The Israel Defense Forces’ chief rabbi told students in a pre-army yeshiva program last week that soldiers who “show mercy” toward the enemy in wartime will be “damned.”
Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki also told the yeshiva students that religious individuals made better combat troops. Speaking Thursday at the Hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron, Rontzki referred to Maimonides’ discourse on the laws of war. That text quotes a passage from the Book of Jeremiah stating: “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord with a slack hand, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”
In Rontzki’s words, “In times of war, whoever doesn’t fight with all his heart and soul is damned – if he keeps his sword from bloodshed, if he shows mercy toward his enemy when no mercy should be shown.”
Whatever else we might think about Maimonides’ (or Jeremiah’s) words, we are certainly free to debate their academic meaning. But when they are uttered by the Chief Rabbi of the IDF to future Israeli soldiers, words such as these are much, much more than merely academic.
You may remember that Rabbi Rontzki (above) was in the news following Israel’s military operation in Gaza, when soldiers alleged that he gave them a religious booklet entitled “Go Fight My Fight.” This publication includes extensive quotes by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem, who ruled that Palestinians were the equivalent of the Biblical Philistines and that cruelty can sometimes be a “good attribute.”
You may also remember that Israeli soldiers from the organization Shovrim Shtika (“Breaking the Silence”) brought this issue to light following the war in Gaza. Though they have been attacked mercilessly by the Israeli political establishment, these young soldiers have continued to speak out. Last September, Gal Einav and Shamir Yeger, two reserve infantry soldiers who fought in Gaza wrote a powerful editorial in the Israeli press about what they considered to be an unwelcome “messianic” religious influence into the IDF:
There is a problem with the growing tendency to provide religious elements with a monopoly on values and fighting spirit, and particularly with the legitimacy granted to organizations with a missionary and messianic character to operate amongst the soldiers. Most of the commanders in our division are religious, yet up until the last war there was complete separation between their private world and their military position.
If we fail to clearly draw the line right now, in a few years we shall find ourselves shifting from wars of choice or no-choice to holy wars.
In a September BBC report, Reserve General Nehemia Dagan had this to say about the issue:
We (soldiers) used to be able to put aside our own ideas in order to do what we had to do. It didn’t matter if we were religious or from a kibbutz. But that’s not the case anymore.
The morals of the battlefield cannot come from a religious authority. Once it does, it’s Jihad. I know people will not like that word but that’s what it is, Holy War. And once it’s Holy War there are no limits.
(You can watch the BBC report in its entirety here and here. Highly recommended).
What explains the growth of this right-wing religious influence in the IDF? I tend to agree with blogger Zachary Goelman, who points out an larger demographic trend in Israeli society:
With conscription rates dropping annually, especially among secular Jews, and a simultaneous increase in the country’s religious population, Yeger and Einav are part of a shrinking minority. No doubt they know many who ducked their conscription call. If they have draft-age children, they’ve certainly heard them discuss the myriad ways of obtaining a deferral.
This trend is reversed in the dati-le’umi sector, the category of Israeli Jews broadly classified as “national religious.” In one way or another the men and women woven from this cloth see military and national service as a form of religious duty, and their ranks in uniform and civil society will increase in the coming decades. Coupled with the consistent growth of ultra-orthodox families, secular Israel may be in the final throes of its götterdämmerung.
Whatever the explanation, I personally find the implications of this trend to be beyond troubling. How will we, as Jews, respond to the potential growth of Jewish Holy War ideology within the ranks of the Israeli military? How do we feel about Israeli military generals holding forth on the religious laws of warfare? Most Americans would likely agree that in general, mixing religion and war is a profoundly perilous endeavor. Should we really be so surprised that things are now coming to this?
I do not ask these questions out of a desire to be inflammatory. I ask them only because I believe we need to discuss them honestly and openly – and because these kinds of painful questions have for too long been dismissed and marginalized by the “mainstream” Jewish establishment.
For myself at least – as a Jew and as a rabbi – I will take this opportunity to register my personal offense at statements such as those made last week by Rabbi Rontzki.
A big right on to the IDF Rabbis. This saves the lives of our heroic IDF. You cannot have doubts as a soldier or you will be killed in combat.
We all want peace except the Arabs. That is why there is no peace. Support the IDF and it’s Rabbis spiritually and financially. Veterans day just passed. I suggest every shul in the U.S. honor U.S. Army and IDF veterans in some way.
Einav and Regev fear that, because of the large number of religious soldiers in the IDF, the IDF will soon be fighting “holy wars”. Apparently they don’t understand that in Israel, like all other democracies, the army doesn’t decide what wars to fight but rather the government does. All armies, with religious or secular soldiers tell them in wars to fight to win.
Even secular countries give religous encouragement to their soldiers. In the movie “The Longest Day”, which gives true stories about the D-Day invasion by the Allies of Normany in France during the Second World War, there is a scene where a British paratrooper sees someone bobbing up in down in the water of a stream. He inquires what is going on and it turns out that it is the Catholic chaplain of his unit who lost his communion set. The paratrooper helps him find it, and when they do the chaplain says “okay lad, let’s go do the Lord’s work”. In other words the chaplain believed and told the paratrooper that the Lord wanted them to fight the Germans and defeat them. And this is in the secular British Army. He DIDN’T say “well, you know that we have our narrative, and the Germans have theirs, who’s to say which is right, there is no such thing as an absolute truth….blah, blah, blah.”
If Einav and Regev thing there are too many religious combat soldiers in the IDF, then I suggest that they encourage their secular friends to sign up for combat units and not try to avoid conspriction or get cushy “jobnik” desk jobs. Everyone admits religious soldiers are good soldier, very disciplined and LESS likely to commit breaches of discipline which could lead to atrocities. General Dagan says that in a holy war “there are no limits”. I could say the opposite…with secular people there are no limits. Who says Dagan has a monopoly on morality? In fact, secular officers want religious soldiers in their units.
So I don’t think there are any grounds to be worried.
As we approach Hanukah, it is worth noting how the narrative of the festival is told. Namely, the last part where the Maccabees did not hold back their swords is greatly downplayed and not traditionally endorsed by the rabbinate. One reason for this relates to zealotry. Zealotry presumes you know the true voice of the Almighty and He has directed you to show no mercy. This was deemed an anathema because who among us can claim to know the absolute truth that allows one to take a life of an individual (or multitudes) created in the image of the Almighty. Many zealots, including the Taliban, also claim this knowledge.
We must also remember the Israel is a political state whose policies are set by humans with imperfect knowledge.
I think Jeremiah 48 is referring to the Babylonians attacking Moab. In the prophet’s worldview, when a nation does wrong to Israel, God can take vengeance through another nation’s army (which in turn gets slaughtered by another nation for its sins and so on…). But for Israel to fight would be idolatry since it means placing our faith in human hands instead of in God’s salvation.
There is a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 68:14) that conveys a related idea of israel standing aside from the nations when it comes to war. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira refers to it in his Torah Commentary written in the Warsaw ghetto November 18, 1939.
“The angels who were going up and down on the ladder in Jacob’s dream were lords representing the nations of the world, who rise and fall. When there is war between these lords, one rising and trying to push the other down and vice versa, then the Jew stands in the greatest need of the mercy of heaven.”