There Is No Need for the Israeli Army Rabbinate in 2016 Israel

The remarks about rape, gay people and killing wounded terrorists by Col. Eyal Karim, the army chief rabbi-designate, exposes the world he comes from.

IDF chief rabbi-designate, Col. Eyal Krim, left, and army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who appointed him.
Olivier Fitoussi and Tomer Appelbaum

The truth? It’s a good thing that Col. Eyal Karim was appointed the army’s chief rabbi. The uproar that erupted surrounding his appointment is to be welcomed. It is affording the wider public a glimpse into the intellectual world of Karim and others like him.

It’s okay to be appalled, but that in itself is not enough. This is a golden opportunity. We shouldn’t be calling for Karim’s appointment to be revoked, but rather for doing away with the army rabbinate altogether. It has become another outpost for the national ultra-Orthodox camp. Karim is not alone. There are many more like him, within the defense establishment and the future enlistees of religious Zionism that operate outside the system but rub shoulders with and feed it (the hesder yeshivas and pre-army academies).

Grown, educated men, who hold senior ranks or influential teaching positions, who most seriously and learnedly consider such weighty questions as: Is it permissible for soldiers to rape good-looking non-Jewish women in wartime?; is it permissible to kill a wounded terrorist?; are homosexuals sick people?; is it permissible for a soldier to leave a ceremony at which women are singing?; why shouldn’t women be permitted to testify in a rabbinical court, or to enlist?

Contrary to the claim of the settler right, which as usual has launched a very organized counterattack (while wailing about the “campaign” against it), these are not just theoretical, academic inquiries, but a way of life. Life according to religious laws that were composed thousands of years ago and never updated.

The army rabbinate should be closed down because there is no need for it in 2016 Israel. The IDF has plenty of religious soldiers. It should accommodate their needs for prayer time and kashrut, but it needn’t supply them with religious guides. It’s the commanders’ job to guide them.

The IDF does not need within it a missionary, nationalist ultra-Orthodox stronghold that fancies itself God’s executive arm and sanctifies a volatile mix of chauvinism and messianic religiosity. The army rabbinate is not just a waste of valuable resources, it calls into question the basic elements by which a military in a democratic country operates: hierarchy and authority. It was originally founded to handle the specific needs of the religious soldier, mainly kashrut and prayer. Its people also did important work in identifying and evacuating casualties. It was a small entity with a specific purpose and clearly defined tasks.

The changes in Israeli society and in the composition of the population of enlistees have been reflected over the years in the character of the army rabbinate too. It became greatly inflated, and not just in its physical dimensions. When Shlomo Goren was appointed chief military rabbi in 1948, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. If Eyal Karim’s appointment goes ahead, he will be promoted to brigadier general.

The heart of the change is embodied in the establishment of the Jewish Identity department. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot ordered that it be removed from the army rabbinate and placed under the personnel division, but that’s no better than putting a Band-Aid over a festering wound. The Jewish Identity department should be closed down entirely.

Sufficing with a cancellation of Karim’s appointment as chief military rabbi would be the classic Isra-bluff. He’s already climbed the military hierarchy to the rank of colonel, holds a senior position in the military rabbinate, has authored thick tomes on matters of the army and Jewish law, and operated unhindered deep within the IDF and its future recruits (as head of the Ateret Kohanim pre-military academy). He represents streams that run deep.

Even a bold General Staff led by the likes of Eisenkot and Yair Golan may not be able to fully root out this problem. The IDF and the civil society which it serves have fallen asleep on the watch. This sudden exposure to Karim’s world is akin to a wake-up call. Maybe the last one, and maybe too late.