Serving together

Military service is a cooperative endeavor of cardinal importance; succeeding at this endeavor entails mutual compromise and sensitivity.

IDF soldiers Home Front Command 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
IDF soldiers Home Front Command 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It is no easy matter for the IDF to bring together soldiers from diverse backgrounds to cooperate for the common goal of defending the State of Israel.
Societal fault lines between religious and secular, right-wing and left-wing, Jewish and non-Jewish are very sensitive. With little provocation, disagreements can quickly devolve into serious confrontations and disrupt the sort of unity of purpose needed during military duty. Therefore, a willingness to compromise to find common ground is essential.
Adherence to Jewish law – Halacha – is an important aspect of the IDF’s day-to-day functioning, as it should be in a state that defines itself as Jewish. By providing them with prayer time and kosher food and by commemorating the Shabbat and holidays, the army enables religious soldiers to feel comfortable serving in alongside their secular fellows. Occasionally, however, creating this common ground can cause some inconveniences for secular soldiers.
That was the case on Passover eve – which fell last Shabbat – when a group of IDF soldiers, both religious and secular, were forced to eat cold food because of an IDF rabbi’s interpretation of Halacha.
Infantry soldiers from the Haruv Battalion – one of several battalions belonging to the Kfir Brigade, responsible for maintaining security in Judea and Samaria – returned to their army base from military activity late on Passover eve. After washing up and sitting down to read the Haggada and conduct the Seder, the soldiers were told that they would be served matza, salads and cold cuts, but no hot food. Apparently one of the cooks had desecrated Shabbat and Passover by connecting a hot plate after sundown to heat up food. Another cook noticed this and told the rabbi, who ruled that the food could not be eaten that day. Since IDF health regulations prohibit the refrigeration of food once it has been cooked and prepared for serving, all of the heated food had to be thrown out.
It could be that the rabbi was overzealous in his ruling.
According to many halachic authorities, desecration of the Shabbat by an irreligious Jew can be seen as unintentional. Under the circumstances, only an intentional desecration of the Shabbat would make it forbidden to eat the food.
Nevertheless, after the rabbi made his ruling, the brigade commander enforced it. All soldiers, both religious and secular, were obligated by IDF regulations to refrain from eating the food. Some of the soldiers complained to their parents. One mother told Army Radio that she could not understand how the brigade commander could allow his soldiers to “go starve” on Passover eve: “Rabbis are running things in the IDF.
The army has become haredi [ultra-Orthodox] and there is no rational decision-making.”
WHILE WE sympathize with the mother, the incident should not be blown out of proportion. The soldiers ate cold food; they did not starve. And while it appears that more media attention has been devoted in recent years to religious-related tensions in the IDF due to the sharp rise in the number of religious men serving, it is a gross exaggeration to suggest that rabbis are running the IDF. If anything, media attention to the Passover food incident has more to do with parents’ increasing willingness to interfere with the inner workings of the IDF.
Bringing together religious and secular Israelis in a military framework entails compromise on both sides.
Secular soldiers need to understand that enforcing kosher rules enables their religious fellows to serve with them.
But religious soldiers and their rabbis also have an obligation. They should do their best to find leniencies in Halacha where possible so that secular soldiers are not forced to endure unnecessary burdens.
Whether the issue is gender segregation, threats to refuse military orders to evacuate a settlement, or adherence to Shabbat, religious soldiers and their rabbis should embrace moderation, not religious extremism.
Military service is a cooperative endeavor of cardinal importance. Succeeding at this endeavor entails mutual compromise and sensitivity to the needs and desires of those who hold different views.