Separating court and IDF

The chaplain’s job is to facilitate religious expression, not influence policy.

November 22, 2016 20:52
3 minute read.
Eyal Karim

Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim served in the Sayeret Matkal Special Forces Unit. (photo credit: IDF)

Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim has made a number of statements that do not reflect liberal, democratic values. But this should come as no surprise. The Bible and Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law – from which Karim was inspired to make his comments about treatment of female captives during wartime, homosexuality and the inadmissibility of female testimony – are hardly compatible with the values and principles of a modern democracy.

Nevertheless, the High Court of Justice should have exercised caution and not intervened in the appointment of Eyal Karim as chief rabbi of the IDF. The justices who ruled Monday to freeze Karim’s appointment to the position picked an unncessary fight.

In principle, the High Court has the power to intervene in appointments to the executive branch and to the military as part of its responsibility for protecting Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. But the court’s decision to override – even temporarily – the decision by Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to choose Karim has nothing to do with protecting Israel’s democracy.

The High Court is already under scrutiny for what is perceived by many on the Right as hyper-activism or involving itself in inherently ethical issues not strictly dealing with the interpretation of the law. By asserting itself on the issue of Karim’s appointment the court has invited new attempts to restrict its authority. This lack of prudence might lead to the undermining of the High Court’s important role in protecting minority groups’ basic human rights at a time when the Right has successfully consolidated its control over Israel’s political leadership.

Karim’s position on issues such as the treatment of female POWs or homosexuality are irrelevant, because he has no say on these matters within the IDF.

The IDF chief rabbi does not, and should not, have the power to influence IDF policy in the field of military ethics or military strategy. He does not, and should not, be moral advisers to policymakers.

Rather the IDF chief rabbi’s mandate is, and should be, restricted to accommodating the religious needs of soldiers, providing rabbinic direction in strictly religious matters that do not conflict with military orders. And these religious services or pastoral care should be provided by request and never forced upon soldiers.

Rabbis are in the IDF to ensure that all soldiers have freedom of religious expression. They provide soldiers with kosher food, they champion soldiers’ right to prayer time and to avoid as much as possible the desecration of the Shabbat. Their role, therefore, does not contradict democratic principles. The opposite is true: IDF rabbis are facilitators of religious freedom within the ranks of the IDF, not figures who attempt to introduce religious values into the IDF.

As an Orthodox rabbi, Karim’s position on issues such as homosexuality are a reflection of Orthodox Jewish tradition. Homosexual relations between men are strictly forbidden by the Bible and by Halacha. And Karim was simply reiterating this simple fact. It is too much for High Court justices to expect Karim to articulate an opinion on the matter that deviates from Orthodoxy. He is not going to revamp Judaism as he understands it. Nor is it any of the court’s business what Karim believes about these matters. It is the IDF command’s responsibility to ensure that IDF rabbis stay within the boundaries of their roles.

Confidence in high-ranking IDF officer appointments – including the IDF chief rabbi – would be boosted if the appointment process were more transparent and carried out according to specific criteria. In 2010, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstraus lamented the fact that appointment are made more on the basis of personal relations with the chief of staff and the defense minister and less in accordance with objective considerations.

The appointment process of the IDF chief rabbi should include a clear definition and delineation of his duties. The chaplain’s job is to facilitate religious expression, not influence policy. Therefore, Karim’s position on homosexuality, gender equality or the treatment of female POWs is irrelevant. Under the circumstances, the High Court had no business intervening. By choosing to, the High Court has given its critics more fuel to add to the fire.

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