Religious affairs: Keeping the faith?

Responding to the ire Rabbi Ovadia Yosef aroused among the public in general and bereaved parents in particular, supporters have spent the week scrambling to defend his statements about fallen IDF soldiers.

ovadia yosef emphasizing (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ovadia yosef emphasizing
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
At the week drew to an end, the haredi media and Shas spokesmen continued to defend Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's comments to the effect that IDF soldiers die in war because they are not fastidious enough in observing their religious duties. Yossi Elituv, a senior reporter at the weekly Mishpaha, attacked Yosef's critics in an analysis entitled "Despicable demagogues," while Yitzhak Sudri, a former Shas spokesman, accused the secular media of "hypocrisy" and "yellow journalism" in an op-ed published on the NRG Web site. They and others wrote that they were appalled at the media "lynching" perpetrated against Yosef. Yosef's controversial comments were made last Saturday night during his weekly sermon, broadcast by satellite to the thousands of faithful who make up the hard core of Shas's political base. "Should it come as a surprise if, God forbid, soldiers are killed in war?" Yosef said, referring to the 119 soldiers killed in the Second Lebanon War. "When they do not adhere to the laws of Shabbat; they do not keep the Torah; they do not pray; they do not put on tefillin every day... God have mercy on them and make them repent - then they will all live a good life in peace." Observant bereaved parents were the most outspoken critics of his comments. For instance, Shosh Klein, mother of Maj. Roi Klein, an observant soldier who flung himself on a hand grenade, thus sacrificing his life to save his fellow soldiers in the Second Lebanon War, said that if Yosef were right, her son would still be alive since he was righteous. Klein even gave religious meaning to his act by shouting out the Shema, the most central declaration of faith in Jewish liturgy, just before the explosion. For parents like Shosh Klein, Yosef's sermon was an accusation - as if he were implying that their children, who had given their lives for their country, many of them in very heroic, selfless ways, had somehow not done enough; as if these soldiers in some way deserved to be killed. Nevertheless, instead of offering an apology, both Sudri and Elituv aggressively defended Yosef. In a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post, Sudri even voiced his disdain for members of Shas who had resorted to apologetics. "I don't like the approach of some people who feel the need to reinterpret the rabbi's words, as if we were sorry about anything he said." He was referring to sources in Shas who tried to calm the public outcry by telling reporters Yosef was not referring to IDF soldiers. Rather, they said, he was referring to biblical times when the Jewish people waged wars against their idolatrous enemies to conquer the Land of Israel. Interestingly, both Sudri and Elituv defended Yosef on theological grounds. "He does not need anyone's approval for his basic faith in the authentic Jewish principle that Torah scholarship and adherence to the mitzvot are what protect our soldiers. Period," wrote Elituv. "Our very existence here as a people in this land, as we have learned from our holy Torah, depends on our diligence in keeping the Torah." Sudri argued that a basic tenet of Jewish faith is the belief that doers of good deeds are rewarded while sinners are punished. "Is it really new to anyone that people of faith believe that our destiny is tied to our actions?" he asked. BUT NEITHER Sudri nor Elituv dealt with what truly bothered the bereaved parents. They were upset at Yosef for ignoring the fact that sometimes bad things happen to good people. Yosef based his controversial comments on last week's Torah reading from Deuteronomy that deals with military issues as the Jewish people prepares to enter the Land of Israel to conquer it. Specifically, Yosef mentioned the exemption given to those who were "fearful and weak-hearted." Quoting rabbinic sources, he pointed out that the fear mentioned is not plain cowardice in the face of war. Rather, it is the prospective soldier's fear that if he took part in battle, his sins would cause him to be killed, since in times of danger, God is more exacting with his people. According to this reasoning, said Yosef, in biblical times only the most righteous went to war; those who were sinful stayed home. This would also imply that soldiers who were killed in battle died because of their sins. Soldiers who wished to avoid dying in battle should, therefore, be meticulous about adhering to God's commands. Yosef's intention seemed to be to encourage the faithful, including soldiers and their families, to strengthen their adherence to religious commands. The rabbi, considered the most important Sephardi halachic authority alive, used the age-old homiletic technique of utilizing fear of death to encourage religious zealotry. Like any preacher of faith, he hoped to convince a captive audience that death could be postponed through punctilious adherence to religious strictures. And there is no other time of the year that Jews think more about death than this month, Elul, which proceeds Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, days of self reckoning and self appraisal. But as Rabbi Moshe Hagar, head of the premilitary academy in Yatir, pointed out, there is no clear-cut answer in Judaism to the question: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Hagar, a colonel in the reserves, who undoubtedly has known his fair share of righteous soldiers killed in action, said that it was perfectly legitimate for a rabbi of Yosef's stature to rebuke the Jewish people as a whole. "But no one can know why an individual soldier dies in battle," he said. "We cannot claim to know the will of God."