IDF Rabbinate uses scriptures to boost soldiers' morale
Matthew Wagner , THE JERUSALEM POST
In what some called the theologizing of warfare and others called a boost to Jewish battle morale, 10,000 MP3s with recorded sermons of encouragement by the chief rabbis of Israel were prepared this week for distribution to combat soldiers - religious and secular, Jewish and gentile - presently serving in Gaza.
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, citing Maimonides (1135-1204), the Jewish philosopher and legalist, urged soldiers to "trust in God and know that war is being waged for the sanctification of His name... and not to fear. [The soldier] should not think at this time of his wife or of his children or of his mother and father."
Meanwhile, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar called the military campaign in Gaza "a holy mission that is being waged in the name of the entire Jewish people."
"Even when we walk in the valley of darkness God is with us," said Amar, paraphrasing Psalms. "Like a little boy in the dark who hugs his father so too should you soldiers cleave to God."
Another spiritual leader, Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, son of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, was also recorded on the MP3s to be distributed to soldiers.
"Our intention is to uplift soldiers' spirits," said Eliyahu, who likened Hamas to Haman in the biblical story of Ester and to the Nazis.
The recording of the rabbis and plans for the distribution of the MP3 were organized by the IDF's Jewish Consciousness Field (JCF) [Tchum Toda'ah Yehudit], a division of the IDF's Rabbinate.
An anonymous donor or group of donors provided the IDF with the MP3s free of charge.
In addition to the MP3s, the JCF also distributed to IDF rabbis in the field in Gaza a pamphlet entitled "Jewish Consciousness Emphases for Cast Lead."
In the pamphlet, the IDF rabbis are addressed as "Anointed Priests of War."
In the introduction, Shmuel Yurman, an officer in the JCF, defines the purpose of the pamphlet.
"This is the hour to strengthen our fighters in this heavenly commanded war [milchemet mitzva] that they have the merit to wage. Each of you [rabbis] has the knowledge and skills needed to contribute to the IDF battle spirit.
"Nevertheless, in order to enlighten and focus the spiritual message, JCF learned and prepared itself for this war before the operation began and as it was being fought. In meetings with soldiers and officers on the southern front we listened to the spiritual needs. We wrote down the emphases of Jewish Consciousness that are needed during warfare."
In the body of the pamphlet, Rabbi Tzadok Ben-Artzi, head of the JCF, argues for the justification of the war.
"We, the people who contributed to the world the book of books, who want to build a society based on creativity and peace, love of mankind and faith in good, find ourselves chased by blind hatred that is motivated by 'religious' terminology and aspires to bloodshed and cruelty."
In a list of main points, Ben-Artzi recommends that IDF rabbis emphasize that the war Israel is fighting is justified because its aim is "to save the Jewish people from its enemies," a halachic definition mentioned by Maimonides.
Another point made by Ben-Artzi is that the war in Gaza is part of a much larger mission designated for the Jewish people to eradicate evil in the world. This idea is based on the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel and the founding father of modern religious Zionism, and his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who founded Gush Emunim.
According to the elder Kook, in his book Orot, "When there is a great war in the world the power of Messiah is aroused…the wicked perish from the world and the world is invigorated and the voice of the turtledove is heard."
Contemporary religious Zionist rabbis such as Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan, formerly of Gush Katif who teaches at Machon Lev, see the war with radical Islam as battle to wipe evil off the face of the earth.
Military sociologist Dr. Yagil Levy, of The Open University, called the use of rabbinic literature to support soldiers' morale a "theologizing of the army."
Levy said that since the appointment of OC Chaplaincy Brig.-Gen. Avichai Ronzki in March, 2006 the IDF's rabbinate has been taking over functions normally carried out by the IDF's Education Division.
"Ronzki wants IDF missions to receive theological, and not just rational, justification," said Levy. "He has pushed for getting IDF rabbis to serve alongside soldiers and officers and he has expanded their roles to include outreach to secular soldiers."
Levy said that it was unclear whether or not the IDF was taking steps to curtail the influence of the JCF and the rabbinate.
"Today the IDF is so dependent on religious soldiers in combat units that it is unclear whether it is possible to take steps against Ronzki," he said. Levy added that from a utilitarian perspective the theologizing of military missions advances the IDF's interests.
"When we are fighting in Gaza it is very beneficial to utilize religion," Levy said. "Soldiers are very ambitious and motivated. Religious people also seem to deal with loss better judging from the rhetoric of religious families at funerals.
"They accept their loss and don't question the justification of the military operation that resulted in the death of their loved ones. But when it comes to evacuating Hebron things are not so simple.
In the past, Ronzki has rejected criticism to his attempts to expand the influence of Jewish Consciousness.
In a letter that he wrote to IDF rabbis at the beginning of November in response to a series of investigative articles that appeared in Haaretz about the JCF, Ronzki defends the IDF rabbinate's right to "imbue soldiers with Jewish spirit and consciousness."
In the letter, portions of which were published in Haaretz, Ronzki admitted that "recently there has been dispute between the Education Division and us [the rabbinate] but it is clear that we, as military rabbis, are supposed to deal with helping soldiers to internalize Jewish values, spirit and consciousness as presented in Jewish sources. This is our main function as rabbis."
Ronzki said that in meetings with dozens of combat officers in the months before becoming chief IDF rabbi, he was told that the main purpose of the IDF rabbinate is to "teach us, men who did not grow up in a religious household, what Judaism is."
In the past, IDF rabbis focused primarily on providing services to religious soldiers. They were responsible for kashrut supervision, prayers, religious burials and an occasional sermon on Shabbat and holidays.
However, the IDF's Rabbinate under Ronzki has tapped into biblical and rabbinic literature that deals with the theological and philosophical aspects of warfare in an attempt to create a genuinely Jewish culture of war.