Chief Military Rabbi Made Strong Impact During Gaza War

Brig. Gen. Rabbi Rafi Peretz coped well with the difficult halakhik questions of establishing death and mourning rules.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz
IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi PeretzCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

In recent years the IDF’s Chief Rabbinate has been making headlines mainly for controversial activities to advance “Jewish awareness,” but in the past month it was faced with the stark reality of its duty – identifying the dead and bringing them to burial. Its mission was to establish the deaths of soldiers whose bodies were taken by Hamas, and it did this.

Brig. Gen. Rabbi Rafi Peretz was never seen as a halakhic authority by the rabbinical world. But in Operation Protective Edge he took a courageous step and set up a special rabbinical court that determined the death of Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul and Lieutenant Hadar Goldin based on advanced medical opinions. He issued a clear ruling, taking an approach that was both humane and personal vis-a-vis the bereaved families.

Establishing death and mourning rules in the absence of a body raises difficult halakhic questions. Peretz consulted with halakhic figures outside the army and kept the chief rabbis in the picture. But he made the decisions himself. The panel he headed with Col. Rabbi Eyal Krim and another rabbi served the government well, since it wanted to play down Hamas’ achievement of snatching two soldiers’ bodies.

Despite this nobody, even in the ultra-Ortodox faction, suggested the ruling was biased.

The declarations, while an achievement for Peretz, were less controversial because the two soldiers were single. Had either of them been married, the ruling would have meant undoing a woman’s marriage vows. In this case some rabbi may well have questioned Peretz’s ruling and demanded to examine it more closely.

Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community’s periodical on Thursday published an essay under the headline “No approach must be allowed!” The article says that despite the ultra-Orthodox people’s considerable sympathy with the army and its losses, “now, with the cease-fire announcement and the forces’ withdrawal, we must remember that the destructive bulldozer of Israeli secularity has not stilled its engine. The scheme against Torah students has not faded away.”

The essay was part of a stormy argument in the community over whether the ultra-Orthodox did enough to help during the military operation and whether they were supposed to help or express sympathy at all. Some went as far as to interpret the argument’s very existence as proof that the ultra-Orthodox have thorougly changed their stance on the army following the operation. This is overstating the point.

Ultra-Orthodox voluntary organizations operated in the area next to the Gaza Strip border, and ultra-Orthodox papers covered the fighting with empathy. The students at many yeshivas said prayers and psalms, in keeping with the idea that this was the ultra-Orthodox people’s duty in times of a national crisis.

Study hours were extended, as was the yeshiva semester. This ended when the operation ended.

One ultra-Orthodox rabbi compared his community to a bunch of soccer fans, “shouting, enthusiastic, but not truly giving themselves.” He said “nobody, heaven forbid, considered helping apart from the charity organizations, whose purpose this is … The fringes shouted encouragement, but nobody would cry over them, even if they did enlist.”

What have the past weeks done for the ultra-Orthodox community’s struggle against serving in the army? The radical propaganda against ultra-Orthodox men who join the army has abated, at least temporarily, and ultra-Orthodox politicians have come out against extremists who attack soldiers. Another outcome is the many ultra-Orthodox people’s feeling that they are accountable to the non-Haredi majority.

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