The difficulties facing religious IDF soldiers

A shocking letter from an IDF soldier about the religious problems when serving in a non-hesder unit.

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Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

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Fulfilling the Obligation to Protest in the Army

Following my column two weeks ago about the obligation for soldiers to protest religious infractions in the army that affect them, I received responses that shook my soul. I had written that every soldier who encountered problems in the areas of modesty and religion in the army that his commander refused to solve, is obligated to protest with all the means at his disposal, including contacting the ombudsman of the Personnel Division, the hotline of the Military Rabbinate, civilian bodies that accompany soldiers such as the ‘Union of Hesder Yeshivas’ or the ‘Tzav Echad’ organization, and in severe cases, to contact media organizations ready to lend a hand, for example the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and ‘Arutz Sheva.’

I mentioned the halakha that one is required to admonish a transgressor, even if one repeats the rebuke a hundred times (Bava Metzia 31a) – even if the admonishment is extremely unpleasant – until the person being rebuked is liable to retaliate (Archin 16b; Rambam De’ot 6:7). Not only that, but even when there is very little chance that the admonishment will succeed, one must nevertheless rebuke. I also mentioned that our Sages said that anyone who does not rebuke a transgressor, and did not participate in the transgression itself, becomes a partner to the sin. Regarding transgressions of public nature, one who refrains from rebuking is punished first (Shabbat 55a), and when there is absolutely no chance the admonishment will be useful, there is a mitzvah to reprove once, but also a mitzvah not to continue admonishing (Yevamot 65b; Rema, O. C., 608:2, M.B. 9).

From the responses I received, I realized that additional thought was necessary. I will share the most detailed response from someone I know to be trustworthy and honest.

The Life of a Religious Soldier

“Rabbi, I studied carefully what you wrote about the obligation of a soldier to protest about any issue harming his ability to fulfill the mitzvot of  the Torah. I am aware that other rabbis also think we should act in this way, however, I feel compelled to say that the problem is much more difficult and complex. Rabbi, I would appreciate it if you could give this your consideration, and instruct us on how to act in practice.”

“For three years I served in the Armored Corps, and I was extremely careful not to let anyone harm my religiosity. There were other soldiers who also felt the same way, and we tried to hold our ground. On the other hand, there were some observant soldiers who became weakened in their religious observance. This distressed some of them, but assessing that they could not change the system, they decided to lower their heads.

There were a host of problems in matters of religion. Here are just some of the stories that came to mind while reading your column:

1) In one army outpost we had a television room. Sometimes soldiers would turn on the television on Shabbat, and would often watch immodest shows. There was no other place for me to relax when I could take a break.

2) Female soldiers would often walk around in the men’s quarters without uniforms, and half-undressed.

3) Music played over the loudspeakers during breaks was generally inappropriate.

4) Several times practice exercises of enemy attacks on a convoy or on the army base, were held on Shabbat. I refused to obey those orders, and by the grace of God, my commanders refrained from court-martialing me.

5) Food is brought to outposts on Shabbat, even though they can do so before the Sabbath.

6) Soldiers blast loud music on Shabbat.

7) Training begins very early in the morning without giving us time to pray (this is against the rules, ed.). At the last minute, my direct officer would do me a favor and give me ten minutes to recite ‘Shema Yisrael’ and don tefillin.

8) For several weeks, we were in a remote outpost – four male soldiers, and four female soldiers serving as lookouts. To say the situation was immodest is an understatement.

9) Once, a friend of mine, a soldier, brought a female soldier to his bed. Afterwards, he respected my request not to do so again.

10) Even secular friends, who out of respect for us religious soldiers try to avoid talking crudely around us, regularly read newspapers full of obscenities, and often hang indecent pictures in their rooms and tanks. The bathrooms are full of obscene drawings and sayings on the walls. Occasionally, rumors spread about men and women soldiers sleeping together in one of the company’s rooms. In general, sex is what interests everyone in the platoon, and consequently, the soldiers and commanders speak about it often. The more women present, the more they talk about it, and with greater vulgarity.

Matters of Kashrut

1) At times during my regular service, drivers and Bedouin trackers hunted porcupines and cooked them in kitchen utensils.

2) A common phenomenon in reserve duty is that cooks prepare dishes using hard cheese, contrary to the stipulations of the Military Rabbinate (which forbids dairy cooking, ed.).

3) After complaining about the violations of kashrut, they transferred us to another company. We had to adapt to the new company.

4) A year later while in reserve duty, a cook brought spices and non-kosher knives from his home.

Evening Events for the Platoon

1) Evening events for the platoon in regular and reserve duty, intended to solidify and unite the group, almost always have problems of kashrut involving the meat and the grill. All the secular soldiers eat to their heart’s content, while some of the traditional soldiers try to find a partial solution. And the observant soldiers, for whom kashrut is imperative, make do with pita and hummus.

