Ask the Rabbi: What’s cooking?

KASHRUT STANDARDS in the IDF have greatly improved over the years, and we should be thankful for this.

August 3, 2019 18:36
4 minute read.
Ask the Rabbi: What’s cooking?

We must ensure that a proper balance is struck so religious IDF soldiers can comfortably eat while the needs of other soldiers with different dietary practices are not unnecessarily neglected. (photo credit: CHALON HANDMADE/FLICKR)

In recent months, Israeli newspapers reported different disputes on kashrut standards in Israeli army kitchens. In one unconfirmed case, a vegan was allegedly denied soy milk at a meat meal since it would give the false appearance (marit ayin) of illicitly mixing meat and milk. Whatever the accuracy of these reports, they raise larger questions of what standards of kashrut are necessary for an army in its bases and in the battlefield.

Before entering the Land of Israel, the Jewish people were promised by Moses that they would take over “great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill... vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. And you will eat your fill” (Deuteronomy 6:10-11). The point of Moses’ message was to exhort the Israelites not to forget that God was the source of the bountiful blessings they would receive. The Sages inferred that there was also a general allowance to consume the food in these homes, even including cuts of pig meat (Hulin 17a).

Many commentators understood this as a special indulgence during the initial conquest of the Land of Israel, following which the Jewish people would be bound by their regular dietary requirements. The medieval Bible commentator Nahmanides, for example, asserted that this blanket dispensation applied to all Israelites, and not just combat soldiers, as part of the general war booty they collected from the Canaanites. This verse, however, had no relevance to other cases of warfare.

Of course, for many centuries, all questions regarding Jewish warriors were not too relevant. When Jews began to get conscripted into Western armies in the 18th century, some saw this as an opportunity for greater integration into broader society. Yet many traditionalists understood that the demands of extended periods in army life would make religious observance of dietary rules and other rituals very difficult. Their concerns were not for life-endangering scenarios when religious restrictions are pushed aside, but rather for the many times when soldiers are on bases or in other non-combat situations.

As Prof. Judith Bleich has documented, a range of Orthodox scholars from Rabbi Yehezkel Landau in Prague to Rabbi David Sintzheim of the so-called Paris Sanhedrin during the Napoleonic era, categorically asserted that Jewish soldiers should maintain their dietary regulations (unless their life was endangered from malnutrition). Jewish communities made efforts to provide kosher food, sometimes successfully but many times not. Some Jewish soldiers made great sacrifices to avoid non-kosher meat or keep Passover restrictions, yet many others were unable (or uninterested) to abide by these regulations under such difficult circumstances. One well-known figure, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, even penned a book of guidelines to help Jewish soldiers avoid the ritual and moral pitfalls of army service.

This position was reinforced when all-Jewish brigades were formed in the British army. In World War I, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook of Jaffa, then stuck in England, told Reverend Leib Falk, chaplain of the Jewish Legion that was aiming to join battles in the Holy Land, to do everything he could to observe kosher standards. This position was reiterated in World War II by Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who argued that the Jewish Brigade must be provided with kosher food. When the State of Israel was founded, some argued that religious soldiers should be placed in separate units to maintain their religious practices. IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren strongly disagreed and convinced Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to require all units to maintain a kosher kitchen so that Israelis would serve together as a unified force.

KASHRUT STANDARDS in the IDF have greatly improved over the years, and we should be thankful for this. Yet as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow recently noted, we must ensure that a proper balance is struck so religious soldiers can comfortably eat while the needs of other soldiers with different dietary practices (like vegans, for example) are not unnecessarily neglected.

One interesting dilemma that emerged in various Israeli wars was the question of what to do when combat soldiers had limited food supplies while in enemy territory. The food shortage was not at the stage of being life-threatening but could become burdensome or distracting in the midst of warfare. Within medieval halachic literature, there were figures who extended the Talmudic dispensation to all wars beyond the original conquest of Cana’an, even as they limited it strictly to warriors. Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri, for example, asserted that in any war, soldiers with insufficient rations should not be burdened with finding food and instead could eat whatever was around, including non-kosher food. Some further argued that such a dispensation was necessary since unnecessary food hunting could ultimately expose or endanger the soldiers. Maimonides invoked an interesting paradigm for this dispensation: the Biblical law that permits soldiers to take a captive as a wife (eshet yefat to’ar). The Talmud justifies this unique law by asserting that it was meant to “subdue the evil inclination” by regulating expected antinomian behavior. Analogously, Maimonides believed it was infeasible to demand hungry (even if not starving) soldiers from eating non-kosher food; instead, the Torah permitted consuming forbidden foods rather than putting the soldiers in an untenable position.

The Israeli army generally does not rely on this perspective and always aims to provide its soldiers with kosher food. Yet, in both the First and Second Lebanon wars, mishaps occurred that left some soldiers with limited rations. The growing consensus, in my understanding, is that soldiers should rely upon Maimonides’s ruling in this circumstance under the belief that Jewish law does not want to overly burden warriors while they perform their holy service.

The writer directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and recently received his doctorate from Bar-Ilan University Law School.

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