Rabbi Eli Sadan is truly the father of the pre-military academy institutions. Through founding the Bnei David pre-military academy in Eli he established a model for preparing youth for the army, and at the same time created an institution that is renowned for its high number of graduates who enlist to combat units in the IDF, including many who go to elite units and go on to become officers.
But Sadan and Bnei David have come under extreme scrutiny in recent months due to comments made by senior members of the educational staff, including Sadan himself, which have generated consternation in the secular community and in the army.
In one speech, academy cofounder Rabbi Yigal Levenstein described homosexuals as perverts, while in another he disparaged young women who enlist in the army. In a lesson given three years ago, which recently came to light, Sadan made comments about the role of women in society and the home, which were condemned as chauvinistic and even misogynistic.
To many, these comments and others were totally incommensurate with the values of modern Israeli society and the IDF in particular, where so many of Bnei David’s graduates enlist, fight, command and advance in rank and influence.
What underpins these remarks is a strongly conservative ideology regarding family life, and a belief that the only path to happiness in life is through a heterosexual marriage resulting in children and grandchildren. This is combined with an obsessive conviction that homosexuals are hopelessly miserable and should seek to become straight.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post
in the offices of Bnei David, Sadan argued in defense of his positions that there is a cultural war in Israel being waged by LGBT activists, secularists and feminists, in particular against the rising prominence of the National-Religious community, and that he and his staff are pushing back against these efforts.
But he insists that his comments have been taken out of context, truncated and distorted, and so he sought to explain his positions.
The rabbi expounded that to grow religiously, preserve one’s faith and indeed to achieve success in the world outside of religious experience, a stable, heterosexual family life is absolutely vital and cannot be replaced with any other formula.
“Someone who wants to build a tall tower needs to build deep and broad foundations,” says Sadan. “The completeness of the home is the foundation of life, it is the basis. Love of God, love of the Jewish people, to act in the world, these are the supreme values. But it is impossible to do them without this basis.”
It is this unyielding position that leads directly to the fierce opposition he and his staff have to homosexuality, and to recommend psychological counseling for students in Bnei David who have said they are gay, as a means of “bringing them out” of being homosexual.
“We have had 4,000 students, including no small number of LGBTs. For most of them it [being gay] was on a psychological basis. The majority of them we sent for treatment, and they came out of it and got married, and had children and are happy,” says Sadan.
The rabbi argues that someone who was gay but has psychological therapy, subsequently marries and has children and grandchildren, will end up much happier than someone who remains homosexual, and is forced to adopt children from abroad, citing Nepal as an example, who will not integrate into Israeli and Jewish culture.
But challenged as to why he believes that all gay people are destined to be miserable, Sadan faltered, unable to comprehend that homosexuals might be happier living true to their own sexuality, and sought to compare homosexuality to a child who has fallen and hurt themselves and needs help.
“Isn’t it my job to tell someone [who is gay] to think about this possibility of psychological therapy?” he says.
The rabbi said however that no one is ever, or would ever, be coerced into getting therapy.
“He should not be coerced, you cannot force anything on anyone, if he wants, so he should stay there [gay],” he says. “We never say to force people to live differently from how they want. We are against coercion. People can live however they want. If there is someone who is like this [gay] and wants to be like this, and he requests not to be viewed as something alien, something forbidden to come into the congregation, this is an ethical request and no one in my religious world would oppose it.”
SADAN CONTENDS that his institutions and his staff have every right to convey their perspective of family life to their students, and claims that there is a concerted campaign by specific organizations in particular, The Secular Forum and Israel Be Free, to delegitimize Bnei David.
Their purpose, he declares, is to halt the advancement of Bnei David graduates in the army because they are from the National-Religious sector, and to hold back the influence of the National-Religious community in general, and are using LGBT and feminist concerns with the institutions to achieve this goal.
“The Secular Forum and Israel Be Free are the ones who have marked us as a target. Every place they see National-Religious people coming out of the bunker they are fighting them. They think National-Religious are dangerous. ‘Who gave them the right to get to these places of influence in the country?’ they say.”
Sadan averred that these two organizations are using the controversies surrounding Bnei David as a tool to demonize the National-Religious community “and make people afraid, [so as] to influence senior IDF officials not to advance National-Religious officers.”
He also accused the LGBT community of essentially being missionaries, and cited a school book he had learned of which describes heterosexual and gay families as evidence.
“LGBTs want that it [homosexuality] will be normative... The LGBT community wants legitimacy and is prepared to make a lot of people miserable for this legitimacy who could have been extracted from this community,” says the rabbi.
He said such educational tools confuse young children who may simply have a natural wariness or shyness toward the other sex, and could lead them to becoming gay.
