"It is no wonder that irreligious soldiers die in war" said Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Saturday night in a botched attempt to encourage Jewish soldiers to adhere to a religious lifestyle.
"Should it come as a surprise if, God forbid, soldiers are killed in war?" said Yosef, spiritual mentor of the haredi-Sephardi Shas party, referring to the 119 IDF soldiers killed during the Second Lebanon War.
"When they do not adhere to the laws of Shabbat, they do not keep the Torah, they do not pray every day, they do not put on phylacteries every day? God have mercy on them [soldiers] and make them become newly religious - then they will all live a good life in peace," Yosef said.
The rabbi made the comments during his weekly Saturday night lecture - broadcast by satellite across the nation - which targets Shas's largest common denominator of supporters, including those less religiously adherent.
Instead of sparking a renaissance of religious fervor among secular Israelis, Yosef aroused a wave of indignation and disgust, especially among the religious.
Shosh Klein, mother of Maj. Roi Klein, a religious soldier who gave his life to save his soldiers in the Second Lebanon War, said that if Yosef were right her son would still be alive.
"Roi was righteous but, despite what the rabbi said, he died. That's why the rabbi's comments are aggravating and simply not true," said Shosh Klein in an interview with Ynet.
"Roi was righteous, quietly and modestly. So the rabbi's statements are not appropriate." In making his comments Yosef stepped smack onto a theological landmine: why do bad things happen to good people?
Klein, a student of the Bnei David Pre-military Academy in the Samaria settlement Eli who has become a central war hero for thousands of religious Zionist soldiers, was an embodiment of this inexplicable aspect of religious faith. Klein was known among his friends and family for his exceptional spiritual and moral attributes. During the battle for control of Bint Jbail, a Hizbullah stronghold in South Lebanon, Klein flung himself on an enemy hand grenade to absorb the impact of the explosion and save the lives of his soldiers.
Klein gave religious meaning to his selfless act by shouting out the "Shema" prayer, the most central declaration of faith in Jewish liturgy. Klein also transformed the meaning of the Shema, which in the Jewish exile was associated with martyrdom in the face of anti-Semitic persecution, into a religious battle cry.
Moshe Muskal, another bereaved parent whose religious son Refanel was killed in Maroun a-Ras, said that since Yosef's political party was part of the government coalition during the Second Lebanon War, the rabbi also bears responsibility for the deaths of the soldiers.
Muskal, who was interviewed on Army Radio, quoted from testimony given by Shas Chairman Eli Yishai before the Winograd Committee, which investigated the operational failures of the war.
According to the testimony, Yishai, a member of the government's Defense Cabinet during the war, consulted with Yosef often.
"I want to know if Rabbi Ovadia Yosef advised Yishai to check if soldiers entering Maroun a-Ras [the Lebanese village where Muskal's son was killed] put on tefilin that morning," said Muskal. "And if they did not put on tefilin, were they prevented from going to war?"
Yosef based his lecture on last week's Torah reading in Deuteronomy, traditionally read this time of year, which deals with military issues as the Jewish people prepares to enter the Land of Israel to conquer it.
The lecture was also a call for more fervent religiosity in preparation for the High Holy days next month.
Specifically, Yosef mentioned the exemption given to those who were "fearful and weak hearted." Following in the footsteps of Jewish tradition, Yosef pointed out that the fear mentioned in the Bible is not regular cowardice in the face of war. Rather it is fear that one's sins would cause one to be killed because "Satan reigns in times of danger." According to this reasoning, said Yosef, only the most righteous went to war in biblical times. Those who were sinful stayed home.
Yosef added that this would also imply that soldiers killed in war died because of their sins. Soldiers who wished to avoid being killed in war should, therefore, adhere to religious strictures in order to protect themselves.
"My rabbi does not make mistakes. Ever," said Yishai. "Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is sublime and everything he says are the words of God."
However, Rabbi Moshe Hagar, Chairman of the Union of Pre-military Academies, differed with Yosef.
"It is perfectly legitimate for someone of Rabbi Yosef's stature to call on the Jewish people as a whole to become more religiously observant," said Hagar. "But no one can know why an individual soldier dies in battle," added Hagar. "We do not claim to know the will of God."
Yosef has made several controversial comments in the past that reveal an approach to the understanding of the way God's will is revealed in the world which is strikingly similar to fundamentalist Christianity.
For instance, while fundamentalist Christians blamed Hurricane Katrina on rampant sexual lasciviousness and homosexuality in New Orleans, Yosef said that Hurricane Katrina was the US's punishment for supporting the Gaza Disengagement.