A few events transpired over the past few weeks in Israel which are worthy of discussion. They evolved from opposing angles yet prove to be major points of deliberation when considering the future of Jewish identity in the country.
Two weeks ago Chief Rabbi David Lau criticized Education Minister Naftali Bennett for visiting a Solomon Schechter school (of the Conservative branch of Judaism) in New York, and at least from Rabbi Lau’s perspective, giving unmerited recognition to the Conservative movement, which according to Rabbi Lau “distances Jews from the path of the Jewish people.”
Needless to say, although not surprising it is rather presumptuous of Rabbi Lau to assume that only he knows what the “path of the Jewish people” should be. It is also typically divisive and antithetical to what the chief rabbinate should represent in the sense of Jewish unity. The saddest part of his unseemly condemnation was the way he criticized Bennett, saying, “If Minister Bennett had asked my opinion before the visit I would have said to him explicitly, ‘You cannot go somewhere where the education distances Jews from tradition, from the past and from the future of the Jewish people.”
This statement exposed Rabbi Lau’s ignorance or arrogance, take your pick, because it demonstrates how he continues to assume that people from the National Religious crowd would even bother to ask him a question, let alone seek the advice of the Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, and Rabbi Yakov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, added insult to injury by proclaiming boorishly that, “[The Conservative movement] represents a spiritual Holocaust,” failing to consider whether the word “Holocaust” should ever be used in the context of describing part of the Jewish people and demonstrating their lack of knowledge of and sensitivity toward the dynamics of the Jewish Diaspora community (and here, for that matter). Indeed, it is highly unlikely that these rabbis have ever met or would agree to meet a Conservative Jew.
Sadly, it was Yizhar Hess, the director of the Conservative movement in Israel who pointed out that both the institution of the Chief Rabbinate and the chief rabbi himself are irrelevant – but in the end it was Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, the head of Machon Zomet, who said what needed to be said.
Rabbi Rozen, who is never afraid of speaking his mind and always states what he feels is the truth regardless of how controversial he might sound, said, “I am completely perplexed; have we really gone to such extents that we have lost sight of proportions? Is it really the appropriate time to reawaken an old war among brothers?” Rabbi Rozen’s comment could not have been more fitting considering that the week in which this pointless accusation took place coincided with the reading of the Torah portion which introduced the exile of the 12 tribes to Egypt, the consequence of senseless hatred and jealousy between brothers who may have had varied approaches to the world around them but who should have appreciated the father and tradition they shared in common. Our rabbis and representative leadership can disagree on various important issues and approaches but it should never be at the expense of discounting one’s right to seek a meaningful relationship with the people or the land of Israel, lest God forbid we suffer once again consequences like those suffered by our forefathers before us. Which leads to the second issue at hand.
A few weeks ago Salon Asyag, whose daughter was recently drafted into the IDF, complained that during the first week of her daughter’s service she was taken to Kfar Chabad where she participated in the hafrashat challah (separating part of the challah dough to bake challah for Shabbat) ceremony. Asyag was disturbed not only that her daughter had participated in the ceremony but that the army would advocate such rituals and write them off as educational and cultural experiences. Asyag accused the army of religious coercion and was troubled by the fact that “one of the first values that my daughter received from the IDF was the value of being a religious Jew; this is not a value I would have expected the Israeli army to give my child.”
As a result of Asyag’s complaints, the ensuing weeks brought much scrutiny of and skepticism toward the Jewish Identity branch of the IDF and the work it does with soldiers. To make matters worse, during these same few weeks Prof. Yagil Levi published a book called Hamefaked Haliyon in which he criticizes both rabbis of the army as being coercive and religious Zionist rabbis for trying to force religion upon the army by sending “too many” of their fanatical religious Zionist students to elite combat units. Levi also claims in his book that the rabbis of the IDF transmit subliminal religious messages to commanding officers and soldiers and are intent on spreading a radical religious mantra. Col.
