(photo credit: Courtesy)
Most Israelis expect their military rabbis to confine themselves to such tasks as making sure the army provides kosher food and respects the Sabbath. But lately, some of them are asserting their own idea of Jewish virtue at the risk of stepping into the country's culture wars.
Some critics worry that the military rabbinate and its charismatic chief, Brig.Gen. Avichai Rontzki, are infusing a militant mix of Judaism and nationalism into a traditionally secular institution that embodies the Israeli consensus.
On the Palestinian side, Islamic hard-liners already see their war with Israel through an uncompromising religious lens, and the rabbinate's critics warn that the Jewish state must not follow suit or risk pushing the conflict closer to a zerosum holy war.
When IDF soldiers massed on the Gaza border for the offensive against Hamas six months ago, uniformed rabbis stood amid the tents and tanks, reciting prayers with the men as they prepared for battle. When the troops went into Gaza, Rontzki went in with them.
That might not have seemed unusual, but some rabbis went further, distributing pamphlets that put the conflict firmly in religious terms. One suggested a parallel between today's Palestinians and the biblical Philistines.
After criticism arose, the army condemned the pamphlet and Rontzki said it was distributed without his knowledge.
But the critics say it was in line with a pattern that goes against the heterogeneous nature of Israel's conscript army.
The IDF's estimated 175,000 regular troops include some Muslim Arabs, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who identify as Christians. The military's advocate-general is Orthodox, and the editor of its official magazine is openly gay. All soldiers have access to their own clergy and observe their religions' holidays, though only Jewish chaplains wear uniforms and serve in the military rabbinate.
Rontzki was given the job in 2006, after relations between the government and the settler movement were soured by the evacuation of 8,000 settlers from Gaza the year before.
Saying Gaza was Jewish land, and fearing settlements in the West Bank would be next to go, some settlement supporters called on soldiers to refuse orders and even to dodge the draft. Rontzki, himself a West Bank settler, was not among the resisters. A former combat officer who came to religion as an adult, and who had become an influential rabbi, he seemed the perfect candidate to heal the rift.
The army chose Rontzki "instead of a more moderate personality with the hope of avoiding the kind of problems discussed around the withdrawal from Gaza," said Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian who has studied the settler movement.
"In the process, it has given a very prominent pulpit to someone whose views on other issues are extremely controversial," he said.
Rontzki pioneered a new arm of the rabbinate dedicated to Jewish education, dubbed the Jewish Consciousness division. During the Gaza war his staff distributed colorful pamphlets exhorting soldiers to victory, accompanied by prayers, photographs of uniformed men in prayer shawls, and a number to call with questions on religious law.
Rabbis have always been a visible component of military life, ministering to troops in the field and officiating at soldiers' funerals. But as the political clout of the Orthodox has grown in recent years, so has the sensitivity of secular Israelis to signs of religious influence in state institutions, especially the military.
"Under Rontzki's command, the rabbinate is giving the conflict a religious overtone, and they are also using their free access to soldiers to work toward political goals," said Michael Sfard, an attorney for Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group. Those goals, critics like Sfard say, include making sure the West Bank remains in Jewish hands for good.
Rontzki has been accused of speaking out against military service for women - he denies it - and after Bamahane, the army magazine, profiled a homosexual major, Rontzki wrote to several senior officers to protest.
Israel's army is proud of the opportunities it provides to women and openly gay soldiers.
"A senior IDF officer who believes that it would be better for women not to be drafted and that homosexual soldiers should be erased from official army publications... does not deserve to serve in his position," the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote to IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
The military responded that Rontzki was expressing his personal opinions. It declined to let Rontzki be interviewed, but Maj. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman, said his actions were in line with military orders.
"The jobs of the rabbinate have not changed," Leibovich said. "The rabbinate is not supposed to be a substitute for the commander on the ground, but to give a spiritual boost to a religious soldier who might need it."
The rabbinate's new approach comes at a time of rising Orthodox influence in the military's combat units. Elite troops once came predominantly from the socialist kibbutz movement; today they are more likely to be people like Rontzki - skullcapped, yeshiva-educated and steeped in an ethos of national service, sacrifice and building settlements.
The military does not keep statistics on religious affiliation, but it is clear that more Orthodox are making their way up the ranks. Some estimates say a quarter of the troops now completing combat officers' training are religious. However, kippas like the one worn by 57-year-old Ronzki are still rare among the top brass, which remains overwhelmingly secular.
Some Orthodox leaders and educators voice concern that serving alongside secular conscripts weakens religious conviction. One of Rontzki's goals has been to counter that tendency.
Most in the army think Rontzki's activist Judaism is good for morale, said Maj.Gen. (res.) Ya'acov Amidror, who is Orthodox himself.
Rontzki "has pushed himself into areas the military rabbinate never went before," Amidror said. Referring to the Gaza operation, he said, "His approach was that the spiritual guide needs to be with the flock - it can't be that soldiers are in there and rabbis are not."