The struggle for a Jewish Army

I have written numerous articles warning about the erosion of Judaism in the IDF. Had we previously stood firm against the violation of mitzvot and values, the order against growing a beard in the army would have been unthinkable. What to do.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

Judaism מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Storm over Growing a Beard in the Army

Q: Rabbi, why didn’t you harshly criticize the army order stating that no soldier would be allowed to grow a beard without permission from their commanding officer? Shouldn’t soldiers be called to refuse orders, and rebel against this order?! Shouldn’t this be viewed as a serious advance in the trend attempting to abolish [the country's connection to the Jewish] religion, along with the transfer of the ‘Jewish Identity Branch’ from the Military Rabbinate to the Manpower Directorate, and the Government’s surrender to the Reform Movement regarding the Kotel?! Shouldn’t Members of Knesset be called to topple the government over these issues?

A: Indeed, the order against growing beards is outrageous, and indicates an insensitivity and lack of respect on part of the members of the General Staff who issued it. The order causes a certain amount of damage to the Jewish character of the IDF, but more than that, it damages the status of the military rabbis who, up until now, were responsible for granting such approval, and even more so, damages the dignity and civil rights of a soldier who is permitted to appear in a way consistent with his lifestyle, as long as he looks decent and respectable.

It is clear that a soldier who receives such an order does not have to obey it and instead, should use acceptable methods to change the order. In the vast majority of cases he will succeed; but if he encounters an especially unyielding officer, he should explain to him that he is willing to go to jail over the issue, and as a result, maybe the officer will come to his senses and cancel the order.

Since I anticipated that the issue would be solved through understanding, I did not find it necessary to voice my criticism publicly.

My Longstanding Position

I am, however, amazed at many of those presently calling to fight and topple the government: How come they stayed silent during all the years I wrote critiques about the erosion of Jewish-national identity in various government frameworks, and at times, even came out against my views? True, throughout this period the influence of the religious community increased greatly, but at the same time, under the influence of the judicial system and academia, a process of erosion of values occurred ​​in the courts, in the educational system, in national security matters, in the status of the Israeli rabbinate, along with the status of the IDF Rabbinate and the Jewish character of the IDF.

I will briefly mention the articles I wrote on the topic of insisting the IDF function as a Jewish army.

In the Summer of 2004, in two different articles, I wrote about the difficulty of cadets at the main IDF training base (Ba’had 1) to pray in a minyan, and demanded that religious and haredi MK’s take action on their behalf (they did not, but the public criticism helped somewhat).

Another article was devoted to soldiers strengthening themselves religiously, for their own sake, and on behalf of the Jewish character of the IDF, in line with the Torah’s command that our "camp be holy".

In October 2005, I wrote about the limits of obeying orders that contradict halakha, both in relation to the expulsion of Jews from their homes and the desecration of Shabbat (I also continued dealing with the subject the following week).

In November 2005, I warned that concessions on matters of halakha would erode the army’s status in the sense of its moral soundness, while hampering its ability to recruit religious and haredi soldiers.

In the summer of 2005, the expulsion from Gush Katif and northern Samaria occurred; at that time I wrote extensively against the expulsion, and about the mitzvah to serve in the army despite all.

In December 2005, I dealt with the military order preventing soldiers from wearing tzitzit outwardly (a mitzvah no less important than having a beard), and about the erosion of independence of the Military Rabbinate. I wrote that since it lacked the power to stand up to the military command, as it had done in the time of Rabbi Goren, it did not have the status of ‘mara d’atra’ (local rabbinic authority), and consequently, other rabbis also have a responsibility to respond to halakhic questions of soldiers in the army. The following month I continued dealing with this subject, and in subsequent articles, warned about it at length.

In August 2006, I wrote that the dismissal of officers who cause damage to the sacred Jewish character of the IDF should be demanded, or in the words of Rabbi Goren, the founder of the IDF Rabbinate: “Any officer for whom the sanctity of Jewish tradition is not uppermost in his mind, is unfit to be a commander in the IDF and send troops to fight for the people of Israel. And therefore, he insisted that a commander who damaged Israel’s sacred traditions, be dismissed and expelled from the army.”

In January 2007, I devoted an entire article to the religious situation in the IDF, stating that on the one hand, it had become much more suitable for religious soldiers, but on the other hand, in key areas such as modesty and values, there had been a serious erosion. I wrote: “This is not an issue for religious soldiers alone; the army must strive to express, as best possible, the heritage and values ​​of the Jewish people. Without it, the IDF will become a U.N. peace-keeping force, with all the implications and serious bearings for the safety of Israel. The feelings of religious soldiers in the army is a reliable litmus test for the level of Jewishness in the IDF.”

To reinforce this position, I devoted several articles over the years regarding the character and leadership of Rabbi Goren in the army. I continued devoting numerous articles to the state of Judaism and the observance mitzvoth in the army. In February 2008, I devoted an article about the erosion that had begun as a result of integrating women in all-male units, and I continued to write about this in two additional articles.

