God's army?

Religious Zionist rabbi sets out to change perception of army service as 'spiritual booby trap.'

October 8, 2007 23:59
God's army?

Hesder 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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'A soldier's uniform is like the holy garments worn by the priests in the Temple when they brought animal sacrifices before God Almighty," says Rabbi Eli Sadan, head of the Bnei David Pre-Military Academy in the Samaria settlement Eli, as he reaches for a Bible to prove his point. "The soldier, like the priests of the Temple in ancient times, should undergo a metamorphosis when adorned with an IDF uniform. The military man ceases to be solely an individual with a family, with personal interests, with desires. He becomes a messenger of the entire nation out to perform God's commandment, to serve Him." Sadan's teachings, which combine deep religious faith with military activism, garnered extensive media attention in the wake of last summer's Second Lebanon War after three of his students were killed under heroic circumstances while fighting on the frontlines and five more received medals of distinction. But no one exemplified the teachings of Sadan's academy more than Maj. Ro'i Klein, an officer who gave his own life to save his men by jumping on an enemy hand grenade. Klein imbued religious meaning in his selfless act by shouting out the "Shema Yisrael" 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 - during the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the pogroms of Eastern Europe - into a religious battle cry. Sitting in Sadan's living room we are surrounded by books of Jewish philosophy, halacha and exegesis. Two pictures of the bespectacled, erudite and dreamy countenance of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook peer down on us from opposite ends of the room. Kook is the father of religious Zionism, a school of thought that fuses ancient Jewish tradition with the building of the modern Hebrew nation. If he were alive, Kook would undoubtedly be proud of Sadan for creating an institution like Bnei David that produces soldiers who are both deeply rooted in Orthodox faith and culture and patriots of the Zionist state, soldiers who are taught that when they put on the uniform and go out to battle, they are messengers of the Jewish people. Sadan opens the Bible to Leviticus (6:3) and reads, "And the priest shall put on his linen garment and his linen breeches shall he put on his flesh..." "According to Ba'al Haturim [Rabbi Ya'acov Ben Asher, 14th century, Spain], the message is even stronger," he explains, suddenly transformed, his pedagogical charisma intoxicating. "Not only is there a parallel between the priest's garments and the army uniform. Rather, the army uniform that King David's soldiers wore when they went out to battle is the model for understanding the function of the priest's garments. Just as the military uniform helps the war effort by transforming the simple man into a warrior, so too the garment worn in the Temple by the kohen makes him cognizant of his duty." Since 1987, when Bnei David was established, Sadan and other rabbis influenced by Kook's theology who set up their own pre-military academies (there are now 16) have educated a new generation of soldiers. Every year about 900 graduates of these academies are inducted in the IDF. They represent only about 3 percent of the total annual draft. However, slowly but surely these young men, who join the IDF after spending one, and often two, years studying how to use ideas found in traditional Jewish texts to build a modern army, are changing its face. More than half of them have become combat officers and members of elite fighting units. In fact, a full 40% of graduates from officers' training courses are religious. For Sadan, army service is intimately tied to serving God. The IDF enables the Jewish people to uphold the holy injunction to take possession of the Land of Israel and rescue the Jewish nation from its enemies. As a result, the IDF uniform assumes special sanctity as a means of performing God's commandments. Just as the tefillin worn by the religious Jew take on holiness because they enable us to perform the commandment to "put" God's words "on your arm" and "between your eyes," so too the rifle, the tank, the fighter plane are all holy because they make possible upholding the commandment to defend the Jewish people in Israel. Sadan's message, which combines the ideal of modern Jewish sovereignty and self-determination as expressed in secular Zionism together with traditional Jewish culture and belief systems, is not new. Its theological foundations were set down nearly a century ago by Kook and were further explicated by his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda. Rather Sadan's talent has been in fleshing out, clarifying and distilling the older and the younger Kooks' ideas and implementing them on the ground. The results have been nothing short of revolutionary. YOAV MARGALIT, a member of Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, is a colonel and infantry division commander in reserve duty. He heads the Kibbutz Movement's defense committee, an educational body that encourages young kibbutzniks and those who study in the same high schools with them to excel in the IDF. Margalit acknowledges that in recent years the religious pre-military academies have become the new IDF leadership. "We have a lot to learn from them," he admits. "The religious pre-military academies are an educational masterpiece. These institutions produced a generation of soldiers who have surpassed the kibbutzim and moshavim in sheer numbers in officer ranks. These guys are tremendous soldiers, amazing leaders and very successful at imbuing their soldiers with a strong sense of purpose and Zionist ideals." The secular media are also waking up to this phenomenon. "Kippa-wearers taking over IDF chain of command," read a recent front-page headline in Ma'ariv. Ben Caspit, one of the paper's senior correspondents, wrote of a literal sea change in the IDF's ranks. "Every few months the IDF organizes a meeting of its senior command, from the rank of colonel and up, on a military base somewhere in the country," wrote Caspit. "If in a hypothetical experiment one were to film these periodic meetings from year to year from a ceiling view looking down on the tops of these officers' heads, one would notice the gradual increase of kippot. "If a decade or two ago one would have been hard-pressed to find more than a few kippot, today the picture would be radically different. Kippot have spread to more heads. The entire hall is spotted with them, from wall to wall." Margalit, a proud secular Zionist, says he does not feel threatened by the religiosity of this new generation of soldiers. For him, the source of their motivation is irrelevant, graduates of pre-military academies are simply good soldiers. "Religious soldiers' interests dovetail completely with the interests of the secular IDF leadership," he says. "The only possible clash of interests might be over the issue of