Soldier of faith

The IDF High Command overlooked the nationalist pietism of incoming Chief Chaplain Col. Eyal Karim and endured a storm over his comments on women and gays.

Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim served in the Sayeret Matkal Special Forces Unit (photo credit: IDF)
Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim served in the Sayeret Matkal Special Forces Unit
(photo credit: IDF)
LIKE THE Jewish state and its army, the IDF’s chaplaincy was baptized – so to speak – by fire.
Faced in 1948 with the urgent need to locate, identify and bury the war’s mounting casualties, the young Military Rabbinate was assigned with bringing to burial an entire platoon’s 87 bodies that were trapped among the besieged Egyptian forces in the Negev.
The Military Rabbinate formally asked the Egyptian army permission to enter through its lines and retrieve the bodies from where the city of Kiryat Gat now sprawls. The Egyptians agreed. And so the commander of the encircled Egyptians was soon saluting a bearded IDF rabbi before leading him and his team to a mound from which the collectively buried Israeli troops were retrieved, covered and placed in command cars.
With the somber Israeli convoy ready to embark on its funereal journey home, and after the genuinely respectful Egyptians lined a squadron that fired three salutary salvos, the opposing officers saluted each other and parted ways, each headed to an illustrious career: The Egyptian, future president Gamal Abdel Nasser, would try to unite the Arab world, and the Israeli, future Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Goren, would try to Judaize the IDF.
Nasser failed in his quest, Goren was successful in his.
So successful has Goren’s project become that 68 years after he was appointed the IDF’s first chief rabbi, his sixth successor’s nomination in July became a major story, sparking a heated debate among lawmakers, ministers and generals who sparred over morality, modernity and political authority’s relationship with the Jewish faith.
Controversy erupted after a decade-old quote from the nominee, Col. Eyal Karim, was taken out of context, and alleged he legitimized a captive woman’s rape during war. Karim denied the allegation, and said he had merely discussed, in its biblical context, Moses’s permission to marry a female war prisoner, provided she spent 30 days mourning her family and also shaved her head, cut her nails and changed her clothes (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).
Other illiberal quotes, concerning women being “sentimental,” gays being “ill” and captured terrorists being “animals” were not refuted by Karim, nor were his reported views that women should not serve in combat positions, and that a male soldier’s service under a female commander is undesirable since it entails staring continuously at a woman’s face.
Instead, Karim was summoned for a one-on- one with Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. The chief of staff later gave a statement in which he said that Karim promised him that the Chief Rabbinate under his command, and he personally, will respect anyone, regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation.
Karim’s appointment, and the promotion to brigadier-general it entails, thus passed its final hurdle.
Still, the quotes shed light on conventional wisdom in the nationalistic-pietistic circles from which Karim hails and on their alleged takeover of the Military Rabbinate.
BACK IN its pioneering days, the Military Rabbinate was mostly on the defensive as Goren struggled with secular generals and politicians to shape the IDF so that its entire operation would be in line with Jewish observance.
Goren, a Talmudic prodigy who graduated the prestigious Hebron Yeshiva before joining the Hagana, was opinionated and assertive, enjoyed David Ben-Gurion’s personal backing, and won the system’s respect during the War of Independence.
The war’s demands were daunting, and the young Goren’s legacy in this regard inspires the IDF’s chaplains to this day. Yet the burial of soldiers and the retrieval of bodies from behind enemy lines – not only in the Negev but also in the Etzion Bloc, opposite Jordanian officers – was the less complicated task. Beyond these duties lurked wrenching dilemmas of body identifications, deciding whether a soldier missing in action could be declared dead, and seeking ways to permit the remarriage of an MIA’s wife.
Having dealt with all such issues from the moment of his appointment in 1948, Goren won the respect not only of the generals and the politicians but also of the rabbinical establishment, which had to salute his mastery of Jewish law and his sacrificial willingness to personally lead it to the battlefield’s most gruesome corners.
However even before the war was over, the chaplaincy’s peacetime tasks proved no less daunting, and even more, as the Chief Rabbinate took it upon itself to supply every observant soldier’s religious needs.
That meant creating a synagogue on every military base; supplying thousands of phylacteries, Torah scrolls and prayer books for the weekdays, tabernacles and four species for Succot, matzot for Passover and hanukkiot for Hanukkah; providing every military camp with a rabbi to lead a Seder on Passover and a cantor to lead the High Holiday services; and building around every IDF base an eruv, the bordering wire without which Orthodox Jews don’t carry objects in the public sphere on the Sabbath.
Even more demandingly, the young chaplaincy used its budget to bring into military kitchens additional pots and persuade the cooks to separate between milk and meat, while Goren urged Ben-Gurion to force the IDF to observe the Jewish dietary laws lest observant soldiers be compelled to establish separate kitchens and dining halls.
Ben-Gurion, though himself famously secular, understood this need and accepted it. The IDF, therefore, decreed that all its kitchens be kosher by military law, which is why, to this day, a soldier who mixes milk and meat in an IDF kitchen, or brings a piece of pork into a military dining hall, is subject to be court-martialed.