2) For many of these evening events and outings they bring live entertainment shows including female singers who often dance on stage, and perform in other immodest ways.

3) For one evening event they bought non-kosher meat from an Arab village. Following my complaint to the Rabbinate, they bought kosher meat for the observant soldiers. Afterwards, my commander scolded me, asking why I got the Rabbinate involved, and didn’t leave the issue between the two of us.

If I complain, I’ll be considered an informer

I estimate that when I was a soldier, I would have had cause to send a complaint to the Rabbinate every other day. Even if I did it only once a month, in the eyes of my fellow soldiers I would have been considered a “rat”, and an “informer”. In such a situation there are no words to describe the army service awaiting the tattling soldier. It would be like prison for him. He would be isolated, alienated and subject to hostility from all those around him. Chances are he would suffer violence (“hazing”) and his officers would wake him up in the morning by screaming at him (not very pleasant). There’s also a good chance his commanders would give him all the most annoying jobs. Over every little thing that commanders usually turn a blind eye to and do not punish, he would receive an even greater punishment. And he wouldn’t even have someone to talk to about it. Needless to say, promotion would be totally out of the question.

By nature, I’m the type of person who demands what’s coming to him. Usually, I preferred to solve the problems quietly, but when I encountered contempt, I did not capitulate, and demanded that my needs be respected, and when that did not work, several times I filed a complaint. But it was very hard.

After I filed a complaint about the problem of kashrut to the Rabbinate, I was summoned to a disciplinary hearing with the company commander. I told him “naively” that they simply had made all the kitchen utensils non-kosher therefore, I turned to the Rabbinate to make sure the utensils were returned to their kosher state. I did not dare tell him the truth that it was wrong for them to have fed the entire company treif, and as a result I had to turn the Rabbinate! Why didn’t I tell the truth? Because I didn’t want the nightmare of being called the “talebearer” of the company, and also, I didn’t want to quarrel with the commander.

Every soldier wants to have friends in the army, therefore he prefers not to accentuate that which distinguishes himself from others, and certainly not to file complaints.

So what did I do? I tried to stay away from the general crowd; during breaks I went to the synagogue, or other quiet places. I tried to find religiously observant friends or those with good character, and talked to them.

Rabbi! There really are a lot of problems in the army, but I do not understand how one can expect a soldier, who is so dependent on the individuals surrounding him and his commanders, to file complaints?!

Nevertheless, Rabbi, perhaps your advice will improve the situation, by the mere fact that more soldiers will be aware they can file a complaint. And also that within the religious community, people will begin to hear and understand the problems of religious soldiers, and maybe as a result, the political leadership will also be required to tackle the issue and try to solve it.

Rabbi, may the words of the Torah you write, continue illuminating all areas of life.”

My shock and sorrow

While reading this letter, tears welled-up in my eyes. I realized that in essence, this issue is not just about ostracism, but ‘pikuach nefesh‘ (a life-threatening situation). After all, soldiers have to go out to battle relying on one another. Therefore, camaraderie is a supreme value in the army. How can soldiers rely on those they consider “talebearers”?! And how can such a soldier count on others when they ostracize him?!

I also thought to myself: these soldiers, who perhaps don’t behave with the greatest amount of modesty, and don’t observe Shabbat and kashrut meticulously – they are heroes who sacrifice their lives to protect the nation and the country. This is a tragic situation. How easy it would be for them to escape responsibility under such circumstances – to avoid military service as so many haredi yound men do, or take a “vacation” from the mitzvot of the Torah for the duration of their service.

Now the immense importance of Hesder yeshivas can also be understood, for soldiers serving within that framework do not have to deal with most of these problems.

Another thought that came to mind: how heroic are those religiously observant soldiers who serve in the regular army, but nevertheless, maintain their religious and ethical level.

An Intermediate Summary

It’s worth noting that other soldiers wrote to me, that as far as the commanders are concerned, refusing an order is far superior to filing a complaint. Therefore, it is very difficult to set a directive that all soldiers must complain about everything that is not conducted properly.

We must clarify a few other aspects of the issue: how are complaints treated in other professions? What topics is it acceptable to complain about? Till what point are complaints helpful? Can parents be more effective partners? What degree of responsibility do the army rabbis and government officials have? I hope to also be assisted in answering these questions by further comments that I’m sure will come from my readers.

Meanwhile, I will try to be more precise about the duty of protesting – an explicit mitzvah from the Torah – while adapting it to the present circumstances: a soldier who encounters a problem is obligated to speak to his commanders. Presumably, knowledge of the problems will limit their scope. Soldiers must also inform their parents and rabbis about all the problems they encounter. Such conversations will probably lead to helpful suggestions about how to remedy the situation.

Indeed, the obligation for sharp protest remains in force, however in most cases, it may be advantageous to postpone it until the end of army service, or when a soldier is transferred to another unit.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ Hebrew weekly newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:
http://en.yhb.org.il/