For IDF Chief Rabbi, Some Decisions Mean Life or Death

Former helicopter pilot Rafi Peretz describes the dilemmas he faces as chief military chaplain.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Israel Defense Forces’ chief rabbi, Rafi Peretz
Israel Defense Forces’ chief rabbi, Rafi PeretzCredit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

When he speaks about the event, the trauma still echoes in his voice. In July 2010, just weeks after taking office as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief rabbi, Rafi Peretz learned that a helicopter had crashed during an exercise in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. Six Israeli soldiers were missing.

Peretz had no experience as a military rabbi; he did his own army service as a helicopter pilot in the same squadron from which the downed helicopter came. Now, if the helicopter couldn’t be found, he faced the prospect of having to decide whether to declare the missing soldiers dead.

“My best friends were on that helicopter, guys I’d flown with for decades,” he recalled in an interview with Haaretz. “There was also a young man I’d had the privilege of marrying ... Every day I’d deal with finding the dead and bringing them home, and at night I’d go to the families and my friends in the squadron.”

The location of the crash made it physically difficult to reach the helicopter and recover the bodies; consequently, the families’ uncertainty lasted for days. “I saw how day after day, their hardship grew, to the point where one relative told me, ‘one more night and we’ll fall apart,’” Peretz said. But that very night, at 2 A.M., the bodies were finally identified, and the next day they were flown home.

What Peretz learned from this episode was “the impossible hardship of uncertainty. I told myself to remember that forever.”

And when he was faced with similar uncertainty this summer during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, “I didn’t forget.”

Two soldiers went missing in Gaza during the fighting, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. It was Peretz’s job to determine whether they were alive or dead. Though he has never been considered an authority on halakha (Jewish law), he set up a three-judge rabbinical court which concluded relatively quickly that both men were dead, based on testimony from soldiers who fought alongside them, opinions from medical and ballistic experts and evidence collected from the scene of battle.

Aside from its implications for the Goldin and Shaul families, the determination that the soldiers were dead had clear strategic benefits: Hamas would have been able to demand a much higher price for the return of living soldiers. That raises the question of whether any of his superiors pressured Peretz to reach this decision.

“Not one person in the IDF, from the chief of staff down, told us, ‘Guys, you have to reach this conclusion,’” Peretz replied. “We saw the worry; we saw the commanders’ pain over the doubts that arose among the soldiers. We saw this and we clearly had it in mind, but nobody said anything to us.

“I’ll tell you frankly, I felt that the rabbinate was part of the combat theater, and in a combat theater, commanders take responsibility,” he continued. “I’m very familiar with this theater and thought our contribution to the fighting, which was at its height, would be certainty, one way or the other.”

Certainty – even certainty that their sons were dead – was also a kindness to the families, he added.

Shaul’s case was particularly complex. “We worked around the clock, 30 hours,” Peretz said. “We began on Thursday, and I told my colleagues on the rabbinical court, ‘We aren’t beginning the Sabbath’ – which starts at sundown on Friday – ‘with a doubt.’”

At 2:30 P.M. on Friday, a unanimous decision was reached to declare Shaul a fallen soldier whose burial place was unknown. “I called the chief of staff with a heavy heart; it was very hard for me to say this, and I barely managed it.”

Did the family accept his decision?

“Not really. On Friday I went home with a very, very difficult feeling that I was leaving a family in great trouble. On Sunday, I immediately went back and sat with them for another four hours and explained everything to them again.”

Peretz recommended that the family observe the traditional week-long Jewish mourning period. The Shauls consulted Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, and he told them they should follow Peretz’s advice. They did so “with a heavy heart, but like real heroes,” Peretz said.

From a halakhic perspective, the decisions were easier because neither Shaul nor Goldin was married. Declaring a married man dead means allowing his wife to remarry, and if he later turns out to be alive, then under Jewish law, she would be an adulteress and her children by her second husband bastards. That makes certainty doubly essential.

Nevertheless, Peretz said, this made no difference in the rabbinical court’s rulings. “Certainty was the supreme value here,” he said. “I told the judges, I want to know what you would have decided if he were married. And the answer was clear. The court was unanimous in both cases: We would have freed the woman [to remarry].”

Peretz, 58, has 12 children and 19 grandchildren. Prior to the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, he lived in the Gaza settlement Atzmona and headed a pre-military academy there. But in the run-up to the disengagement, he spoke out strongly against soldiers disobeying orders to evacuate the settlements.

Peretz comes from the same religious Zionist circles as Givati Brigade Commander Col. Ofer Winter, who came under criticism during Protective Edge for sending a pre-battle message to his soldiers in which he urged them to fight “the Gazan terrorist enemy, who abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s campaigns.”

Asked about this, Peretz offered gentle criticism of Winter, a personal friend. “With no connection to Winter’s case, in general, this is how I behave: You always have to find the language that will connect to everyone. I’m speaking in general, and he also knows this.”

Nevertheless, he defended Winter’s right to address his soldiers “from his heart and his deepest values,” saying an officer was not a robot. “A kibbutznik will bring his kibbutz values, and the soldiers will hear him out – as actually happened with students of mine,” Peretz said; similarly, a yeshiva graduate will bring his religious values. However, he stressed, this doesn’t mean the commander is forcing his soldiers to accept these values.

Peretz recently made a controversial decision of his own, when he ruled that during the shmita (sabbatical) year that began two weeks ago, the IDF will for the first time try to avoid using produce grown under a halakhic procedure known as the heter mechira. Most religious Zionists accept this procedure, but ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Hebrew as Haredim, generally don’t.

Peretz stressed that he will still insist on using Israeli produce, rather than relying on imported produce as many Haredim do. But he said the decision to avoid the heter mechira insofar as possible was necessary, “because today, there are 20 times more Haredim in the IDF” than there were during the last sabbatical year. “Seven years ago, there were 200 to 250 Haredim, and today, we have 4,500,” he explained.

Moreover, Peretz noted, the government has assigned the IDF the mission of getting more Haredim to serve, and it would undermine this mission to make them “eat like lepers on the outskirts of the base” rather than making it religiously possible for them to eat in army kitchens with the other soldiers.

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