The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is anti religious. So goes the conventional wisdom. But is that true? The answer is clearly no. It is not anti religious. This is not to say that they are entirely religion friendly – as their standard issue miniskirt uniforms for females attests to. But they are definitely not anti religious.
Still one may ask – how can I say that? Think about all those orders given to Religious Zionist (RZ) soldiers about evacuating settlers from illegal settlements. Some RZ Rabbis urged soldiers to disobey those orders. Many of them said they would. Is that not proof that they are anti religious? The answer of course is that it is not at all proof. It only proves that they do not recognize Religious Zionist claims that dismantling settlements is a violation of Halacha.
The fact is that not only are they not anti religious, they actually value religious soldiers. So much so that they have gone to great lengths to accommodate them. This is not something they just thought of yesterday. If one looks at the Hesder Yeshiva program one would see that valuing and accommodating the religious soldier is almost as old as the State of Israel itself.
For those who don’t know what the Hesder program is, Religious Zionist soldiers are allowed to serve in the IDF simultaneously with a Yeshiva learning program - alternating periods of learning with periods of army service all under the guidance of Hesder Roshei Yeshiva. They serve in units together with fellow religious Zionists and have distinguished themselves in past wars of survival by volunteering in groups for the most dangerous combat assignments. This was a well known fact among the entirety of Israel – including secular Jews.
It is only recently that Religious Zionist soldiers have become controversial as they continue to cling to their own notions of the Halachic status of West Bank settlements. Up until recently Hesder Soldiers were admired by all for their bravery. All this made for a major Kiddush HaShem.
Nonetheless the right wing Charedi world never really approved of Hesder and did not allow any of their students to join. They view any part of the IDF including Hesder very negatively. The IDF was considered an evil place to be avoided at all cost.
But that has changed in a major way. So much so that 76 year old Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein – a major Charedi Posek from Bnei Brak, son in law of Rav Elyashiv, and brother in law to Rav Kanievsky has actually praised them. The IDF not only values the Hesder soldier, they value the Charedi soldier.
Cross-Currents has a post by a Charedi Avreich who joined Shachar - an IDF program specially designed for Charedim who have been in a Yeshiva or Kollel for more than 4 years past age 18. Here is what he said.
We’ve been told multiple times by different officers who come to speak to us that what the army is really lacking today isn’t manpower, but quality manpower. That’s what they see in the charedi community; a community in which learning is valued and which maintains a high moral standard both of which are important qualities that the IDF looks for in a soldier. Because of that, they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate us.
This program is so accommodating that the commanding officer who is not religious said the following during an introductory speech:
…the army wants to ensure that we keep “the Kutzo Shel Yud (smallest detail) of Halacha.” If at any point we feel pressured in this area, we should know that it is only as a result of ignorance on their part and they would appreciate it if we would bring it to their attention so that they can resolve the issue.
The standard of Kashrus is Eida HaCharedis. There is strict separation of the sexes and all officers are male. Learning in Kollel is not only permitted but one may use Semicha in lieu of the college degree required for promotion to the office of Lieutenant Colonel or higher:
There was an officer from Cholon who decided that instead of getting a BA he wanted to learn for smicha at Rav Zilbershtein’s kollel, and so he arranged all the paperwork for the kollel to be officialy recognized by the army. That officer now heads one of the branches of Shachar.
But nothing I read prepared me for the following. It almost made me tear as it was so against type:
At one point during the time I spent there, Rav Zilbershtein was coming to Yerushalayim to speak at the Agudas Yisroel Yarchei Kallah, so I got approval from my commander to go to the speech instead of going to the kollel that day. Being that I was only traveling locally, I decided to come in a hat and jacket as opposed to my army uniform that I wore daily to the kollel. The next day Rav Zilbershtein called me over.
“Why didn’t you wear your uniform yesterday?” He asked me. “I was only traveling locally. I felt more comfortable in my hat and jacket,” I replied. “I think you should have come in your uniform,” he responded. When I seemed puzzled, he continued, “Do you know what a Limud Zechus you are on the Medina? Here the Medina pays you a salary and tells you ‘Make sure to keep your religious lifestyle, make sure that you learn Torah.’ You need to publicize that! I think that whenever you go to a public place of learning, you should wear your uniform.”
I never could have imagined a comment like this from a Charedi Posek. He actually cared that we see the IDF in a favorable way religiously. I could almost feel a sense of pride in the Medina in a statement like this.
How different this is from what one usually hears from Charedi circles. Just about every word out of the mouth of the Charedi Kenesset members about the State is a disparagement. And now a man who is clearly about as Charedi as can be – literally a Zaken - an elder among Israeli Charedi leaders talking about publicly showing the IDF in a favorable light.
The only word I can think of to describe my feelings is ‘Wow!’ What a sea change in attitude. Isn’t it amazing what a little good will can do?
That said I do not delude myself to think that Charedim, Religious Zionists, and Chilonim will all now live happily ever after in unison as one people with one heart and one goal. There is still plenty of acrimony and resentment from all sides to go around. Too many years have passed where the status quo was enmity. That is not going to change overnight. But it was so refreshing to see Rav Zilberstein say these things about the IDF and the State of Israel itself. Maybe – just maybe – this is a turning point in the relationship between factions. You never know.