(photo credit: IDF)
Rabbi Rafi Peretz will be the first IDF chief chaplain who does not have a beard, rabbinic sources in the IDF joked Wednesday.
But while Peretz's lack of facial hair may seem trivial, it is seen by some on the Right as representative of Peretz's overly moderate, highly integrationist approach to IDF service for religious soldiers.
In recent months, the controversy surrounding Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, head of the Har Bracha Yeshiva, raised the issue of ultimate loyalties. To whom do IDF soldiers who take their religious faith seriously pledge their allegiance - their rabbi or their commander?
If a soldier is commanded to carry out an order which he views as contravening Halacha - such as the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria as a preparation for the creation of a Palestinian state - should he obey the order or should he remain faithful to his religious directives?
Peretz's stand on the issue has been that Jewish unity takes precedence over strict adherence to Halacha. He passed the IDF litmus test for loyalty during the 2005 evacuation of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, when his mechina (pre-military yeshiva academy), established there in 1993, was uprooted. Peretz, his wife, and their 12 children were evacuated from their home in Atzmona.
But despite the personal loss he and his students suffered, Peretz's message remained one of reconciliation. He taught his students that insubordination was forbidden because it could lead to civil war.
A memorable picture from the summer of 2005 symbolizes Peretz's educational approach. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Dan Harel, who was OC Southern Command during the disengagement, came to Atzmona in an attempt to convince the residents to leave peacefully.
There was concern that youths, including Peretz's students, would attempt to violently oppose the evacuation. Instead, Peretz and his students hugged Harel and danced with him as they cried in mourning for the destruction of Atzmona.
The violence that erupted at Amona in February 2006, just a few months later, was seen by some as a rejection of Peretz's pacifist approach.
Settler youths grappled with police in an attempt to prevent the destruction of several buildings on the settlement that were ruled to be illegal by the High Court. Hundreds were injured in the clashes and in the end the buildings were destroyed.
But many settlers felt that the violent opposition demonstrated at Amona was a result of the lesson learned in Gaza. By fighting instead of hugging, settlers would make sure that the government would have to pay a high price for any future evacuation of settlements.
Peretz's appointment is seen by some as politically motivated. IDF commanders want the next IDF chief rabbi to promote the integration of Orthodox soldiers and to downplay differences of opinion between rabbis and army commanders.
Rabbi Pinhas Izak, former head of the IDF's Jewish Culture division, and chairman of Keren Lahav, a forum of retired IDF rabbis, said that by choosing Peretz the IDF command is hoping to avoid situations in which there is a conflict between religious and military demands.
"The commanders upstairs don't want a rabbi who is liable to challenge an IDF order because it contradicts his understanding of Halacha," said Izak.
"But I am a student of [former Chief IDF] Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who clearly stated that evacuation of settlements was forbidden by Halacha and that soldiers must refuse orders to take part in such an evacuation."
Former OC Manpower Maj. Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, who IDF rabbinic sources said might have influenced the appointment, said that Peretz would succeed better than present IDF Chief Chaplain Rabbi Avichai Ronsky in reducing tension between religious adherence and military service.
"Rabbi Rafi is a man who lives in all the worlds," said Stern. "He is a rabbi and an educator as well as a fighter. He is perfect for the position."
During Operation Cast Lead, Peretz ran combat missions as a reserve pilot.
Stern said that during Ronsky's term there were "unnecessary incidents" that were caused by "people under Ronsky."
Among them was Ronsky's comments against women serving in the IDF and his quotation of Maimonides, the medieval halachic authority, as saying that "one must not be enticed by the folly of the Gentiles who have mercy for the cruel," which Stern said was "taken out of context."
Stern also said that he and Peretz had learned together in the Netiv Meir Yeshiva High School. Later, in the First Lebanon War, Peretz, a combat helicopter pilot, flew Stern into the battlefield. And Stern's son is a graduate of Peretz's mechina.
Stern said that he was with Peretz and his family when they were evacuated from Atzmona.