Reports about the meeting between the Chief of Staff and the rabbinical leadership of the religious Zionist sector are not reassuring. As long as the Chief of Staff leaves the order requiring religious soldiers to listen to female singers intact, in essence, the basic position of the Joint Chief of Staff that Jews can be forced to violate their halakhic customs continues unchanged, and consequently, there is no heightened confidence in their ability to respect Jewish tradition and religious soldiers.
The principle must be as clear as the afternoon sun: In the IDF, Jews are not forced to violate any religious law. From the time this principle was violated, all has been breached.
From the scores of responses I received to my previous articles, it seems dealing with questions of soldiers in the army is vital. Since it is a broad subject, it is appropriate to present it from different angles in order to air the problems, and no less important – to gain assistance from the wisdom accumulated by numerous people (I cannot publish all of the letters due to a shortage of space, however, I learned something from all of them).
“Rabbi Melamed, Shalom! As one who served as a rabbi in the IDF, I would like to say that most of the problems could be solved if army orders and regulations were adhered to. The problem is that no one is familiar with them, and as a result, constant confrontations persist around religious issues, harming religious soldiers.
When I participated in a course for army rabbis, I was the only one of all the soldiers and staff (!) who knew about the General Staff standing orders in matters of religion. After a lot of pressure on my part, they brought us a small, incomplete pamphlet of some of the General Staff’s orders. In practice, no classes were given on these orders – let alone a test that would ensure army rabbis in fact knew them!
People think that someone who makes use of General Staff standing orders is petty, and that if a soldier attempts to use them, officers will retaliate with other orders that will make life harder for religious soldiers. In practice, the reality is the exact opposite. Anyone who knows his rights and is ready to fight for them, will not have to fight for them again. As in martial arts – the more skilled you are, the less you have to fight…
When I served as an army rabbi, the officer’s staff at the base knew that I was thoroughly acquainted with the General Staff orders, and that it wasn’t worth their while to tamper with religious issues. When a soldier ceases conducting negotiations and sticks to the General Staff orders, he attains all he needs, and tensions subside. At first, this takes courage; but in the end, it pays off. It is vital for army rabbis to know the orders thoroughly, and we also need to teach those preparing to enlist the orders, and how to use them.
I will re-count an incident I witnessed: A religious soldier at the beginning of his basic training, the atmosphere around him being secular, asked on the Tenth of Tevet (a Jewish day of fasting) to remain in the synagogue, participate in the Torah program that I had prepared, and rest in his room. His commander claimed that there were practical lessons in the classroom on that day, and there was no reason for him not participate in them – after all, in civilian life, people normally work as usual on fast-days. According to my instruction, the soldier replied that all orders must be obeyed, and the order states that a soldier who is fasting is exempt from any activity.
If the commander treats General Staff orders as mere recommendations, his orders will also be treated as such, he explained. The commander was furious, and came to me demanding I find a breach in the orders to compel the soldier to attend classes. I explained to the officer – who was new at the base – that a few months beforehand, I had made sure that an officer was put on trial because he ordered a soldier to go to the weapons’ depository and sign-off on a rifle on a fast-day, and that if he was interested, I could arrange a similar trial for him as well.
The impact of my position, and that of the soldier who was willing to stand up for it, was dramatic. I accompanied numerous basic training courses over the years with a variety of commanders and soldiers, and that was the course that confronted all religious issues in the smoothest way – to the benefit of all sides.”
“The commanders want the religious soldiers to return to the timetable as fast as possible. The soldiers want time to pray with ‘kavana’ (intent), and perhaps learn a little Torah. If not for the General Staff orders, religious soldiers would have to argue anew every morning about being granted time for prayers. When there is a General Staff order, both the soldiers and the commanders know that there is no point in arguing.
In the past, IDF generals and rabbis convened, investigated the subject in all its’ aspects, and reached a balanced (relatively speaking) standing order. The problem begins when recruits or lesser-ranking commanders think their perspective is more inclusive, and begin to tamper with the commands.
According to the General Staff Standing Order (# 34.0301), the time to be allocated for Shacharit (morning services) on weekdays is 40 minutes, and on Monday’s and Thursday’s – 50 minutes. For Mincha(afternoon prayers) and Ma’ariv (evening prayers) – 15 minutes for each prayer. On Chol HaMoed (Intermediate Days of the Festivals) – two hours for Shacharit, and 30 minutes for Mincha and Ma’ariv each. Clearly, the addition of ‘Ya’aleh ve Ya’vo’ (a short additional supplication) in the ‘Amida’ (Silent) prayers on Festivals takes less than 15 minutes, but in the all-encompassing view of the General Staff and Chief Rabbi at the time, they understood that at least some of the religious soldiers needed time to “recharge spiritually”. Therefore, the General Staff orders stipulated these times, so that once every six months there would be a few days when a soldier could pray calmly, and add a few halakhot or nigunim (melodies) in preparation for prayer.
