A Google Search Could Have Prevented the Controversy Over the IDF Chief Rabbi Appointment

Rabbi Eyal Karim has made many contentious remarks about sensitive issues – gays, non-Jews, rape and refusing military orders; his appointment points to a deeper issue within the military rabbinate: Its mission to instill soldiers with biblical fighting spirit.

Eyal Karim.
Tomer Appelbaum

Rabbi Eyal Karim was chosen to be the rabbi who would return the military rabbinate to its past as a unit that merely provides religious services, having been shorn of the problematic organ known as the Jewish awareness department, which was transferred to the army’s Manpower Directorate. Karim may have accepted the job, but it seems that Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot didn’t understand the extent to which this unit and its culture have pervaded the military rabbinate.

In his years as a civilian, Karim taught at the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva, located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and affiliated with the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization, which seeks to Judaize East Jerusalem. But no less important is its affiliation with the conservative wing of religious Zionism, led by its mother yeshiva, Har Hamor.

The IDF’s outgoing chief rabbi, Rafi Peretz, was also affiliated with this wing, which came up with the Jewish awareness unit, symbolizing the revolution the military rabbinate has undergone over the last decade: It’s no longer just about providing religious services, but about pushing an ideological agenda through rabbis and outside lecturers with combat experience, who try to instill combat soldiers with a Biblical fighting spirit.

The Jewish awareness department was created by former IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, and it’s no accident that Rontzki is the person who put Karim, a former paratrooper, back in uniform as a senior official in the military rabbinate. In an interview with Haaretz in 2000, Karim had voiced opposition to soldiers refusing orders to evacuate settlements.

But several rulings on issues of halakha (Jewish law) that Karim gave as a civilian in 2003 exemplify the problematic atmosphere out of which the Jewish awareness department sprung up. For instance, asked about the verses in Deuteronomy that describe how a soldier should act if he sees a beautiful woman among the enemy during wartime and wants to rape her, Karim responded, "Although fraternizing with a non-Jewess is a very bad thing, it is allowable in war out of consideration for the difficulties of the fighters. And because the success of the collective is what mostly concerns us in war, the Torah allows the individual to satisfy his lust in the permitted conditions for the sake of the general success.”

Only a decade later, when his return to the army sparked fierce opposition because of that response, did he think to write on the Kipa website, “It’s clear that in our day, the world has progressed to a level of morality in which we don’t carry off captive women. And certainly this law shouldn’t be carried out in practice, especially as it completely contradicts the army’s values and orders.”

This culture has seeped deep into the military rabbinate, especially in the period since Karim returned to uniform. Perhaps Eisenkot, who circumscribed the Jewish awareness department, didn’t investigate Karim too closely — or at least didn’t bother to do a Google search. Such a search would have shown that Karim has signed halakhic rulings which reflect the problematic culture out of which the department grew. One can extract the department from the rabbinate, but is it possible to extract the rabbinate from the department?

The fact that Karim is considered an expert in halakha may be intended to reassure the ultra-Orthodox, at a time when thousands of ultra-Orthodox men are enlisting every year and the army wants to prevent conflict with their community. That’s why the head of the manpower directorate, Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolansky, was careful to receive the blessing of both of Israel’s chief rabbis before approving the appointment.

But even if the storm over Karim’s remarks on military rape subsides, other comments he has made will remain. For instance, back in 2003, he was outspoken in his opposition to women in the army. “Because the damage to modesty that’s liable to be caused the girl and the nation is decisive, the greatest scholars of the generation and the Chief Rabbinate have ruled that drafting girls into the IDF is completely forbidden,” he once wrote on Kipa.

Since then, there has been a revolution in the religious Zionist’s community’s attitude toward women in the army, and Karim’s conservative stance is now on the defensive in the face of the thousands of religious girls who enlist each year. How will he deal with the fact that drafting women in general, and religious women in particular, is high on the Manpower Directorate’s list of priorities? And how will he handle the military rabbinate’s specific mission of tending to religious women in uniform?