The rise of Israel’s military rabbis
September 7, 2009
Katya Adler – BBC
Military rabbis are becoming more powerful. Trained in warfare as well as religion, new army regulations mean they are now part of a military elite.
They graduate from officer’s school and operate closely with military commanders. One of their main duties is to boost soldiers’ morale and drive, even on the front line …
The military rabbis rose to prominence during Israel’s invasion of Gaza earlier this year …
Gal Einav, a non-religious soldier, said there was wall-to-wall religious rhetoric in the base, the barracks and on the battlefield.
As soon as soldiers signed for their rifles, he said, they were given a book of psalms.
And, as his company headed into Gaza, he told me, they were flanked by a civilian rabbi on one side and a military rabbi on the other.
“It felt like a religious war, like a crusade. It disturbed me. Religion and the army should be completely separate,” he said.
‘Sons of light’
But military rabbis, like Lieutenant Shmuel Kaufman, welcome the changes.
In previous wars rabbis had to stay far from the front, he says. In Gaza, they were ordered to accompany the fighters.
“Our job was to boost the fighting spirit of the soldiers. The eternal Jewish spirit from Bible times to the coming of the Messiah.”
Before his unit went into Gaza, Rabbi Kaufman said their commander told him to blow the ram’s horn: “Like (biblical) Joshua when he conquered the land of Israel. It makes the war holier.”
Rabbis handed out hundreds of religious pamphlets during the Gaza war.
When this came to light, it caused huge controversy in Israel. Some leaflets called Israeli soldiers the “sons of light” and Palestinians the “sons of darkness”.
Others compared the Palestinians to the Philistines, the bitter biblical enemy of the Jewish people.
Israel’s military has distanced itself from the publications, but they carried the army’s official stamp.
Still, army leaders insist their rabbis respect military ethics and put their private convictions aside. They say the same about the new wave of nationalist religious solders joining Israel’s fighting forces …