Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why Jewish Soldiers Die in War

The reason that soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces get killed in war is because they aren’t religious.

Is there anyone who believes this? Is there anyone who would say this? Is there anyone who isn’t outraged by such a statement?

There are several things wrong with a statement like this, both on theological and on humanitarian grounds. This makes me wonder about yet another Gadol to whom such a statement was attributed in various articles. This time it is Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and undisputed religious leader of the Sephardic community.

Rabbi Yosef is no ordinary Talmid Chacham. His Torah knowledge is encyclopedic. His writings are prolific. He is one of the most respected Poskim in the world. Even Ashkenazim concede that. His Seforim are held in high esteem by everyone and he is constantly being quoted. There is hardly any Ben Torah in the world that hasn’t heard of his magnum opus, Yechaveh Daas.

So what is he doing making controversial statements like the following:

Is it any wonder that soldiers who don't observe the Torah, who don't pray every day and don't put on tefillin every day are killed in wars? It's no wonder," Yosef said, according to excerpts from the sermon carried in Israeli media. "God helps soldiers who have faith and who pray. They are not killed.

They’re not?! Don’t tell that to David Einhorn:

‘Mr Einhorn said his son was killed just before putting on phylacteries (boxes containing scriptures) for prayer.’

How can anyone really know the reason why some people get killed and some don’t? And how does he explain the huge numbers of Hesder boys who have died in combat during war.

During the Six Day War the Hesder boys were killed in far greater percentages than the secular soldiers because they volunteered in groups for hazardous asigignments. This was well known in those days and the Hesder boys were held in very high regard by the secular populace. Where were Rav Yosef’s Svaros then? Why did these young men’s Teffilin and Tzitzis not protect them?

One can of course apply the famous theodicy, ‘Tzadik v’Ra Lo’ the conundrum of why the righteous suffer while the sinful do not. It is an ancient question that has no rational explanation other than to say it is God’s will. And that ultimately justice will be served in the Olam HaEmes… the world to come.

But Rabbi Yosef did not say that. He said quite the opposite. Secular soldiers died because they sinned.

This statement presumes that humans in our day can know the mind of God . It is akin to saying the holocaust happened because European Jews started assimilating and dropping observance in droves. How can any human know that? Is Rav Yosef a Navi? Does he have Ruach HaKodesh?

What does this say to the mothers of Frum soldiers who gave their lives for their country? What about the secular mothers that now cry bitter tears over the loss of their sons? Do such statements give them solace? Are these mothers going to be warmed by the words of this Torah sage? Are they going to be more respectful of Torah? Or are they going to be more resentful of it? How can anyone be so cruel as to make a statement like this in public, even if he believes it?

Is this an example of Gadlus?

If one is to follow the logic of Rav Yosef’s statement, shouldn’t we be sending only religious Jews into the army? Perhaps that is already happening and Rav Yosef just doesn’t know it.

To be fair, Shas party Chairman, Eli Yishai has attempted to explain his mentor’s comments. But the explanations do not match the strong words of Rav Yosef’s original comments, in my view. He said what he said.

This debate is currently going on in Israel about Rav Yosef’s comments and it has upset many people there, religious and secular. A poster on Areivim Israel put it in words that truly say it all:

A good number (parents of religious soldiers who lost their lives) were interviewed in the Israeli media (including several in live interviews on the radio). Needless to say they were badly hurt, angry, insulted, a couple of interviewees pointed out that that someone who is killed while defending Am Yisrael, attains the highest level of kedusha, including higher than Rav Ovadia, Rav Elyashiv, etc. etc.

Not surprisingly it were the religious parents who were most hurt... One parent noted that his son was killed about 10 minutes before he was going to put on tefillin and squeeze out a few words of tefilah -- this in a Lebanese village in what turned out to be one of the bloodiest attacks of the war. He killed by bullets to his head and upper arm - right where he would have laid his tefillin.

There is not a little irony in Rav Ovadiah's statements. Many many of the dead and wounded in Lebanon 2 were religious. One of those killed was found to have prepared a 3-4 page summary of critical halachot for soldiers in field and combat situations.

This passed Yom Hazikaron, Channel 1 (Israel Broadcasting) opened up its commemorative broadcasts with the stories of 4 soldiers killed in Lebanon 2. All 4 were shomrei mitzvot (one was described as Hareidi - i.e., HarDaLi). One of course was Major Ro'i Klein HY"D who jumped on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers, and managed to say Shma Yisrael as his dying words after turning over command to a junior officer.

It's worth (noting) that many many soldiers managed to put on tefillin daily while in Lebanon, tried to keep some semblance of Shabbat, davened, even managed daily minyanim (at least for mincha and ma'ariv) and in the process also got some of the less observant masorti soldiers (and even some hilonim) to join in. And this in battlefield conditions.

Some have said in defense of Rav Ovadia that he is not aware of the situation, that the Shasniks don't keep him well informed, that he did not realize that his words would hurt the parents of dead soldiers. That is all probably quite true.

And that is precisely the problem, that it is probably true.