Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s decision to remove the army’s Jewish Awareness branch from the military rabbinate has angered many rabbis as well as some members of the Habayit Hayehudi faction in the Knesset. However, in a letter Eisenkot sent to commanders Monday, he sounded determined to implement the decision despite the criticism.
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Two former IDF chief rabbis criticized Eisenkot’s decision in interviews on Army Radio. Brig. Gen. (res.) Avichai Rontzki said if he were the IDF rabbi today he would resign over the decision. His predecessor, Brig. Gen. (res.) Israel Weiss, told Army Radio that Eisenkot’s decision meant that “the army rabbinate today announces its death.”
Internal documents distributed by the IDF rabbinate and the manpower department in the General Staff to various units show the areas of responsibility to which the military rabbinate has sought to lay claim through the Jewish Awareness branch. A document detailing directives of the military rabbinate to units, entitled “Principles in undertaking Jewish awareness activities in the IDF,” states: “An annual program will be built in every unit on Jewish awareness activities. The program will be part of the unit’s graph of activities the program will be built by the unit’s military rabbi and brought before the unit commander for approval or to an officer with the rank of at least colonel, whom he appoints. The unit commander will be responsible for the implementation of the program.”
The document details “obligatory activities” on Jewish awareness that the unit must carry out on a regular basis (every month for combat units and every two months for non-combat units). These activities include a conversation with the unit’s rabbi “on the subject of acquaintance with and connection to Jewish heritage, tradition and sources, strengthening the fighting spirit, mission and motivation to serve.”
These issues the rabbinate sought to promote by means of the Jewish Awareness branch were already a source of controversy in the army and among politicians. But the document in question expands the rabbinate’s involvement to other realms. For example, it states that an obligatory session will be held as part of the program on the subject of “family strength” and must be scheduled “in every unit once every six months for married soldiers.”
Another document states that among the obligations units must meet in order to pass the major hurdle of Manpower Directorate inspection, is the requirement to “hold a conversation once every six months for married soldiers on the subject of ‘family strength’ from the Jewish sources.”
In the first document, issued by the rabbinate, “optional activities” are also mentioned, among them the possibility for each unit to hold a “couples evening for married soldiers, dealing with issues of family, couples and children’s education as seen in Judaism.”
The army rabbinate orders that these lectures be given by army rabbis or outside lecturers approved by the Jewish Awareness branch.
This appears to be a relatively extreme example of the IDF rabbinate's entry into areas that were not under its authority in the past, taking advantage of a vacuum left by the ongoing decline in the activities of the army’s Education Corps.
The document describes the family strength session from the point of view of Jewish sources as obligatory for all married soldiers; it does not distinguish between Orthodox and secular soldiers (or even between Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers).
A female combat officer told Haaretz that she took part a year ago in an evening session led by a lecturer sent by the army rabbinate. “The main message is that I have to give my spouse the feeling that he holds the reins in the house, to maintain the marriage. According to the rabbi, that is the key to peace in the house,” she said.
According to the documents and testimony it seems that the Jewish Awareness branch is preaching to soldiers, with participation in its sessions defined as an order. In contrast to the Education Corps, the army rabbinate has extensive funding for such a program and therefore it is easier for them to get commanders’ support for them.
It remains to be seen whether under tighter supervision pledged now by the chief of staff and the head of the Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolansky, such sessions with their somewhat strange messages will continue to be held.