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During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Avichai Ronsky was a 21-year-old secular compaany commander with the IDF Southern Command's elite Sayeret Shaked. Out of his nearly 100 soldiers, only a handful was religious. If they needed time off for prayers or fast days, Ronsky, who was not observant but respected tradition, granted it without hesitation.
Today, Ronsky is a brigadier general and the fourth IDF chief rabbi in history. There is also no longer only a handful of religious soldiers in IDF units. In the elite Maglan unit, for example, more than half of the officers - including the commander - are religious.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post - his first since taking up the chief rabbi post last September - Ronsky, now 55 and a father of six from the northern Samaria settlement of Itamar, explained the significance of this demographic change in the IDF over the past few decades. Having become chief rabbi at a difficult time - following the disengagement from Gaza and the violent evacuation of the illegal Amona outpost - Ronsky also explained what needs to be done to retain these high numbers.
His appointment was of dual significance: As a settler rabbi, it was aimed at healing the rift these withdrawals created between the IDF and the National Religious camp. Secondly, in contrast to his predecessor Brig.-Gen. (res.) Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, Ronsky is a renowned halachic authority, particularly on matters related to the IDF (he was a colonel in the reserves), and his appointment was meant to restore the rabbinate's lost authority in the military.
Since taking up his post, Ronsky has been conducting a small revolution in the IDF, starting with revamping the rabbinate's image. He has set up two new departments - one responsible for halachic issues, led by Rabbi Eyal Krim from Ateret Kohanim; and another called "Jewish Awareness," led by the chief rabbi of the air force, a former pilot and ba'al teshuva [formerly secular Jew].
Using himself as an example, Ronsky - who became religious in 1976 with his wife, whom he met in the army - believes that rabbis in the IDF need to have a rich military background. Just before the interview, Ronsky had called a former officer in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) to offer him the post of rabbi of Military Intelligence.
"There are questions that, in order to be able to answer them, you had to have been through the same experiences," Ronsky explained, giving as an opposite example the current rabbi of a tank brigade who he said never served in the Armored Brigade. "Bringing in rabbis who also served in these units, and were officers and combat soldiers, creates trust between commanders and the rabbis, since they speak the same language," he says, claiming that there are dozens of former mid-level officers from elite combat units who are currently studying in National Religious yeshivot and kollels.
DUE TO the large number of religious soldiers in the IDF today, commanders cannot do what Ronsky did with his observant troops in 1973. "If there is a fast day, you can't just write out an exemption for religious soldiers," he says. "If you do that, you won't have the battalion commander or his deputy, since one of them is probably religious; you won't have about three company commanders, five platoon commanders and dozens of soldiers."
He gives an example: Last Saturday night, he received a phone call from an officer in Maglan with a question. Over Shabbat, ahead of a planned operation, the officer discovered that two soldiers - both religious - were a bit rusty when it came to operating a certain military system. He ordered them to train ahead of the mission, but they refused, claiming it was forbidden to train on Shabbat.
According to Ronsky, the soldiers were wrong. "Not everything is black and white," he says. "Instead, you need to know about the system, what it does, and its necessity, in order to understand that sometimes it is permissible."
One of Ronsky's goals is to restore the rabbinate's authority within the IDF. As the fourth chief rabbi in 59 years - the first, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, held the post for 23 years, and his successor, Rabbi Gad Navon, held the post for 29 years - Ronsky took over from Weiss, who grew up in the ranks of the rabbinate, but was not recognized outside the military as a halachic authority.
During Weiss's six years at the helm, soldiers preferred to turn to their rabbis back home with questions of Jewish law instead of asking the rabbinate. Ronsky, who plans to return to his yeshiva in Itamar in two years, is the opposite. Behind his desk in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, he keeps the six books of responsa he has written on military-halachic questions. Ronsky still consults with more senior rabbinical figures, including Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, chief rabbi of Jerusalem's Old City and a known halachic authority.
The second new department, "Jewish Awareness," is meant to create a relationship between the rabbinate and secular soldiers. Ronsky, who spends twice a week out in the field visiting units and spending time with commanders during exercises and security assessments, says that secular officers are yearning for substantive classes on Jewish history, tradition and heritage.
AS A rabbi with a rich combat background - Ronsky started his military career in the Naval Commandos (Shayetet 13) before moving to Sayeret Shaked - he believes that Jewish values, ethics and morals should play a role in military decision-making.
While he admits that there is not a set list of Jewish laws on how the IDF should respond to Kassam rocket fire in the Gaza Strip, he believes that through dialogue with commanders there is room to raise ideas that have a basis in Jewish tradition.
"I speak to the commanders all the time, and we have a dialogue," he says. "But it is important to keep in mind that there is not a list of set rules that you can work according to. In Judaism, there isn't even a clear answer to the question of what Jewish morals and values are."
But he admits that even when analyzing, say, the Gaza front, it is not enough to look through a halachic lens. "The IDF is not disconnected from international relations and the effect [the Gaza front] will have on society," he explains. "These situations are very complicated."
Lastly, Ronsky also leads IDF efforts to bridge the rift with the National Religious camp, created following the disengagement and the evacuation of Amona. After agreeing to accept the post, Ronsky - in an interview with a weekly religious pamphlet distributed in synagogues - that evacuating Jewish settlements as part of a disengagement did not necessarily run counter to Halacha.
He works very hard at maintaining a dialogue with the settlers and National Religious leaders - some of them his own neighbors - and has even used his connections to set up meetings for Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin, a former subordinate of his, at yeshivot throughout the territories.
While the National Religious camp is still hurting from the evacuations, he says, it has remained loyal to the state and the IDF. "The pain is still there," he admits. "But they understand that there is a lot of work ahead of us and that the state needs them."