Rehabilitating the IDF Rabbinate

Recognition of the problem of the Chief Rabbi’s lack of authority will lead to the strengthening of his position.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 09:50

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

IDF Rabbis Are Not the ‘Mara D’atra’

According to the articles I wrote in recent weeks about the authority of rabbis, the position I have expressed over the years that the IDF Chief Rabbi does not have the authority of mara d’atra(the local authority of Jewish law) can further be understood for two main reasons: 1) A mara d’atra must be chosen by God-fearing people, who seek his guidance in order to strengthen the observance of Torah and mitzvot, and not as the Chief IDF Rabbi is chosen today, by the Chief of Staff. 2) The mara d’atra must have independence and teaching authority, whereas the Chief IDF Rabbi is subordinate to his commanders in matters unrelated to war and life-saving. He is forbidden to publish a halakha that has public ramifications without the explicit authorization of his commanders and the IDF Spokesperson, and if he publishes such a halakha, they will be able to dismiss, or prosecute him. In such a situation, it is clear that he does not have the authority of mara d’atra, but rather of a senior officer and adviser to the Chief of Staff on matters of religion, as outlined in IDF orders.

We can learn about the status of the Chief Rabbi of the IDF in comparison with the position of the Military Advocate General. In order to fortify the status and independence of the Military Advocate, it was determined that only from a command standpoint is he subordinate to the Chief of Staff, but in matters of law he is subject to the law as interpreted by the court. In addition, it was decided that he would be appointed by the Defense Minister on the Chief of Staff’s recommendation, as opposed to the Chief IDF Rabbi who is appointed by the Chief of Staff.

All the same, the role of the Chief IDF Rabbinate and the other military rabbis is still very important. It is incumbent on them to give expression to the spirit of Israel in the army, to assist the soldiers in observing the Torah and mitzvot, and to preserve the sanctity of the camp. From a halakhic point of view, as well, l’chatchilla (ideally), each question should be asked to the military rabbis since they are in the field, and through their response they can also solve the problem primarily by their ongoing relationship with soldiers and commanders alike. Obviously, I also do not intend to harm the personal qualities of the Chief IDF Rabbis, for whom I have great admiration as Torah scholars and men of virtue. I also had the privilege of being their personal friend.

Women’s Singing as an Example

An example of the halachic implications of the fact that the Chief IDF Rabbinate does not have the authority of mara d’atra: When the army decides to force soldiers to listen to women’s singing, and the Chief Rabbi permits this as long as the soldiers lower their view, his ruling does not have the authority of a mara d’atra. First of all, as long as he does not have the authority to order the army not to force soldiers to do so, he does not have the authority to order soldiers to obey this coercion.  Second, because the observant public did not participate in accepting him as Chief IDF Rabbi, but rather, he was appointed by the Chief of Staff.

To Rehabilitate the Authority of the Chief IDF Rabbi

There were those who claimed that my position weakened the Chief IDF Rabbi, but the truth is the opposite. Only after exposing the reality can the situation be corrected. Just recently a number of Knesset members, led by MK Betzalel Smotrich, have proposed a bill to equate the position of the Chief IDF Rabbi to the status of the Military Advocate General, so that the Chief Rabbi will also be independent in his halakhic positions, and in liaison with the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. In addition to this, the decision of his appointment will be removed from the Chief of Staff, and transferred to a committee composed of the Chief Rabbi, the former Chief IDF Rabbi, the Head of a Yeshiva, the Head of IDF Personnel, and public representatives.

In this situation as well, the position of the Chief IDF Rabbi will be considered mara d’atra only for what he was chosen, i.e., questions encountered between halakha and military reality, and not the major questions in dispute. For example, there will be meaning to his ruling in the current state of the army, if, bediavad(after the fact), an order was given to listen to women’s singing, one should rely on the opinion of those who are lenient and lower one’s eyes without leaving the place; but still, he will not have the authority to decide a principled decision that the halakha follows the lenient opinion.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.

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