In the Eyes of One Rabbi, IDF Soldiers May Be Better Off Dead

In a fanatical reaction to warm ultra-Orthodox support for the IDF in Gaza, Rabbi Yisroel Yitzchok Kalmanovitz preaches that it's better for soldiers to die in battle than to live as sinners.

Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan
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IDF troops stand atop a tank near the Gaza border, July 29, 2014.
IDF troops stand atop a tank near the Gaza border, July 29, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan

A wave of warm feelings for the Israel Defense Forces swept over Israel’s ultra-Orthodox citizens in recent weeks, and was expressed in prayer, study and the recitation of Psalms on its behalf. However, it turns out that not all ultra-Orthodox people share the same sentiments.

Rabbi Yisroel Yitzchok Kalmanovitz, of the fanatical Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Jerusalemite sect, is not at all enthusiastic about praying for soldiers. We can live with this because, in the end, many ultra-Orthodox people did pray for them. But it is a bit harder to accept the arguments he offered: Apparently, from a spiritual perspective, it is better for the soldiers to die in Gaza as martyrs than it is for them to live and continue to sin.

Specifically, Kalmanovitz’s two arguments are: 1. A person who is killed by a gentile is considered a saint. (A question for the honorable rabbi: Is it also better to be killed in crossfire, and if one is killed by friendly fire, does sainthood not apply?). 2. During wartime, people have thoughts of repentance, and it is better to be killed before returning to sin. (A question for the honorable rabbi: When he says that in wartime people consider repentance, is he speaking from personal knowledge? Stories from members of his family? A survey of a representative sample? A secret report from the Department of Thoughts of Repentance at the IDF Manpower Directorate? Or maybe he hasn’t a clue as to how a soldier looks or thinks?)

A few more questions elicited by the rabbi’s remarks: Is it preferable for religious Zionist soldiers, who ostensibly sin less than secular soldiers, to survive? What about ultra-Orthodox soldiers? And what about Druze soldiers, who aren’t required to obey all the mitzvahs?

It is important to dispel the fog.

Here are Kalmanovitz’s remarks verbatim, in a sermon in Bnei Brak last week, as published (in Hebrew) in the blog B’olamum shel haredim: “If we find that a person killed by a gentile is called a saint, it requires great judgment to determine what is most beneficial to him: to live and be subject to being cut off [from the Jewish people], [to be] desecrators of the Sabbath, eaters of pork or not, or to be killed by a gentile and called a saint. What is better? Is it necessary to pray that he not be killed – who can say? Putting a fine point on this, there are those who say that when a person goes to a dangerous place, there are some thoughts of repentance. And if a person considers repentance a bit and afterward is killed, after repentance – being killed brings absolution. But if he returns to his previous ways, what will happen? He will commit all the sins again, which demands being cut off, demands death sentences from a rabbinical court ... It will all be done.”

Does Kalmanovitz really love soldiers so much that, because of this love, he believes that perhaps it is better for them to die? Not for certain. This, at least, is indicated by another sentence in that same sermon: “How much does the soul of a son of Israel, especially a Torah learner, need to be disgusted in order to loathe the state and its army, [which] are the greatest haters of all of the whole of Israel, inciters and agitators.”

Well, we have to admit that must of us, including this writer, never heard of Kalmanovitz until now. Perhaps he is not sufficiently important? Oh, but he is. Strange as this may sound to secular readers, he is considered an important spiritual figure. In discussions this week in ultra-Orthodox frameworks in the social media, he was defined as a saint, as a just man and as an incredible scholar. He is also considered one of the top rabbis in the fanatical Jerusalemite faction of the Lithuanian community headed by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. This is the group that opposes reporting to the IDF recruitment centers, even to obtain an exemption from army service.

This story is so difficult that part of the debate about it concerns whether it’s right even to publicize it – and if so, how. I chose to bring it up on my Facebook page on Tisha B’Av (the fast day commemorating the destruction of the great Temples) this week because I thought this was an excellent time to discuss such tremendous hatred. But there are those who think this was not the right time.

A key point is that, even though Kalmanovitz is an important rabbi, his is an exceptional and isolated voice. The ultra-Orthodox public has backed the IDF and its soldiers in an impressive way. Why is it so important to me to preserve the image of the ultra-Orthodox public? As readers may recall, following passage of the Conscription Law in March, great hostility developed within the ultra-Orthodox community toward the IDF and its soldiers. The enthusiasm for the army in recent weeks will probably not lead to masses of conscripts from that community, but it might well put conscription of Haredi men back on the track it was on prior to the Conscription Law, lead to fulfillment of the government’s aims for the law, and spare us all a painful social conflict.

Isn’t this a good reason for trying to prevent another clash with the Haredim?

Kalmanovitz’s remarks must also be understood in the context of the Jerusalemite sect’s great anxiety over the enthusiasm for the IDF and the soldiers that has captivated the ultra-Orthodox community. That’s all they need – for the Conscription Law to start to work.

Shahar Ilan is a former Haaretz correspondent. He is now vice president for research and information for Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious tolerance.



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