The Uniform Doesn't Fit

The chief army chaplain has proven that he cannot detach himself from civilian right-wing rabbis who have called for refusal. He therefore no longer deserves to continue wearing a uniform.

Two figures symbolized the sharp turn in the road of religious Zionism at the end of last week: Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, and the Israel Defense Forces chief rabbi, Brigadier General Yisrael Weiss. Meshi-Zahav, who comes from the ultra-Orthodox world of Mea Shearim was searching for Israelis missing in southeast Asia, while Weiss, of the generation of knitted-skullcap wearers, was unconvincingly trying to retract a spontaneous confession that he would obey an instruction, if issued, by former chief rabbi Avraham Shapira, to hang up his uniform if the IDF implemented the withdrawal plan.

Meshi-Zahav was part of an effort with which the entire Israeli public identified; Rabbi Weiss expressed an opinion than only a minority supports. Meshi-Zahav, the ultra-Orthodox activist who in the past epitomized the challenge to the authority of the state, was now in the bosom of Israeli consensus; Rabbi Weiss, ostensibly at the pinnacle of the establishment, was taking a position that denied the state's authority and army orders, prefering a halakhic (Jewish law) ruling as represented by Rabbi Shapira.

It is possible, of course, to see the behavior of the two as individual cases. In this spirit, Meshi-Zahav can be said to have channeled his feverish protest activities into the Zaka rescue service he heads, and Weiss is just a weak individual, far from being up to the task of IDF chief rabbi.

On a symbolic level, their behavior may reflect significant social processes: a cautious rapprochement of the ultra-Orthodox community with the Israeli experience on the one hand, and a move away from it by the central stream of the national religious camp.

The traditional National Religious Party is in serious competition with the wild weeds among the rabbis of the West Bank settlements. Most of these rabbis studied at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook and Rabbi Avraham Shapira, whose opinion is so important to Rabbi Weiss. The students of Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Shapira left the yeshiva as bearers of their zealous heritage, at least as far as the land of Israel is concerned: the opinion of Torah is more important than the laws of the state. "Heaven," Rabbi Shapira determined not long ago, prohibits participation in the evacuation of the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. Therefore, anyone involved in the process of disengagement is going against the opinion of Torah. Anyone who is halakha-fearing must disobey an order to become involved in disengagement.

Rabbi Weiss clearly demonstrates that he sees himself first and foremost a disciple of Rabbi Shapira, rather than of the supreme authority of the IDF. His very need to ask for his former teacher's permission reveals the level of his self-confidence. The late Shlomo Goren, a former army chief rabbi, would not have turned to the head of the Hebron Yeshiva, where he studied as a young man, to hear opinions on matters of religion and state.

Weiss told his interviewer that Rabbi Shapira was the greatest scholar of the generation. In whose opinion? At most, in the opinion of an increasingly ultra-Orthodox branch of the national religious camp, not to the mind of the of the moderate Orthodox camp represented by Meimad, and not among ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi or traditional Sephardic Jews.

The ultra-Orthodox world is laced with many and varied halakhic opinions. What is good for the students of Rabbi Elyashiv is not acceptable to the followers of the Belz rabbi, and what is sacred to the rabbis of the West Bank settlers does not necessarily obligate the rabbis of the modern Orthodox Zohar organization.

It is to be expected that the chief army chaplain not take his cues from the right wing of civilian rabbis, but rather that he be independent in his opinions and particularly that he identify with all his might with the national significance of his position and not think for a moment of bending it to an outside influence. Weiss has proven that he has not been blessed with a character that naturally takes this position. He therefore no longer deserves to continue wearing a uniform.