Rabbis: IDF religious code should reflect majority

A document drawn up by two National Religious rabbis and reportedly under consideration by “senior IDF officials” seeks to set principles for dealing with religious and secular sensitivities according to the majority of those serving in the army.

The proposal’s basic premise is that neither religious nor secular soldiers should be forced to do anything that contravenes their beliefs, when dealing with non-security related matters, but that changes in the make-up of those serving could lead to changes in various principles of the IDF.

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One of the authors, Rabbi Ido Rechnitz, said if the majority of soldiers eventually become religious, women in the army would no longer be part of what the document describes as “the common good” and therefore be undesirable.

Rechnitz said however that secular trends and principles could also take hold, or be maintained, should more secular people serve in the IDF.

The number of religious soldiers in the army, especially in combat units and in the young officer class, is currently much higher than in the past.

Relations between the National Religious leadership and the army have been strained in recent years, as values and practices established by the IDF in the past – such as women singing at IDF ceremonies – have met resistance from religious soldiers due to religious laws that prohibit a man from listening to a woman sing in person.

This, along with the fraught issue of mixed-gender service, especially in combat units, growing beards for religious soldiers, and other such issues have all caused friction between religious soldiers, their rabbis and the IDF.

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The document itself was discussed at a panel debate at the Hakhel Festival, sponsored by the pluralist organization Panim, on Tuesday in Ramat Gan.

“The IDF: A People’s Army in a Diverse Society,” written by Rechnitz and Rabbi Avraham Gisser, is based on the premise that all soldiers and their societal backgrounds should be committed and acquiescent to the core mission of the IDF – protecting the security of the state – but that the IDF should not interfere in extraneous issues pertaining to lifestyle choices and personal beliefs.

The document underlines, however, the importance of tolerance within the IDF as a key to preserving the cohesiveness of the State of Israel’s armed forces, given the diverse backgrounds of its soldiers.

According to Gisser, the municipal chief rabbi of Ofra, and Rechnitz, an author on Jewish military ethics, although the IDF has been involved in ancillary roles in the past, such as helping immigration from Ethiopia and search and rescue missions in disaster zones, such actions were part of the national consensus.

Helping African asylum seekers, or “illegal migrants and infiltrators,” as the document puts it, is not part of the national consensus and should therefore be avoided.

The authors also insist that the IDF should not use military service as a way of influencing the beliefs of its soldiers, so that someone who entered the IDF “secular, religious, haredi [ultra-Orthodox] or Muslim,” should leave with the same set of beliefs.

To achieve this, the document says, the IDF should provide religious soldiers with religious services by right and not as a favor, but similarly should not force soldiers to take part in any religious activity or Torah lessons.

The rabbis also wrote that religious soldiers and commanders should not be placed in units that they would fine problematic, such as mixed-gender units, if they request not to serve there.

They said, however, that the IDF could also release an officer from his military service in such a situation if it so wished.
Rechnitz and Gisser also emphasized what they described as “the common good,” values that have the widest support amongst the population sectors currently serving.

THEY DEFINED these values as “defending the state, Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel, subservience to the laws of the state and the army, commitment to the IDF Ethos code of conduct, societal solidarity and sharing in the burden of military service, IDF legacy as a continuation of Jewish heritage, the historic connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, and absorbing Jewish immigrants.”

These values, the document says, are widely held and serve as a motivator for recruitment to the IDF, and the public domain in the army should therefore be modeled around this “common good.”

The rabbis write, “In the situation today, the ‘common good’ includes male and female service, Zionist symbols and expression of Jewish tradition in ceremonies, Shabbat and holidays.”

Singing “I believe in the coming of the Messiah,” as happened recently would therefore not be acceptable write the authors, nor is denying a religious soldier the right to grow a beard, an issue recently.

Rechnitz and Gisser wrote that the “common good for the majority of those serving depends on the positions of the majority of those serving at a given time,” and that it could change in accordance with changes in the makeup of the army, if it becomes more secular or more religious.

Instead of insisting that all soldiers adopt pluralistic attitudes to allow for soldiers from diverse backgrounds to serve together, as they allege has developed in recent years in the IDF, the army should instead insist on tolerance for soldiers with different beliefs and lifestyles.

Tolerance provides for mutual respect for all without giving up one’s own beliefs and values which pluralism requires, assert the authors.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Rechnitz underlined the positions set out in the document.

“Imagine if instead of the situation today where a religious soldier needs a permit to grow a beard, a secular soldier would need a permit not to grow a beard,” said the rabbi.

“Neither situation is acceptable,” he insisted.

“Everyone needs to think about what would happen if they were dealt with as the minority, and so the common good needs to be good for the minority as well as majority.”

Uzi Dayan, a former general and head of the National Security Council, was largely supportive of the document, saying the “serving elite” of the IDF has changed with the large numbers of National Religious men now in combat units and the officer echelon.

“The IDF needs to enforce its security norms,” he told the Post, meaning that anything related to the realm of defense operations, warfare and the core role of the army should not be influenced by societal processes, religious or secular.

“But the current serving elite has brought new societal and cultural norms, and the IDF needs to respect these cultural norms even if they were different from what it was used to until now, like the policy on beards and other issues,” he said.

“The IDF has to adjust itself to the cultural-societal norms of the new serving elite.”

Michal Berman, CEO of Panim–The Israeli-Judaism Network, expressed concern over the draft document on some central issues, particularly women’s service.

“According to repeated surveys, most of those who enlist, are in favor of enlisting women and integrating them into the entire IDF combat system,” said Berman.

“The principles defined by Rabbis Gisser and Rehnitz seek to express the values of most of the soldiers and soldiers serving in the IDF, and according to these principles, solidarity and unity in Israel today requires pluralism and pluralistic education, as well as the integration of women into the army.”

Berman also argued that prohibitions, , have come from the haredi community and that a generation ago, National Religious soldiers had no problem listening to women sing.

“I call upon the rabbis to apply the principles equally, and strengthen solidarity and unity in the IDF for all IDF soldiers from all sectors and communities.”

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