dismantling of Jewish settlements. There are those that believe that if the IDF is used again to evacuate settlers, there will be mass insubordination among religious soldiers. But I don't think so. During the Gaza disengagement, we saw that the IDF, not the rabbis, was the one giving the orders to religious soldiers." MARGALIT MAY be right that heads of religious pre-military academies, including Sadan, are adamantly opposed to any sort of insubordination, even when soldiers are asked to dismantle settlements. However, it would be wrong to think that pre-military academy rabbis see eye-to-eye with the IDF on all issues. "The IDF and other Zionist institutions were created without any truly Jewish influences," Sadan says. "And our goal is to change that. "After nearly two millennia of exile without sovereignty, without an army, the secular Zionist founders of Israel were suddenly confronted with the prospect of building a state. Religious leaders were too busy doing what they had been doing for hundreds of years, namely closing themselves off from the outside world in ghettos. As a result, they shunned the entire enterprise. So when it came time to establish an army, the early Zionists went and learned the art from the goyim." Sadan laments the fact that as a result of the Orthodox withdrawal from the task of state building, there were no genuinely Jewish influences that informed Israel's founders. "The IAF was modeled after the British and US air forces which turned it into the one of the best in the world," he says. "But in addition to the positive aspects, the Israeli pilot also borrowed the British and American pilot's hubris and women-chasing. "The Palmah was established by individuals highly influenced by the Russian army. As a result, in addition to the tactical expertise they learned from the Russians, these men also brought with them coarse Russian culture and filthy language." According to Sadan, negative cultural influences derived from gentile nations still exist in the IDF. "Imagine you are a religious soldier and, after many months of incredibly difficult training with your unit, the IDF has decided to give you all a weekend vacation at a hotel as a reward for your hard work. What will you do when everyone, men and women, go together to the pool? Or when they go dancing? "On one hand, you want to be with everybody. You don't want to give the wrong impression. But on the other hand, their secular culture is not yours." Until Sadan came along, mainstream religious Zionism saw army service as a potential spiritual booby trap that should be avoided. Not unlike their haredi brothers, religious Zionists were wary of the IDF's adverse influences. Bringing together 18-year-old men and women in army barracks and on the physical training courses or even in Home Front Command offices was seen as a recipe for spiritual disaster. In the past, high-school graduates who were serious about their religious duties were encouraged to join a hesder yeshiva. These yeshivot were designed to protect spiritual vulnerable soldiers from the adverse impact of mingling in a very secular environment. They reached an arrangement (hesder) with the IDF which permitted their students a shortened 16-month military stint. Hesder soldiers were inducted in groups, often serving in segregated, all-religious platoons. Three and half years of yeshiva learning was split into two periods, one before and one after military service, to sandwich the potentially dangerous army stint with a cushion of religious study. The fears of the religious Zionist establishment were not unfounded. Rabbi Yehuda Avital, who in the 1980s was the head of the Union of Hesder Yeshivot, commissioned a survey that found that half of the graduates of yeshiva high schools who did not join a hesder yeshiva ended up abandoning religion by the end of their three years of service. If they went on to officers' training, only 20% remained religious. But Sadan felt that the hesder yeshivot's approach was just another version, albeit more moderate, of Orthodoxy's apprehensive stance vis-à-vis secular Zionism. He was not oblivious to the spiritual dangers facing religious soldiers. But he believed that Israel had created a new religious reality which desperately needed the input of religious Jews. The era of exile was over. No longer could religious Jews ignore the challenges of building and maintaining a modern state. Rather they had an obligation to participate equally in all aspects of society, including the IDF. Sadan's idea was to teach religious high-school graduates that there was no contradiction between religion and the military; rather they were one and the same. The IDF protects the lives of Jews and makes it possible for the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel. Being the best possible soldier is a religious obligation. Excelling as a soldier and becoming an officer is a way of perfecting one's service to God. "Both secular and haredi Israelis have adopted the mantra that there is an inherent contradiction between Judaism and a modern state," Sadan says. "That's perhaps part of the reason why secular Israelis gave up on Judaism. That's also why the haredim have decided, at least until the messiah comes, to give up on the idea of building a Jewish state. "Each of these groups has devoted itself totally to its ideals. Secular Zionists worked wonderfully to establish a state based on secular values. The haredim, in contrast, have created incredible yeshivot and Torah scholars, which we of course need for the Jewish people. But secular and haredi are hopelessly alienated. "I envision a day when we successfully raise a generation of idealistic young people who are no less admirable than the secular Zionist founding fathers - but who are also inspired to live a life of Torah and Judaism. If we manage to do that, it will be tremendous. We are talking about a spiritual, moral and ideological contribution that has yet to appear on a national level." However, Sadan and other rabbis of pre-military academies are faced with a dilemma. As long as their students remained a small and insignificant minority of the IDF's combat forces, they were not considered a threat to mainstream secular Zionist ideals. They were free to educate a new generation of religious soldiers and grow by leaps and bounds. But in recent years as they have become what Ma'ariv's Caspit referred to as "the backbone of the IDF," some secular commanders see them as a foreign, potentially negative influence that is liable to take over the IDF. Unlike kibbutzniks and moshavniks, religious Zionists cannot claim to represent mainstream Zionism. They will always be viewed as outsiders by the secular majority. The pre-military academy rabbis are wary of the potential for a secular backlash. "We have no intention of 'taking over' the IDF," Sadan says. "We don't want to be setting the dominant tone at a time when the majority of Israelis are secular. If that were to happen, the IDF would cease to be the army of the people. And that would be bad for everyone."

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