IDF Soldiers Deserve to Know a Different Kind of Judaism

The monopoly of the Orthodox religious minority over the Judaism of the majority only distances the majority of soldiers from Judaism.

Nir Kafri

Judaism is not a religion but rather a culture encompassing the variety of cultures of the Jewish people - historical, secular, ethnic and religious, with its Reform, Conservative and Orthodox streams.

Giving control of education, learning, holiday rituals and personal ceremonies in the Israel Defense Forces to the rabbis of the Orthodox religious minority indicates ignorance of the role that Zionism has played in changing Judaism.

Zionism, after all, established a democratic, Jewish, secular state and produced constitutive works in the Judaism of our times, such as Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The monopoly wielded by the Orthodox religious minority over the Judaism of the majority and the distortion of the essence of Judaism inherent in its activities are distancing the majority of soldiers, both female and male, in the IDF.

It would be possible to eliminate the control exerted by Orthodox rabbis over Jewish education in the IDF by creating a position of officers in charge of “Judaism as culture.” That could restore some of the former glory, when all IDF soldiers, officers and NCOs, participated in every area of education and learning.

The Jewish culture officers would be able to increase the awareness among IDF soldiers of the many facets of Judaism. They would be able to present the Bible as the foundational literature of the Jewish people - one which contributed to the world the Sabbath, the universal rules of justice and the belief in one God but which also represents the plurality of opinions and the worship of the various gods that was common in Judaism in the first millennium BCE.

Jewish culture officers could also present Yom Kippur the way it is depicted in the Mishna, as a day of happiness and rejoicing, with maidens dancing in the vineyards and inviting boys to join them – and not just as a day of mortifications and anxiety.

IDF soldiers would learn that Kol Nidre is not necessarily a sublime prayer but also an immoral declaration in which an individual nullifies all his obligations and vows – a declaration sung to a moving Christian melody, which has contributed to its popularity, in language that is incomprehensible to many of those who hear it. They might well be exposed to arguments about it: the Sages of Babylon rejected the prayer, the Karaites challenged it and haters of Israel exploited it to defame Judaism.

The position could enable soldiers to learn how secular humanist Zionism changed the course of history and the development of the culture of the Jewish people, through its revival of the Hebrew language and publication of tens of thousands of works in every field, from literature, through holiday rituals to historical research that has illuminated the past of the Jewish people and returned to it books that were banned by the rabbis of the Orthodox minority. Among the latter are various kinds of “Apocrypha,” works of Hellenist Jewish culture that were written in Greek, and works written in all the many languages of Judaism.

The religious establishment in the army needs to be changed from top to bottom. The variety of streams in Judaism must be given a defined and real role: to provide religious services to soldiers who desire them, but they should not be allowed to indulge in purportedly “educational” activity that is nothing but a disguise for preaching and that might, in fact, undermine the system of discipline and authority in the army.

Professor Malkin is the editor of “Yahadut Hofshit,” a journal of secular humanist Jewish thought, and the academic director of the Tmura Institute for training secular rabbis.