Friday, August 09, 2013

Was This Really Religious Discrimination?

It is a story like this that illustrates why there is so much animosity by the right towards the Israel Defense Forces. Not because they are right or wrong. But because of the way the Charedi world automatically assumes the worst.

YWN published a story yesterday about a Chabad soldier that was jailed for refusing to follow a direct order to remove his woolen Tzitzis.

On the surface one would be correctly outraged by something like this and label it the kind of religious discrimination that Charedim have correctly been afraid of… thus justifying their opposition to a military draft. That is how YWN characterized it. They unhesitatingly call the incident religious discrimination. But upon further examination of what really happened, one should realize that there very likely was no real discriminatory intent.

What happened was as follows: 
The soldier was instructed to remove his wool tzitzis during sports activities for fear he would overheat and possibly dehydrate. His commander told him during sport activities he may not wear three layers (undershirt, tzitzis and top shirt).
The soldier explained that he cannot remove the tzitzis for he is stringent in observing this mitzvah in line with Chabad minhag, to always wear wool tzitzis. The company commander became insistent and the soldier explained that this is his belief and he is unwilling to compromise. When things became more heated the soldier explained he will gladly sit in jail over this for it is a matter of principle.
The company commander took the matter to his superior officer and the Chabad soldier was sent to the IDF Nafach Prison for 10 days.

First let me say, that I think the IDF erred in this case. Sending a soldier to jail because he refused to remove his Tzitzis makes them look bad. And it gives fuel to the right. They will surely use this as an example of religious discrimination. But I think it is safe to say that his motivation was not to prevent that solider from following his religious beliefs. It was to save that soldier from getting heat stroke. In effect he was following Halacha whether he realized it or not. Pikuach Nefesh trumps almost every other Mitzvah requirement.

It should also be noted that Halacha does not require one to wear Tzitzis every moment of the day. It is a Mitzvah Kiyumis - meaning that we are only required to wear Tzitzis if we wear a four cornered Beged. If we don't, there is no bibilcaly requirement to do wear one. Although the custom today is to always wear a 4 cornered Beged (piece of clothing) so we can fulfill this Mitzvah. Otherwise it would go into oblivion.

Furthermore the fact Woolen Tzitzis are preferred by many people is because the Mitzvah of Tzitzis is only fulfilled biblically if the Beged is made of wool. Tzitzis on a non woolen 4 cornered Beged are only required rabbinically. 

But the flip side of that is if Techeles (a blue thread) is not present in the Tziztis, there is one Rishon (the Baal HaMeor) who says the Tzitzis are invalid and thus wearing a 4-cornered woolen beged without Techeiles would be in violation of biblical law. We do not have Techeiles today. (Even though there are some who claim to have found the source of the actual dye required to make it - it is not universally accepted as such.) 

Although most Poskim follow the majority opinion that Techeiles is a separate Mitzvah and that one fulfills the biblical requirement of Tzitzis by wearing only white Tzitzes, the Gra is said to have only worn cotton Tzitzis in order to avoid the possiblity of violating biblical law.

So the insistence on wearing woolen Tzitzis is far from an absolute Halachic requirement under any circumstances. Let alone in extreme heat under conditions of vigorous exercise. 

I have absolutely no doubt that the IDF does not have an anti Tzitzis policy. And I’ll bet that the Chabad soldiers superiors in that situation do not have a personal record of animus toward wearing Tzitzis. It is completely unfair, misleading, and perhaps even irresponsible for YWN to call this religious discrimination.

Unless they can prove that the motivation behind this command was religious discrimination, I think we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt. 

And if the standard practice for refusing a direct order is jail time, then this fellow’s superiors did nothing wrong. Even though they probably should not have done so because how this is being perceived in the Charedi world. Why give them more reasons to protest?