Four years of intermittent controversy will come to an end in the near future when IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen, Avichai Ronsky steps down from his post.
Ronsky’s self-imposed stint of four years – after which he will return to the helm of the hesder yeshiva in Itamar, near Nablus, which he founded – was short compared to the IDF’s first chief rabbi Shlomo Goren’s 23 years and the second IDF chief rabbi Gad Navon’s 29 years.
Nevertheless, the seasoned combat commander who embraced Orthodoxy as an adult, in the wake of the national soul searching sparked by the Yom Kippur War, accrued his fair share of detractors, most vociferously of the left-wing, post-Zionist variety.
Along the way he radically transformed the IDF’s Chaplaincy Corps and expanded its scope to include functions previously performed by the Education Corps., such as enlisting Jewish history, culture and tradition to enhance combat motivation. Using his own diverse experiences as a model, Ronsky hand-picked a cadre of men with both combat experience and rabbinic training intimately familiar with the connection between battlefield courage and a strong Jewish identity.
Ronsky replaced the old image of the IDF chaplain, a vapid religious functionary who performed ceremonial aspects of Jewish adherence – distributing wine, supervising kashrut, leading prayers. He was, by contrast, a fighter-rabbi who combined battlefield experience with the religious training to make traditional Jewish sources relevant enough to instill soldiers – secular and religious – with conviction of purpose before battle.
Passages from the Bible, the Talmud, and Maimonides were used to show the troops they belonged to a long chain – albeit broken by exile – of fearless Jewish warriors.
This heady mixture of faith and militancy was not received enthusiastically by all.
“The chief military rabbinate long ago overstepped its authority and has transformed the IDF’s battles from wars of necessity into holy wars,” said former MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz), who served in the elite Sayeret Matkal General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. “If the chief of staff… does not set definite boundaries, he will very quickly be facing battalions of Jewish fundamentalists,” Vilan added.
He was reacting to media reports that IDF rabbis were distributing rabbinic literature to soldiers as they prepared to enter Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. One flyer, written by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, where Ronsky learned for years, warned soldiers: “When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers.”
During Cast Lead, Ha’aretz ran an editorial entitled “A Rabbinate Gone Wild,” calling on the IDF to fire Ronsky.
TO A considerable extent, however, Ronsky and the rabbis he trained were answering the heartfelt needs of soldiers who were about to risk their lives to protect their fellow citizens and homeland.
Before going into battle, those soldiers wanted their military leaders to confirm for them that Operation Cast Lead was a justified military operation aimed at stopping the constant terror of Jewish settlements within Kassam rocket-range of Gaza Strip; that armed Hamas terrorists bent on destroying the Zionist state were legitimate targets, and that the IDF was rightly obliged to minimize the loss of its soldiers’ lives in tackling them; and, more broadly and fundamentally, that the Jewish people have a right to an autonomous sovereignty in their historic homeland.
Ronsky’s IDF rabbis, comfortable and confident on issues of the Jewish
state’s right to exist in security, expressed these messages with
conviction. They backed up their messages with a profound tradition,
history and faith that every Jewish soldier, religious or secular, could
tap into as he or she saw fit. And the singularity of purpose was
resonant, too, for Druse, Beduin and other non-Jewish soldiers who had
tied their fate to that of the Jewish people.
There have always been Jews who have been uncomfortable with the
particularistic aspects of Jewish identity and those who question the
belief in the fundamental righteousness of Jews’ demands for a state in
the land of Israel. Ronsky upset some of these Jews by forcing them to
confront the fact that without these ideals, it is difficult to imagine
Zionist continuity and it is nearly impossible to meet the myriad
challenges faced by the Jewish state.
It was in highlighting this that Ronsky made his contribution to the IDF
and to the State of Israel.