Rabbi's Outburst Highlights 'Culture War' Embroiling Far-right Clergy and Army's Top Brass

Rabbi Yig'al Levinstein's volatile remarks show an escalating struggle for influence between settler rabbis and the IDF's more liberal generals.

Rabbi Yig'al Levinstein, who raised a storm last week by terming gays “perverts,” has a rather immodest way of tackling what he views as the IDF's major problem.
Amos Biderman

The bottom line of Rabbi Yig'al Levinstein’s speech was about fright – fear of gays and lesbians, fear of liberal values, and also fear of the Israel Defense Forces.

Levinstein heads an IDF pre-conscription academy for Orthodox recruits in the West Bank settlement of Eli, called Bnei David.

He made a series of controversial remarks in a speech last week at a conference sponsored by the Liba organization about Reform Judaism’s penetration of Israel. As someone who is in daily contact with officers and soldiers, he discussed Reform Judaism in the army.

When the storm over his calling gays “perverts” subsides, Levinstein's speech will have much to teach us about the status of the new-old elite of Bnei David and its relationship with the army under IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot's watch – a relationship that the conservative wing of religious Zionism increasingly sees as a “culture war.”

Some of Bnei David’s graduates are now senior army officers. The academy has long been embraced by the media, and Rabbi Eli Sadan, who co-founded the institute with Levinstein, was awarded the Israel Prize this year for his life’s work.

Yet even at Bnei David, complaints about the army are frequent these days. Levinstein’s speech revealed bitterness and panic about what’s happening in the army for all to see – an attitude that seems to contradict the theological sanctity that his institution accords the IDF.

Levinstein painted recent developments in the army in gloomy colors – severance of the Jewish awareness unit from the military rabbinate and the curtailment of its role; the introduction of the “discourse of narratives”; the inculcation of pluralistic values; and  encounters with Israeli minorities, including Reform Jews and the LGBT community.

He also accused the top brass of blocking the promotion of religious officers.

“The age of innocence has ended,” Levinstein declared.

“Once we were the army’s darlings, but today, we are dangers,” Levinstein said. “I was told explicitly several times: ‘We’d rather do without dozens of extremely religious soldiers, just so we have normal soldiers.’

"Therefore, we have to stop thinking that everyone loves, embraces, kisses [us]. That was true until yesterday. Today, they’re afraid of our motivation, and especially of our great national feeling and the connection between this and religion. From their standpoint, this is extremely dangerous,” Levinstein said.

Levinstein, 60, is a former tank officer who wasn’t raised religious. He and Sadan founded Bnei David in 1987, whose hundreds of graduates include a great many officers, and over time, has expanded to include other institutions.

The widowed Levinstein recently remarried Sara Klein, widow of his former student, Maj. Roi Klein, a decorated soldier killed in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 who became a symbol of Bnei David.

Levinstein and Sadan are both students of Rabbi Zvi Tau, leader of a faction of religious Zionism that has become increasingly ultra-Orthodox in attitude and religious praxis.

Tau and several other rabbis split from the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in the 1990s to found their own yeshiva, Har Hamor, in protest over Mercaz Harav’s decision to establish a teacher’s training institute that taught pedagogy rather than solely religious subjects.

But Tau’s separatist approach, which rejects secular education, was adopted only in diluted form by many of Har Hamor’s satellite yeshivas. These “borderline yeshivas” preferred another aspect of his ideology – the sanctification of the state and the army.

Thus, though Bnei David is considered one of these borderline yeshivas, many of its students come from the religious Zionist mainstream; only some reject secular education and believe in strict separation between men and women.

Nevertheless, its rabbis see eye to eye with Tau on many issues, from rejecting liberal values to opposing the growing trend among religious Zionists of ascending the Temple Mount.

The IDF’s current chief rabbi, Rafi Peretz, is also affiliated with this “borderline” group, as is his designated successor, Eyal Karim.

Bnei David is well-connected with the army’s top brass, and just two months ago, Eisenkot visited the academy. Yet in Levinstein’s speech, both his open line to senior IDF officers and his own participation on important committees involved in charting the IDF’s path seemed unimportant to him in the face of his complaints against the army.

Thus he could assail the IDF for teaching about LGBT issues in its officers’ training course, even as he mentioned, in passing, that he was able to use his connections to have this content excised from the course.

Levinstein doesn’t reflect the full Har Hamor line with regard to the army, but he certainly represents a significant group of rabbis who, over the past year, have changed their attitude toward the army.

Levinstein traces the start of what he considers to be the army’s deterioration, to a 1995 High Court of Justice decision permitting Alice Miller, a woman, to attend the Israel Air Force flight school.

But it seems that the real revolution in his and his colleagues' attitude toward the army took place in the past year. It was influenced primarily by a new order making it more difficult for soldiers to keep their beards; the removal of the Jewish Awareness branch from the military rabbinate, and intensifying struggles with Chief Education Officer Brig. Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk over pedagogical programs.

Last Sukkot a conference was held at the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva about the removal of the Jewish Awareness unit from the military rabbinate – clearly a distressing topic for Tau-line rabbis.

Headed by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Ateret Yerushalayim is seen as a Tau-line yeshiva. Karim had in the past headed the pre-conscription academy there.

Rabbi Yehoshua Zuckerman,  a dean of the Har Hamor Yeshiva and mentor of Rafi Peretz, said at the conference: “How is the dispute of Korah different from the culture we have today? Today they want to reduce the image of the military rabbinate.”

"There's a culture war today" with the Education Corps, Zuckerman also said.

Rabbi Elisha Vishlitzky accused the IDF Education Corps of dealing "with a lot of things other than education. In particular with a cultural doctrine whose battlefield results are destructive – the doctrine of doubt, the doctrine of dilemmas.”

It was in this spirit that Levinstein spoke last week. After he listed the problems that he saw in the army, he told of a visit by Paz-Tzuk to Eli some weeks ago.

“For the first time, things were said outright,” Levinstein said. “Everything I’m saying here is what he thinks and what he believes, and he educates toward everything I’m saying here.

Until then we only saw flashes of these phenomena, [but this time] we put everything on the table in our discussion with him – a very, very tough and harsh conversation but at least it was clear.

"These things were said. With regard to religious pluralism, he sees a value in educating toward religious pluralism; he sees an educational value in accepting the other in the framework of individual rights, to get to know the other, and the perverts are of course the most important flag in this area," the rabbi said. 

"And he really believes that what they did in the air force [taking cadets to a gay club in Tel Aviv to paint it] was the right and proper thing, because we must be educated to accept those who are different from us,” Levinstein said.

Levinstein's comments show a different tune emerging in the relationship between the army and its pre-conscription academies for the Orthodox. These academies regard themselves as the military’s favorite sons, though they speak like rejected children.

Levinstein’s address last week even made people in his immediate environment feel uncomfortable. One rabbi expressed reservations about Levinstein's remarks, and Rabbi Aviner thought Levinstein had painted too grim a picture.

"Our army is a holy army,” Aviner said. “Inside there are some changes that at times are not good, but they won’t succeed. We cannot fall asleep at the watch, but we have to know that we are gradually winning.”