When Rabbis Start Educating the Soldiers

The Israeli Military Rabbinate's Growing Footprint

Amid Conflict: A soldier prays on his tank during a military exercise near the Israeli town of Katzrin, in the Golan Heights.
getty images
Amid Conflict: A soldier prays on his tank during a military exercise near the Israeli town of Katzrin, in the Golan Heights.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 22, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

As Israel approaches an August 1 court deadline to scale back army exemptions for yeshiva students, the government’s top watchdog is warning of an emerging problem that confronts the army from the opposite direction. It seems the senior command is increasingly concerned about growing Orthodox rabbinic influence within the ranks.

According to the annual report of the State Comptroller General, released May 1, the Military Rabbinate — essentially the chaplaincy corps of the Israel Defense Forces — has been steadily expanding its activities in recent years beyond its core role of providing ritual services. Increasingly, the rabbinate has been entering areas formally assigned to the army’s Education Corps, including morale building, citizenship, mission clarification and values education.

If this sounds confusing — is the army too Orthodox or not Orthodox enough? — that’s because we’re discussing two different varieties of Orthodoxy. Army exemptions refer to the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community, known for its black-and-white garb and suspicion of Zionism. The Military Rabbinate, by contrast, is associated with the Religious Zionist or Modern Orthodox community, known for its knitted skullcaps and close ties to the settler movement. As the brass sees it, one isn’t nationalist enough, while the other is too nationalist. Both are covered separately in the sprawling, 1,750-page comptroller’s report, though Haredi enlistment has gotten most public attention.

Education Corps officers have complained to their superiors several times in recent years about rabbinic encroachment, but to little avail, the report says. Atop the command chain, the army’s deputy chief of staff and chief of personnel have studiously avoided taking sides. Whether because they dismiss the dispute as a petty turf battle or because they’re reluctant to confront the Orthodox lobby, they’ve ordered the squabbling units to work things out by themselves. After one blowup in 2009, a general appointed to mediate reported back that sides were divided by deep “ideological” differences that could only be resolved at the General Staff level. The senior command, however, has yet to address the issue, the comptroller reported.

The dispute reached a boiling point in January 2009, when the chief education officer complained directly to the army chief of staff about rabbinic behavior during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week incursion into Gaza. According to the education chief, Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister, combat troops were receiving pamphlets and lectures “of a political nature” from military rabbis and various “unauthorized lecturers” who circulated freely among front-line units.

The chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, responded within days by summoning IDF chief rabbi Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki to his office, along with personnel chief Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir. Ashkenazi warned Rontzki that activities like those the rabbinate was conducting undermined discipline, contravened army policy and “directly harmed the military.” Zamir was ordered to investigate further and return with conclusions. When Zamir met with Rontzki in February, however, he merely thanked him for his contribution to morale and urged him to avoid activities that “confuse” matters.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.