Outrage after Yosef links troops dying, religion

Shas spiritual leader said troops were killed in Lebanon because they didn't pray, observe Torah.

rabbi ovadia yosef (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rabbi ovadia yosef
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Officials from across the political and military spectrums slammed Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Monday for a sermon in which Yosef said troops killed in the Second Lebanon War lost their lives because of their lack of religious observance. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the people of Israel owed an unlimited debt of gratitude to the bereaved families. "We must reach out to them in every way possible and be supportive. Any statement otherwise could harm the bereaved families, especially if it relates to their lifestyle, which is their free will or the free will of the deceased, and is unacceptable," he said in response to Ovadia's words. Yosef made the comments in his weekly sermon on Saturday night. "Is it a wonder that soldiers who don't observe the Torah, don't pray every day and don't put on tefilin every day are killed in war? It is no wonder." Yosef also related to the weekly Torah portion, Shoftim, and said that then, only those who prayed and were devout, God-fearing people would go to war. "Those who did not fulfill these requirements did not fight." "Soldiers who are believers and who pray, God helps in wars. They are not killed," said Yosef. Eli Ben-Shem, chairman of the Yad Labanim organization, which represents families of fallen soldiers, called Yosef's remarks "shameful" and said that the comments had provoked angry phone calls to the organization, specifically from religious parents who "were hurt very badly." Ben-Shem emphasized that a large proportion of the 112 families who lost children in the war were religious and learned in yeshivot. "It is specifically those religious people that have been hurt by the comments. Secular people don't pay much attention to him anyway," said Ben-Shem. Earlier, MK Danny Yatom (Labor) said that he was greatly distressed by the comments which "hurt the bereaved families of those whose dear ones fell while protecting the homeland." "His remarks do not even pass the test of reality since there were a significant number of religious and observant boys among our fallen soldiers," continued Yatom. Yatom said that the remarks "only fan the flames of hatred and perpetuate the gaps between haredi Judaism and the rest of the Israeli public. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would do well to retract his comments." Public Security Minister Avi Dichter argued that Israel's enemies target all parts of society, regardless of religious affiliation. "[The enemy] does not differentiate between the religious and secular members of society," Dichter told Army Radio. "In my many years of service in the IDF, I witnessed soldiers fall in battle around me; part of whom were religious and observed mitzvoth. The minister rejected the idea that observant Jews were able to avoid dying in such ways, pointing out that the majority of his family who was killed in the Holocaust was in fact observant. "I did not have the chance to meet any of my family which perished in the Holocaust. My family was religious, who observed mitzvoth in their highest form," Dichter said. MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz) urged Yosef to apologize to the thousands of bereaved families. "A year ago, both religious and secular soldiers were killed in the war while his students were in the tent of Torah without risking their lives. There is a limit to the foolish remarks a rabbi in Israel can make." Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin also expressed his rage at Yosef's sermon. "Instead of Rabbi Yosef talking nonsense about the links between fulfillment of commandments and falling in battle, it would be better if he were to call those who take his words seriously - the yeshiva students - to join the army." MK Zevulun Orlev (NU/NRP) called on religious Zionist rabbis "not to be silent and to voice their disapproval for any attempt to desecrate the sanctity and self-sacrifice of IDF soldiers who fell in the name of God, the people the state and the country." In response, Shas came to the defense of its spiritual leader. The party published a statement claiming that the rabbi "quoted a Gemara with the aim of arousing the people of Israel to repentance and atonement in the month of Elul, in order to save the lives of IDF soldiers who we hope will return safely and unharmed." Shas Chairman Eli Yishai said that Yosef's remarks were taken out of context. "The rabbi related to a Gemara, a quote from a time when righteous and God-fearing people used to join the army," the Shas chairman told Army Radio. "The rabbi didn't invent it. He just said that from the Gemara's point of view, the people of Israel are all responsible for one another. If I sin, it can have an effect on the soldiers," he added. Yishai went on to say that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef prayed every day and every Shabbat for the safety of IDF troops. "When a soldier is killed the rabbi sheds tears, he cries, he gathers everyone together and says "let us pray." Every one of us is commanded and obligated to pray and observe the Torah and commandments for the sake of the IDF soldiers. When a soldier is wounded we view this as the fault of all the people of Israel who need to repent," concluded Yishai.