Often religious soldiers, and occasionally army rabbis, who have good intentions, tell the commanders that there is no need for the full amount of time for prayers stipulated in the orders. By doing so they cause immense damage.
At the beginning of basic training, religious soldiers are not always aware of their emotional difficulties. Only over time, after having already waved their rights, do they try and safeguard themselves, but at that point, it is very difficult for them. When religious soldiers cut back on prayer time they create social pressure for the rest of the religious soldiers, making them look like “schemers”, and without noticing, cause many of them to suffer difficult religious or psychological crises.
Anyone who was in the army knows that not everyone who enters the army religious or emotionally stable, comes out the same way. Is finding favor with one’s officers, or gaining an extra ten minutes of free time, worth the risk? ”
“When I was at base X, there was a gym in which I wanted to work-out. According to IDF Order # 33.0207, since the base is defined as a ‘closed base’ (i.e., soldiers sleep there), the gym must operate each week for a minimum of four hours for men only and four hours for women only, and announce the hours.
“I went to the gym operator, a non-commissioned officer, and asked her to allocate a few separate hours so I could work-out. At first she advised me to come at times when the gym was usually empty. When I said that I wished to avoid unpleasant circumstances, and wanted defined hours, she answered that I was the only one at the base with such a request, and there was no reason to limit everyone else just because of me.
“I saw no point in arguing with her. I went directly to the commander in charge of training and education at the base, and I told him I was not asking for a favor, but rather, that orders be obeyed. The gym and its equipment belong to the army, and we are all soldiers obeying orders. The commander understood immediately, and ordered the non-commissioned officer to publish a list of separate hours within two days.
I was elated to discover religious men and women soldiers whoצ I did not know, and who were too embarrassed to ask, welcomed the opportunity and began working-out during the separate hours, and were even more determined than I was.”
Such are the wise words of a former army rabbi.
“In the wake of previous columns, we wanted to share with you, Rabbi, our story: We were two soldiers who performed our military service about ten years ago in the framework of a Hesder yeshiva, but not in a unit of ‘beinish’im’ (an acronym for “yeshiva students”). During our service, we encountered a lot of substantial and minor problems that are liable to trouble a religious soldier.
"We were able to solve most of the problems by turning directly to our personal commanders. However, there were a few serious problems that they lacked sufficient willingness to resolve. We then found out about soldiers’ ombudsman for complaints, and we often used the services of this important organization. Contrary to what it seems, it’s a simple process that involves filling out a single form, free of charge.
"We especially wanted to talk about one incident that surpassed all. We were two ‘beinish’im‘ in the operations room of our brigade, in an army base on the border between Israel and Egypt. True, the problem of infiltrators did not yet exist, and during routine hours our main preoccupation was training and contending with stray camels. The most difficult problem was Shabbat. Since we are talking about an active border, we found ourselves required to do countless tasks which at best, were not a matter of ‘pikuach nefesh’ (life-threatening situations where Shabbat laws are suspended), and at worst, were the result of the whim of one of the officers in the operation room, or in the field.
"We made an attempt to complain, and tried to get solutions through our direct officers and those above them. After failing to receive a response, we turned to the IDF Rabbinate (at the brigade level, and at a higher level), but it took them a long time to answer, their response was extremely general, and it did not solve the problems on the ground.
"In our distress, we decided to send a complaint to the ombudsman. Within a day and a half after sending the complaint, we were summoned to a meeting with the battalion commander, who shouted at us for about ten minutes, and in conclusion, informed us that he forbade us to complain in the future, unless the complaint passed through him first.
"The minute we left his office, we sent another complaint about the ‘chutzpah’ (brazenness) of the battalion commander, who dared to forbid us to complain without his permission. Following the first complaint, a solution had already been found to the ‘chilul Shabbat’ [desecration of Shabbat] – a solution that had not been taken into previous consideration – but the attitude of all the commanders towards us was extremely hostile.
"A few days later, when they came to check the second complaint, everyone began treating us respectfully, and creative methods were found to solve all the religious problems as well.”
This indeed is the fitting and right way to act. However, it should be noted that most soldiers are unable to stand up to their commanders with such courage. Nevertheless, it is essential for them to consult with their parents and rabbis in order to solve the problems during their service, and fulfill the Torah obligation to rebuke by filing a complaint – at the latest, after completing their service under those same commanders. If they do not submit a complaint, they have canceled a Torah mitzvah, and are also considered partners in all the harm their commanders caused in matters of religion.
And the heroes who manage to stand up to their commanders, strengthen their characters, and pave the way for their future. Today, one of the authors of the letter is about to complete a doctorate in physics, and the other one serves in a senior management position.
The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: