In Landmark Move, Israeli Army to Allow Reform and Nonreligious Burials

Removing obstacles to holding non-Orthodox ceremonies, bereaved families could opt under new regulations for a military funeral that corresponds to their beliefs

Military cemetery in Tel Aviv, Israel, May, 2019.
Moti Milrod

The Israeli army and the military rabbinate will allow Reform and Conservatives rabbis to conduct military funerals, including nonreligious burials, in military cemeteries, Israel's top court was told Thursday in a landmark step for religious freedoms in the country.

The state informed the Supreme Court of the new policy during a hearing on a petition on the matter filed by Hiddush, a nonprofit organization that supports religious freedom and equality.

The state will publish the change to IDF regulations within two months, a government lawyer told the Supreme Court. Under the new regulations, a military representative will be obligated to inform the family of the fallen soldier of the possibility of a military funeral that corresponds to their lifestyle and beliefs. In addition, the family will be allowed to make changes in the funeral ceremony, as long as the structure of the ceremony is preserved.

The regulations will also state that only in exceptional circumstances may the head Casualties Department in the Manpower Directorate in the IDF not approve the changes the family requests concerning the ceremonial procedures. The military rabbinate will also be able to refuse changes concerning the religious ceremony in exceptional circumstances, or out of a lack of respect for the sanctity of the cemetery.

Hiddush filed the petition two years ago, asking to change the regulations to allow full military burial that respects the views and lifestyles of fallen IDF soldiers and their families who prefer secular or non-Orthodox religious funerals.

In response to the petition, the IDF changed its regulations in 2017 to allow a funeral ceremony without religious symbols, but Hiddush said these changes were not sufficient. In Thursday’s hearing, Avi Milikovsky, the attorney representing the state, said the changes to the regulations allow great flexibility in conducting the ceremony and most of the requests by the families are honored, including the possibility of conducting funeral without the military rabbinate.

When asked whether a Reform rabbi, male or female, could conduct a military funeral, Milikovsky said: “The authority has been granted. A male or female rabbi who is not Orthodox is not a controversial request.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, an attorney and the head of Hiddush, said the change will now allow “full and practical recognition of the right of the families of fallen soldiers to give them the final honor that corresponds with their beliefs and respects their way of life.” Regev added he hopes the new regulations will be published as soon as possible.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, an attorney and executive director of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, praised the announcement. “In a reality in which thousands of soldiers celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies in Reform congregations, and thousands of veterans ask Reform rabbis to conduct their weddings, the change in the state and military’s position is necessity and obvious.”

Kariv said that despite the waves of incitement and institutional discrimination against Reform Judaism, Israeli society has created a new situation in which there is more than one way to be Jewish.