At the same time, I devoted numerous articles to explaining the importance of the mitzvah to serve in the army, and that in spite of the essential struggle for its’ Jewish character, in no way should one evade this great mitzvah. I even defended my dear friend, the then Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Avichai Rontsky, shlita, (may he have a complete recovery from his recent surgery) from attacks by elements in the haredi world.

It seems to me the picture is clear, so I will skip the review of articles I wrote from 2009 onwards (incidentally, these critiques, which did not find many supporters other than soldiers in the field, were the background for Yeshiva Har Bracha’s removal from the Hesder program in the Winter of 2009).

Past and Present

In all those years, many of those who now claim that orders should be disobeyed and the government toppled, said that tensions should not be provoked in the army. When I warned about the harm being done to the independence of the IDF Rabbinate, and that it should be more aggressive, many of those who are currently calling for the IDF Chief Rabbi to quit, claimed that my position was extremist and lacked respect for the IDF officers and army rabbis, and that demonstrations should be in favor, and not against – strengthening the government, and not weakening it. By doing so, they contributed to the weakening of the IDF Rabbinate, and firming-up the position that religious matters in the army are not so crucial.

Had the Defense Minister and Chief of Staff been made aware on a regular basis about the problems of modesty, kashrut, and prayers facing religious soldiers in the army, the basic tenet that the army maintain its’ Jewish character, and that the IDF Rabbinate must be independent and the leader in all areas of Judaism in the army – they never would have imagined removing the responsibility of approving beards for religious reasons from the IDF Rabbinate, and transferring the ‘Jewish Identity Branch’.

At any rate, precisely now when we have a Deputy Defense Minister who is a Torah scholar, honest, ethical, and knows how to get things done, it is inappropriate to create a stir, for obviously he will do everything within his powers to solve the problem, and will most probably succeed.

In the Future

From now on, instead of threating and demanding dismissals, or toppling the government, we must warn about every problem in the army on a regular basis, by means of the IDF Rabbinate, members of Knesset from the Likud and the Jewish Home party, and of course, via the Deputy Defense Minister. And maybe even the haredi Knesset members will agree to join in assisting the religious soldiers. Parallel to these standard activities, we must also criticize those responsible for religious problems in the army through such media that are open to broadcast such criticism. In this way, in a gradual process, hopefully all these issues will be solved.

Why Have the Accusations become so Harsh All of a Sudden?

The serious accusations currently voiced against the government and the religious situation in the country and the IDF, raise concern that, in fact, what is occurring stems from a deep hostility directed specifically towards the religious and right-wing community and its representatives, because these impossible demands are aimed precisely at them, while the leftist leadership and representatives of the haredi community are treated with tolerance and exaggerated backing.

Some of those criticizing the representatives of the national religious public in the Knesset and the government, demanding they solve and advance all these issues immediately, are the one’s who discredited them, caused the loss of votes in the last election, weakening their position in the Knesset. In practice, it is wrong to develop unrealistic expectations that are beyond the power that the voters gave them. Whoever develops exaggerated expectations causes the party to seem like a failure, and perhaps even does it on purpose to justify themselves for discrediting them before the elections and weakening their power.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook: Over What Issue Should a Government be Toppled?

The most serious debate on issues of religion and state – far more serious than the argument over the Kotel – was over the issue of conversion. After the secular courts legalized Reform conversions , several prominent rabbis demanded everything be done to change the law, and determine that only conversions according to halakha be recognized in the State of Israel. In their opinion, it was forbidden to participate in a government that did not remedy this issue. At the time, however, our leader and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, was of the opinion that although the issue was important and should be vigorously fought for, it should not prevent the participation of the National Religious Party (NRP, Mafdal) in the government. Nevertheless, after the members of the Mafdal decided to resign from the government over this issue, Rabbi Kook maintained that they had to keep their word, and not crawl back into the government in disgrace.

On the other hand, when the then Prime Minister declared that he wouldn’t care if he had to visit Gush Etzion using a Jordanian visa, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah was shocked and reacted with great pain. For days, he repeated in his discussions, lessons, and even in his sermon for Independence Day (1974): “He himself – doesn’t care, but we, and all of Israel, do care!” He added: “He who will hear, let him hear; and he who will refuse to hear, let him refuse!” 

And he repeatedly declared that a Prime Minister who could say such a thing does not deserve to be the Prime Minister of Israel.

The Prime Minister’s government, at the time, seemed firm. A few weeks later the government fell, due to the arrival of airplanes on Shabbat evening. I heard from my uncle, Rabbi Remer ztz”l, that Rabbi Goldwicht ztz”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Kerem B’Yavneh, later said to Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah: “Divine Providence has appeared in our Beit Midrash (study hall).” Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah responded by saying that it was not Divine Providence, just that one needed to distinguish between a shortcoming and decay. Sometimes the shortcomings are immense, but it is still possible to continue to live with them until they are amended; but when there is decay, it is much worse, making it impossible to continue.

Today our situation is much better, and may we merit to make up for all of the shortcomings.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting and informative articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: