Reflections on the Uniform of the IDF

HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook: "...the holiness of the army uniform in Israel is fundamental, inherent holiness. This is the holiness of accessories of a mitzvah, from every perspective…"

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

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"These clothes proclaim, Heresy!”

How one dresses matters. Judaism adheres to a code of tzniut [modesty] in how one dresses. I have had many occasion to consider the kinds of clothing that are often worn in our culture, clothing that adheres to no standard of modesty at all, and so demeans the care and consideration we are to show our physical bodies, temporary vessels for the spirit of God that dwells within us. So, when I read these words, there were many contexts within which they could conceivably ring true for me as a Torah observant Jew.

However, when I learned the actual context of these words, I was astonished.

The full context is that a Jerusalem Satmar Rabbi banned uniformed IDF soldiers from Satmar study halls, synagogues and yeshivas. According to news reports, after the end of a policy that allowed hareidi soldiers to be exempt from wearing their uniforms when visiting their hareidi neighborhoods, Rabbi Moseh Zev Tzaurger banned all uniformed soldiers from haredi neighborhoods.

“If a Jew enters a study hall [synagogue or yeshiva] with such clothing, hareidim should yell at him, ‘Tamei [unclean one], get out of here!’ These clothes defile… To pray with those clothes is like praying while making the sigh of the cross, may God save us. These clothes proclaim, ‘Heresy!’”

The IDF uniform heretical? This I absolutely reject!

Much of Tzaurger’s motivation is political – his proclamation was in response to the IDF’s rescinding of the policy allowing soldiers to be exempt from wearing their uniforms which he stated had the purpose to “transmit the message that military service has become the norm” and make it easier to draft hareidim. He claimed that the IDF’s strategy was working and that he wanted to put an end to it.

Politics in Israel is a sharp-elbowed affair. It is not for the faint of heart. But to claim that wearing the uniform of the Jewish State was heresy? To turn a political disagreement into a religious war? To have extremist rabbis issuing halakhic rulings about the so-called “impurity” of the IDF uniform? This is not consistent with Judaism.

The sentiment expressed by Rabbi Tzaurger is not about clothes, but about an angry radicalism and sentiment that runs counter to true Judaism. It is a sentiment borne and carried by the cruelest of ignorance, one that seems to have willfully turned its back on the horror that occurred when we did not have the God granted privilege, glory and strength of the IDF to protect and defend us.

It must be confronted.

In the meanwhile, Rabbi Tzaurger’s words have been having an effect. Instances of rock throwing at haredi IDF soldiers in the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem have been reported. In addition to the stone throwing, hareidim lit trash cans on fire and then fled the scene. One such incident occurred after a recent anti-draft demonstration that was staged by the Eda Hareidit organization turned violent with hareidi protestors throwing rocks, glass bottles and other objects at the police in front of Jerusalem’s IDF recruiting office in Mekor Baruch.

We live in angry times. There is a general ratcheting up of rhetoric and hardening of positions in the United States and even more so in Israel. Still, the rancor and hatefulness that is displayed in the proclamations about the IDF uniform bring great hurt to the Jewish community and our Jewish State.

It is not new for Jews to disagree. But the degree of hatred and antipathy of the discourse between hareidi and non-hareidi camps has not been heard in decades. Fellow Jews are called “non-Jews,” reshaim [evil] and apostates. Hareidi soldiers are referred to as chardakim related to the Hebrew word chaidakim meaning germs. The wounds we are inflicting on ourselves are not easily healed.

Hareidi soldiers who live in hareidi neighborhoods are sometimes insulted when they return to their neighborhoods. Principals of Talmudei Torah have refused to enroll boys whose fathers serve in the army. Despite the hardships, the hareidim who serve do so proudly. But since the legislation regarding hareidi enlistment has been pushed forward the haredi “street is ablaze.”

To immerse oneself in a life of Torah and Torah study is a Jew’s greatest privilege and blessing. But our greatest sages, our greatest models of living a righteous life, also knew what it meant to live in the world. The ignorance of the world does not make us more holy, only more blind and limited in how we embrace God’s creation.

Many of today’s hareidim never learn, and so never appreciate, what the State of Israel is, and what it represents in our post-Holocaust era. They never learn what the IDF uniform truly represents.

Observers of Jewish life have noted that, among the multitudes who most cherish and appreciate Israel and its IDF uniform are those who were most directly affected by the Holocaust – survivors. Those who experienced hell on earth, who prayed and dreamed that someone somewhere would care enough to save them from the unspeakable horrors of Nazi Europe. This remnant blesses and prays for every Jew who wears the IDF uniform. They solemnly commemorate Israel’s IDF Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, honoring those who fell so we can stand.

But those who have grown up without an understanding and appreciation of the 65 year old State of Israel, who have known only the safety and security of that great land, who have been nourished by its milk and honey, these have the audacity to not only take its defenders for granted, but to characterize them as heretics!

It cannot stand.

Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yerucham Levovitz: “..regarding those who currently sacrifice their lives so we can be saved, no one in the entire world can stand in their presence...and our obligation to pray on their behalf is limitless…”
Soon after I graduated Yeshiva University, I spent the summer of 1969 in Israel with some friends. We naturally visited the resting places of the great tzadikim (righteous, ed.), including the sanctified military cemeteries of Har Herzl and others throughout the country. We paused to reflect on the graves of young men – boys! – younger than ourselves, who had sacrificed their all for our Jewish State and the Jewish People, Am Yisrael. If there is an explanation as to why these were called upon to sacrifice so Jews in Israel and throughout the world can now know safety, security, pride and strength while I was able to live in comfort in America I did not know it then, and I still don’t know it now.

But one thing I do know, the explanation I have searched for cannot be found on the printed study sheet that was given to first grade students of a renowned hassidic yeshiva one recent Yom Ha'atzmaut that proclaimed the 5th of Iyar as a “bitter” day…

Nothing is to be achieved from such negative messages, prevalent in the hareidi/hassidic world about Israel. It is time for a change in approach so that new generations learn about what Israel is and not what it is not. Then the madim (uniform) and kelei ha’mikdash, the sanctified vessels and tools used daily to rebuild our Promised Land and safeguard all of its citizens, will be seen in a proper light.

Blessedly, the day is coming and the sentiments of the radical hareidim have been – and continue to be – answered by the voice of true Torah scholars.

Rabbi Nachum Stepansky, in his magnificent “Ve’Alehu lo Yibol” relates that, a young man came to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the Gadol Hador, asking for a couple of days away from learning to address some personal problems, and that he would go to visit the tombs of the righteous, kivre tzadikim, in the Galilee. Rav Auerbach looked at the student and replied, “For kivre tzadikim you don’t have to go to the Galilee. You have them right here in Yerushalayim on Har Herzl.”

The noble regard with which Rav Auerbach held IDF soldiers was shared by the revered Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yerucham Levovitz, who commented in his Sichos Mussar regarding those who were killed in Lod in Talmudic times [ha’rugei Lod ein kol briya yechola la’amod be’mechitzatan]. “No mortal can be in their presence” because they have sacrificed their life on behalf of Israel. Likewise, “regarding those who currently sacrifice their lives so we can be saved, no one in the entire world can stand in their presence [no one can measure up to their level]. And our obligation to pray on their behalf is limitless…”

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, head of Har Etzion hesder yeshiva, related that once, when he returned to America and was visiting with his father in law, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, he posed a series of questions he had received from students serving in the IDF. One student worked in the tanks division and his job was cleaning out and maintaining the tanks. Often his uniform got covered in oil and grime and he wanted to know if he needed to change before afternoon prayer, davening Mincha, something that would be terribly inconvenient and difficult. The Rav looked at Rav Lichtenstein and wondered out loud, “why would he need to change? He is wearing bigdei kodesh, holy garments.

These sacred garments have restored Jewish pride, faith and fortitude... these bigdei kodesh safeguard and secure all that is holy and worthwhile in G-d's Promised Land and throughout the world.

No lesser voice than HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook shared the regard and reverence for Israel’s soldiers and the uniform they wear. In Sichot Rabbenu, Yom Ha'atzmaut 5727, he wrote, “A student of our Yeshiva approached me. I said to him: 'At first I did not recognize you.' He was wearing the army uniform. You know that I relate to this uniform in holiness. A lovely and precious man, full of G-d-fearing and holiness was approaching, and he was wearing an army uniform. At that occurrence I mentioned what I said at one wedding [of Ha-Rav She’ar Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa], when the groom came dressed in an army uniform. There were some who were pointing out that it is inappropriate for a groom to stand under the chuppah with an army uniform. In Yerushalayim, the Holy City, it was customary that they came with Shabbat clothing, holy clothing, like a streimel (fur hat worn by hassidim on the Sabbath, ed.).

" I will tell you the truth. The holiness of the streimel - I do not know if it is one-hundred percent clear. It was made holy after the fact. Many righteous and holy Geonim (great rabbis) certainly wore it. There is certainly so much trembling of holiness before them, and we are dirt under the souls of their feet, and on account of this fact, the streimel was made holy. Also Yiddish, the language of Exile, was made holy because of its great use in words of holiness. But from the outset - it is not so certain. In comparison, the holiness of the army uniform in Israel is fundamental, inherent holiness. This is the holiness of accessories of a mitzvah, from every perspective…"

Rabbi Yehoshua Zuckerman relates [in Iturei Yerushalaim] about Rav Tzvi Yehuda “teaching a class and a student, who was on leave from the army, was standing next to him. During the entire time, our Rabbi rested his hand on the student’s arm. At the end of the shiur, another student asked about this. Our Rabbi explained, “It is simple. He was wearing a Tzahal uniform and I was touching holiness the entire time.”

Thankfully, there are also those in the hareidi community willing to speak out against the angry and misguided radicalism that would diminish the glory of the IDF. Writing on Behadrey Hareidim, Rabbi David Bloch, founder of Nahal Hareidi, expressed his resentment at Rabbi Tzaurger’s words. “We have been told by our ancestors: ‘Anyone who opposes the good in his friend- may end up opposing the good of Hashem’, anyone who is not grateful towards the soldier for his defense of the Jews in Israel, so he can live here in relative peace, is an ingrate.”

Rabbi Bloch continues: “There is no connection between the Zionist ideology and gratitude to those who physically make it possible with God’s help so each resident can live here, and manage his life as he sees fit. Even if we were living in exile and there are enemies who want to destroy us – we must be grateful to those who are working to save lives. One could be anti-Zionist and still be grateful to those who risked saving lives. Such a call is a serious failure of values.” The most basic Jewish value is that of expressing Hakarat ha’tov, gratitude, to anyone and everyone who does anything which is of benefit for me and certainly for society at large.

Every Orthodoxy has radical elements. To be radical in one’s love of Torah and of God is not a sin. However, when one’s embrace of Torah is expressed as hatefulness towards IDF soldiers and a damning of the bigdei kodesh that they wear, then it is a radicalism that has lost sight of true Torah.