(res.) Gershon Hakohen, who is from a religious Zionist family but who is himself not observant, commented that what Levi suggests in his book is utterly ridiculous and that he is merely expressing a fear which is prevalent among many non-religious communities throughout Israel.
Hakohen explains that these Israelis refuse to recognize that a large segment of Israeli society today, including the IDF, is religious, or at the very least identifies with what religion has to offer. I am not sure I would go so far, but I do believe that large segments of the secular Israeli public today are beginning to recognize that in this day and age ideology is hard pressed, and the prevailing ideological voice today in the IDF stems from religious, observant and traditional soldiers. Hakohen continues, “The group of people that Levi represents [from the Left] are decreasing in numbers and becoming weaker, and therefore they delegitimize a group which is growing and becoming more influential, in order to make themselves feel more important or to relieve their concerns.” He concludes by saying, “The atmosphere and education that religious Zionist youth receive, be it from school or from the home, is demanding in terms of their encouragement and allegiance to the Jewish land and people, and it is for this reason that students from religious institutions are the ones who are fighting in the front lines; they have something to believe in and they know what is worth fighting for.”
AS SOMEONE who works for the Jewish Identity branch of the IDF, I want to clarify that the IDF rabbinate goes out of its way to ensure that nothing should be perceived as coercive, but at the same time its obligation and job is to infuse our soldiers, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, with a sense of Jewish identity. In practical terms this means that we try to provide our soldiers with a sophisticated understanding of the basics and foundations of our heritage. We do so by reviewing certain insights and texts from the Torah, witnessing rituals from Jewish holidays such as conducting Passover Seders, blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana and hosting Purim parties on base, as well as guiding seminars and trips to places of historical significance in Israel and offering insights about these places both from a traditional as well as a Zionist perspective.
I might add that many lectures and activities are optional and the ones which are mandatory typically deal with messages of Jewish heroism throughout the ages, including episodes from the Torah and the Prophets, as well as Jewish unity and how it is exhibited and how it can be enhanced in the Jewish homeland.
The Jewish Identity branch of the IDF is essential to the army because of the fact that Jewish identity is essential to the existence of the country. This has nothing to do with religion, but it has everything to do with remaining Jewish, and much like America seeks to preserve its patriotic spirit, Israel must sustain its distinctive Jewish character because that is what has ensured our survival, as we have witnessed often painstakingly through the generations.
There are many Israelis, including high-ranking officers in the IDF, who either do not recognize this or choose to ignore it. Unfortunately many of them are self-deprecating Jews who are afraid because they recognize that the main voice of ideology, nationalism and idealism in Israel today is coming from the religious Zionists, simply because the religious Zionists understand the importance of believing in something, embracing values and enhancing the foundations of yesteryear as they apply today.
These Israelis, who are so defensive and try tirelessly to demonstrate their open mindedness by discarding their traditions and links to them, must realize that in so doing they are not merely rejecting religiosity; they are compromising their children’s sense of Jewish nationalism. Israel is and always has been a country that is premised upon ideology and Judaism plays the major role in molding and maintaining that ideology. If the upper echelon of the IDF wants to remain as such, they should come to terms with the fact that challah making will not make their soldiers religious, but may very well fortify their desire to be Jewish, which is the key to a triumphant Israeli army.
Actions and reactions like those of Rabbi Lau demonstrate that many rabbis allow their fanaticism to overtake their rationality and desensitize their sense of judgment, but at the same time secular Israelis, particularly those presumed to be capable and intelligent, such as IDF officers and university professors, should know better than to judge Judaism by the Jews. We must rid ourselves of unwarranted hatred and jealousy and cherish a Judaism that fosters brotherhood first and foremost.The author serves as a lecturer for the IDF to help motivate troops and infuse Jewish Identity. In addition he started an initiative offering lectures throughout the country on the basics of Judaism to Secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim – www.makommeshutaf.com . He is the author of four books and is a renowned guest lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora www.rabbihammer.com