“When you stick this in the head of a child aged five it destroys the necessary mental health required to establish a family... When you tell a person at a young age that there is no need to go there [form a relationship with a member of the opposite sex]... instead of many boys and girls passing this stage, let’s call it ‘in peace,’ and develop the ability to establish a normative family – man and woman — they are confused. This is what the fight is about.”
ASIDE FROM the controversies Bnei David has stirred over its views on homosexuality, comments made by Sadan and Levenstein on the role of women in society and the home have also aroused anger.
In particular, comments made by Sadan that women should be “dependent” on their husbands evoked a huge outcry.
The rabbi, genuinely dismayed, and angry, explains that this comment was taken out of context and was in no way meant to imply that women should not obtain higher education or pursue a career.
“I have nine daughters, and three sons, and apart from one daughter who is still young, all have studied in academic settings. All of them work and bring home a salary. One is a specialist doctor, one has a master’s in psychology, one studied agriculture and works in agriculture, some work in education. All of them, including my daughters-in-law, work and bring a salary. One of my daughters-in-law worked in Intel after finishing her master’s, and is now doing a doctorate in Harvard.
“I have never said that women’s freedom should be restricted, or to prevent a woman from having an academic career, or to stop her earning money,” he protests.
Explaining his comments about a woman being dependent on her husband, the rabbi says that both husband and wife should feel tied to each other, and that he had been objecting to the educational message, which he says is taught, that this should not be the case for a woman.
“I oppose the message that a woman shouldn’t feel dependent on her husband. I feel dependent on my wife, I cannot [be] without her. Men should feel dependent on their wives, and women on their husbands,” he continues
“I cannot function without my wife, and she cannot function without me. And it is an excellent message. That a man and his wife be dependent on each other, and build a strong home. What’s the problem?” he demands in a voice raised with ardor.
There is little doubting that Sadan does hold stereotypes of women, saying he believes them to be better at caring professions such as nursing and social work, and opining that women are in general more empathetic to men and, as such, are good at different jobs.
He says however he does not oppose women entering whatever profession they choose, including public and political leadership, noting that he supported Bayit Yehudi MK and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked
in her political career and that of Bayit Yehudi MK Shuli Moalem-Rafaeli.
Ever concerned with the marital home, however, he says a woman should ask herself before taking on such a role “if she can bring a contribution” and “does it harm her function at home?”
If she determines that she can do both, he says, “then that’s fine.”
But the rabbi makes it clear that it is his opinion that the domestic scene should take precedence.
“The Jewish perspective is that the job of mother and connection with the husband is first priority, and only afterwards come other things. Someone who thinks they can do both, welcome!” he says, adding that “anyway, there is freedom of choice,” and says that many of his students do not listen to his opinions or those of his staff.
“Definitely not. I give them the perspective of Judaism, my perspective, and say ‘choose.’”
ONE ISSUE that has roiled the National-Religious community has been the role of women in the IDF, and the increasing number of young religious women enlisting in the army instead of taking the more traditional route of National Service.
In fact it was an outburst of Bnei David cofounder Levenstein on just this topic that generated a public outcry, when he disparaged women who enlist in the IDF and said no one would marry them.
But Sadan says he opposes the recent comments of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a fellow leader in the conservative wing of the National-Religious community, in which he said he had forbidden his students to enlist until the army changes new regulations on mixed-gender service
Sadan says however that he and other rabbinic leaders are involved in dialogue with the senior IDF leadership and that they have been attentive to their concerns.
Unsurprisingly however, Sadan says it is “totally forbidden by Jewish law” to serve in a mixed-gender combat unit, saying that such service necessarily entails situations of physical contact and proximity between unmarried men and women, which Jewish law prohibits.
Somewhat unexpectedly though, he says the Chief Rabbinate should change its longstanding ruling that IDF service for women is prohibited by Jewish law, and clarify that it is a recommendation alone that they not serve, since he says mixed-gender service in a non-combat role such as intelligence or cyber-defense units and administrative positions is clearly not forbidden.
Nevertheless, the rabbi shows a lack of trust in the ability of young religious men and women to refrain from engaging in physical relationships with other soldiers if they are in a mixed-gender framework, and says he would therefore recommend against women’s IDF service.
Sadan’s overarching goal in setting up Bnei David, and indeed another, secular, pre-military academy, was to increase motivation and the rate of enlistment to IDF combat units.
He is incredibly proud of the achievements of his academy and of his graduates, asking pointedly if any other institution can boast of a 90% enlistment rate to combat units and 40% rate of graduates becoming officers, as Bnei David does.
He is therefore intensely angered by the calls that have been made to revoke state recognition and funding for Bnei David, insisting that his opinions are merely that, and that the benefit to the IDF his academy has brought, and those who have followed after him, is far more important.
It is nevertheless easy to understand the concern and worry the LGBT community feels toward the rabbi and his staff and their attitude to homosexuality and indeed students who come out.
It can only be hoped that these attitudes and policies do not overshadow Bnei David’s achievements.