The Military Rabbinate consequently was tasked with training and deploying hundreds of supervisors whom it stationed in each base, and who eventually followed the IDF wherever it arrived ‒ from Mt. Hermon’s summit to the Suez Canal’s African bank.
Despite this geographic spread, the Military Rabbinate’s social reach remained limited, as it was mostly deployed professional rabbis who made do with looking after the religious needs of observant soldiers.
Such were the chaplaincy’s tasks and character, and such they would have remained, but for the changes in Israeli society in recent years that gave rise to a new type of Orthodox soldier, one who, rather than serve as undertaker, kosher supervisor or ordinary foot soldier, began to emerge in elite units as commandos and pilots, and to mingle with top brass as colonels and generals.
In 2006, this transition arrived at the Military Rabbinate, when its command was handed for the first time ever to a former combat commander.
The original chaplains, the ones who focused on providing religious services, thus made way for a new type of rabbi, a battlefield leader whose message exceeded the narrow realms of Jewish law, and whose target audience included the secular majority.
The first in this line, Avihai Rontzki, had commanded an infantry battalion and was a divisional operations officer who later headed a yeshiva. His successor, outgoing Chief Chaplain Rafi Peretz, was an IAF Lt.-Col. who commanded an IAF helicopter squadron before heading a pre-military yeshiva.
His successor, Karim, commanded the Paratrooper Corps reconnaissance unit and then served in an undisclosed position in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, before earning a rabbinical degree and heading the pre-military academy Ateret Kohanim in Jerusalem.
KARIM JOINED the military rabbinate a decade ago as head of its Department of Jewish Law, before rising to colonel and serving as the Military Rabbinate’s No. 2, all of which explains why his appointment appealed to Eisenkot ‒ he had the kind of military background the chief of staff appreciates, and he knew the chaplaincy from within.
What Eisenkot evidently overlooked, apparently because it was to him indecipherable, was the specific Judaic setting in which his nominee had been reared. And that is where the problem Eisenkot now faces lies.
Ateret Kohanim was established in 1983 as a combination of Talmudic academy and settlement promoter that sought to buy real estate in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter in order to replace Arab inhabitants with Jews.
In addition to this politically contentious context, Ateret Kohanim was also theologically controversial, cultivating a conviction that Redemption is so imminent that priests had better study how to restore the biblical sacrifices they are to administer.
Ateret Kohanim is part of a broader school of thought that is led by 79-yearold Rabbi Zevi Tau, who believes that the State of Israel is sacred, and its government should be obeyed and respected, even when his disciples think Israel’s leaders err.
In this regard, then, this school clings to the Israeli mainstream much the way Labor and Meretz voters guard West Bank settlements they think should not exist. However, in its attitude toward modernity, the school from which the incoming chief chaplain and his two predecessors hail is sometimes out of touch with the Israeli mainstream.
Tau opposed the establishment of teachers’ colleges in yeshivas because of their semi-academic character. It was part of a deeper suspicion of academia, and the discouragement of rabbinical students from studying humanities in universities.
That is also why yeshivot like Ateret Kohanim oppose the analysis of biblical figures as ordinary humans, a trend that is common in other quarters of Orthodox Zionism.
As Tau’s school sees it, the Bible’s heroes were not ordinary people, and stories such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba cannot be read the way one reads regular literary works.
The result of this attitude is a closing of the mind and reduced exposure to other strands of Judaism, not to mention secular culture or, let alone, other religious faiths.
That is why Karim’s schooling, and also that of his two predecessors, is rich with Talmud but devoid of university training.
That is also why Karim was apparently unaware that stereotyping women as “sentimental” in this day and age is a scientific fallacy, a social anachronism and a political abomination.
The same goes for his colleague, Rabbi Yigal Lowenstein, a lt.-gen. (res.) in the armored corps and head of the pre-military college in Eli, who called gays “perverts” and Reform Judaism “a Christian denomination,” while attacking the IDF High Command for being, in his view, overly concerned with avoidance of harming innocent civilians.
Lowenstein matters no less then Karim because his college produced, over the years, a thousand IDF officers. Responding to his statements, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Religious Zionism’s political leader who was himself an officer in Sayeret Matkal, attacked Lowenstein harshly, saying his attitude was not the path of religious Zionism.
Bennett’s response was part of a gathering movement to contain the so-called nationalist- ultra-Orthodoxy’s perceived assault on the IDF. This counterrevolution made headlines last year, when Eisenkot shut down the newly assertive Military Rabbinate’s Department of Jewish Conscience, feeling the young outfit was a proselytizers’ Trojan Horse.
The Eisenkot who shut that department is the same chief of staff who now extracted from Karim a surrender sheet, as if telling him, “You will command the Chief Rabbinate, but instead of the sectarian, reactionary, and missionizing outfit you might have had in mind, it will be the one Rabbi Goren built with Ben-Gurion’s blessing so religious soldiers can be religious, and secular soldiers will eat with them the same food around the same table, and all will emerge from their service the same people they were when they enlisted.”