War and faith

Mixing religion and war is dangerous. Any attempt to allow unchecked religious fervor inroads into our military must be prevented.

July 14, 2016 20:17
3 minute read.
Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim (left), nominated to become IDF chief rabbi, sits next to his predecessor, Bri

Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim (left), nominated to become IDF chief rabbi, sits next to his predecessor, Bri. (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY/DIANA HANANSHIVILI)


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Centuries of experience have taught that mixing war with religion is a dangerous business. The blind, irrational conviction common to people of faith tends to make them exceptionally immune to appeals to reason. And when these people are given guns, bombs and other assorted military equipment to use to enforce their intolerant views, they tend to be especially dangerous.

One need not look far to see how religion has been a cause of strife and bloodshed, from centuries of religious wars between Protestants and Catholics in Europe to more contemporary clashes between Sunnis and Shi’ites or between Hindus and Muslims.

For nearly two millennia, before the creation of the State of Israel, Jews had overwhelmingly been on the receiving end of violence inspired by religious faith. After returning to our historic homeland, however, Israelis run the risk of allowing rabbis to inject dangerous religious intolerance into the IDF. The real potential for transforming Israel’s defensive wars against enemies motivated by religious zealotry into a religious war between competing notions of heavenly demands was demonstrated this week by the controversy surrounding the appointment of Col. Eyal Karim as IDF chief rabbi.

Public comments made by Karim on issues such as homosexuality, war ethics and the precedence of Halacha over IDF rules and regulations rightly aroused concern that Karim would have a detrimental influence on young soldiers. But Karim was only being candid about his religious convictions, which he is allowed to express openly thanks to the democratic rights provided to him by the secular State of Israel.

For instance, when Karim said it was permissible during wartime for Jewish soldiers to rape non-Jewish women, he was only quoting Jewish law. Maimonides, perhaps the greatest halachic authority in history ruled that such rape was allowed in the midst of battle, even before the non-Jewish woman is forcibly brought back to the home of the Jewish soldier.

And when Karim spoke of how homosexuality was “a reality that needs to be changed” he was only expressing his belief held by many Orthodox rabbis that conversion therapy actually works.

Similarly, when he attempted to explain why Halacha does not recognize the testimony of women and claimed that women are naturally sentimental and therefore cannot cope with being cross-examined in court, Karim was once again being faithful to what is considered a legitimate view by normative Orthodox Judaism.

No amount of reasoning will convince Karim that homosexuals are not sick people in need of psychological therapy, that women are men’s equals intellectually and that rape of all kinds should be outlawed in times of war.

That’s because Karim is a member of the faithful who truly believes that all of these views reflect God’s will.

It is the beauty of Israel’s democracy and liberalism that men like Karim cannot be persecuted for holding these opinions and can worship God freely. Indeed, a Jewish state has a unique obligation to ensure that authentic Orthodox Judaism is allowed to flourish. The vast majority of Orthodox practice and beliefs does not contradict democratic principles that respect the equal rights of all human beings.

Men like Karim, however, should not be allowed to import some of the darker aspects of Orthodox Judaism belief and practice into the IDF ranks. Therefore, if there is to be an IDF chief rabbi at all, his powers should be strictly limited to issues of ritual and the protection of the religious rights of soldiers. For instance, religious soldiers should not be forced to violate the Shabbat unnecessarily, nor should they be forced to eat non-kosher food. They should be given ample time to pray when possible.

But it also must be made clear to all IDF soldiers – Karim included – that they are subject to the authority of the military hierarchy. And the IDF is subject to the democratically elected government, which is itself committed to basic principles as articulated in the State of Israel’s basic laws that protect fundamental human rights and freedom.

Mixing religion and war is dangerous. Any attempt to allow unchecked religious fervor inroads into our military must be prevented. If there is to be an IDF chief rabbi, his functions must be clearly defined so as to preclude inculcation of male chauvinism, prejudices about homosexuality or disdain for non-Jews.

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