course graduates wear skullcaps. The left's response - that it must send more kibbutz members to officers' school in order to "stop the religious takeover" - sounds arrogant and empty. Whether due to education, ideology or achievement orientation, the fact is that the religious Zionist community sends its sons to front-line units and officers' courses in greater numbers than any other segment of society. The army will have to learn to meet them halfway on noncritical issues. A religious combat soldier should not be forced to listen to a female singer or be taught by female sports instructors wearing shorts.

But there are times when the army gets confused. A good example is the behavior of the IDF's chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Ronski. Two months ago, Haaretz published an investigative report on how the rabbinate has taken over the IDF's educational programs and injected extremist content into the explanatory talks it gives to soldiers. Since then, new evidence has accumulated. Ronski gives Torah classes in jails, including to convicted Jewish terrorists; the rabbinate conducted a tour of Hebron for soldiers in Military Intelligence in which they met with Rabbi Dov Lior (who compared the dismantling of the Federman Farm outpost to his family's expulsion by the Gestapo); a settler accused of assaulting and wounding Palestinians is currently spending his house arrest in Ronski's home.

In response to the Haaretz report, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi instructed the head of the IDF's Personnel Directorate to reexamine the boundaries between the Education Corps and the rabbinate. Since then, however, not much has changed. In a recent letter to his staff, Ronski informed them that it was business as usual.

A green folder in Ronski's office contains printouts of the emails he received following the Haaretz report. The commander of the Golani Brigade's reconnaissance unit, the commander of the Shavta Base and the chief medical officer's aide in charge of dentistry all expressed shock at Haaretz's "tendentious and baseless" reports and encouraged him to continue his important work. Ronski is convinced that the troops are with him.

In his view, the Torah is not Judaica; it is not a museum exhibit. Its essence is its national aspect, the connection to the Land of Israel. He is not the chief rabbi for religious soldiers only, nor is he the army's chief kashrut supervisor. That is not why he returned to full-time service after 30 years in the reserves. If his activities are restricted, he would prefer to return to his 200 students at the yeshiva in the settlement of Itamar, most of whom are combat soldiers.

Next October, his term of office expires. Ronski is afraid that his successor will be more in the "Zionist ultra-Orthodox" mode - a group that causes less consternation among the influential leftist media, which he himself refuses to read.

In Ronski's view, his staff has merely filled the vacuum left by the Education Corps. A Shabbat in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, under the rabbinate's auspices, is preferable to a vacation weekend in Ashkelon. On one side of the scale is values-based education, to bolster the recruits' morale by finally showing them what they are fighting for. On the other is the "Sunday culture" of stand-up comics and American movies.

Ronski consistently preaches against draft dodging - a view that requires a non-negligible amount of fortitude given his ideological milieu. He has greatly strengthened the rabbinate's connection with combat units and introduced more reserve combat officers into the rabbinate's ranks. But overall, the impression is that no one is supervising or counterbalancing the messages his rabbis are giving combat soldiers - least of all the IDF chief rabbi himself, who has said in private conversations that in his view, "overall, a religious soldier fights better than a secular one."

That is a narrow-minded, arrogant view that reflects contempt not only for the Education Corps, but for the army's (still) secular majority. Its rationale is also dubious: If the IDF failed in Lebanon two years ago because of its "combat values," as Ronski claims, how does that fit with the fact that so many of the junior officers were religious, and thus presumably brimming with values?

Ashkenazi did not appoint Ronski as the IDF's chief rabbi; he inherited him from his predecessor as chief of staff, Dan Halutz. But it seems that he would be wise to summon Ronski and make it clear, once and for all, where the boundaries of an IDF chief rabbi's activity and speech properly lie.