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God's Army? Religious Officers Spur Change in Secular Army

October 11, 2007 By:
Matthew Wagner, The Jerusalem Post
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Israeli soldiers take a break to rest -- and pray -- last month during military maneuvers by the elite Givati infantry brigade in northern Israel's Golan Heights. Getty Images

For Rabbi Eli Sadan, "A soldier's uniform is like the holy garments worn by the priests in the Temple." Sadan, head of the B'nei David Pre-Military Academy in the Samaria settlement Eli, reaches for a Bible to prove his point.

His teachings, which combine deep religious faith with military activism, garnered extensive media attention in the wake of last summer's Second Lebanon War after three of his students were killed under heroic circumstances while fighting on the front lines, and five more received medals of distinction.

But no one exemplified the teachings of Sadan's academy more than Maj. Ro'i Klein, an officer who gave his own life to save his men by jumping on an enemy hand grenade.

Klein imbued religious meaning in his selfless act by shouting out the "Shema Yisrael" prayer, the most central declaration of faith in Jewish liturgy. Klein also transformed the meaning of the Shema, which in the Jewish exile was associated with martyrdom in the face of anti-Semitic persecution, into a religious battle cry.

In Sadan's living room are two pictures of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, the father of religious Zionism, a school of thought that fuses ancient Jewish tradition with the building of the modern Hebrew nation.

Since 1987, when B'nei David was established, Sadan and other rabbis influenced by Kook's theology who set up their own pre-military academies (there are now 16) have educated a new generation of soldiers. Every year, about 900 graduates of these academies are inducted in the Israel Defense Force.

They represent only about 3 percent of the total annual draft.

Slowly but surely, however, these young men, who join the IDF after spending one, and often two, years studying how to use ideas found in traditional Jewish texts to build a modern army, are changing its face. More than half of them have become combat officers and members of Israel's elite fighting units. In fact, a full 40 percent of graduates from officers' training courses are religious.

Sadan's message, which combines the ideal of modern Jewish sovereignty and self-determination as expressed in secular Zionism together with traditional Jewish culture and belief systems, is not new. Its theological foundations were set down nearly a century ago by Kook and were further explicated by his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda.

Rather, Sadan's talent has been in fleshing out, clarifying and distilling the older and the younger Kook's ideas, and implementing them on the ground.

The results have been nothing short of revolutionary.

Yoav Margalit, a member of Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, is a colonel and infantry division commander in reserve duty. He heads the Kibbutz Movement's defense committee. Margalit acknowledges that, in recent years, the religious pre-military academies have become the new IDF leadership.

"We have a lot to learn from them," he admits. "The religious pre-military academies are an educational masterpiece. These institutions produced a generation of soldiers who have surpassed the kibbutzim and moshavim in sheer numbers in officer ranks. These guys are tremendous soldiers, amazing leaders, and very successful at imbuing their soldiers with a strong sense of purpose and Zionist ideals."

The secular media are also waking up to this phenomenon.

"Kipah-wearers taking over IDF chain of command," read a recent front-page headline in Ma'ariv. Ben Caspit, one of the paper's senior correspondents, wrote of a literal sea change in the IDF's ranks.

"Every few months, the IDF organizes a meeting of its senior command, from the rank of colonel and up, on a military base somewhere in the country," continued the piece. "If, in a hypothetical experiment, one were to film these periodic meetings from year to year from a ceiling view looking down on the tops of these officers' heads, one would notice the gradual increase of kipot.

"If a decade or two ago one would have been hard-pressed to find more than a few kipot, today the picture would be radically different. Kipot have spread to more heads. The entire hall is spotted with them, from wall to wall."

Margalit, a secular Zionist, says that he does not feel threatened by the religiosity of this new generation of soldiers. For him, the source of their motivation is irrelevant; graduates of pre-military academies are simply good soldiers.

"Religious soldiers' interests dovetail completely with the interests of the secular IDF leadership," he says. "The only possible clash of interests might be over the issue of dismantling of Jewish settlements. But I don't think so. During the Gaza disengagement, we saw that the IDF -- not the rabbis -- was the one giving the orders to religious soldiers."

The heads of religious pre-military academies, including Sadan, are adamantly opposed to any sort of insubordination, even when soldiers are asked to dismantle settlements. However, it would be wrong to think that pre-military academy rabbis see eye to eye with the IDF on all issues.

"The IDF and other Zionist institutions were created without any truly Jewish influences," explains Sadan. "And our goal is to change that.

Until Sadan came along, mainstream religious Zionism saw army service as a potential spiritual booby trap that should be avoided. Not unlike the haredim, religious Zionists were wary of the IDF's adverse influences. Bringing together 18-year-old men and women in army barracks and on the physical training courses was seen as a recipe for spiritual disaster.

In the past, high school graduates who were serious about their religious duties were encouraged to join a hesder yeshiva. These yeshivot were designed to protect spiritually vulnerable soldiers from the adverse impact of mingling in a very secular environment.

They reached an arrangement with the IDF which permitted their students a shortened 16-month military stint. Such soldiers were inducted in groups, often serving in segregated, all-religious platoons. Three-and-half years of yeshiva learning was split into two periods -- one before and one after military service -- to sandwich the potentially dangerous army stint with a cushion of religious study.

But Sadan felt that the hesder yeshivot's approach was just another version, albeit more moderate, of Orthodoxy's apprehensive stance vis-à-vis secular Zionism. He was not oblivious to the spiritual dangers facing religious soldiers.

One and the Same

Sadan's idea was to teach religious high school graduates that there was no contradiction between religion and the military; rather, they were one and the same. The IDF protects the lives of Jews and makes it possible for the Jewish people to live in Israel. Being the best possible soldier is a religious obligation. Excelling as a soldier and becoming an officer is a way of perfecting one's service to God, he explained.

"Both secular and haredi Israelis have adopted the mantra that there is an inherent contradiction between Judaism and a modern state," says Sadan. "That's perhaps part of the reason why secular Israelis gave up on Judaism. That's also why the haredim have decided, at least until the messiah comes, to give up on the idea of building a Jewish state. I envision a day when we successfully raise a generation of idealistic young people who are also inspired to live a life of Torah and Judaism. If we manage to do that, it will be tremendous."

However, Sadan and other rabbis of pre-military academies are faced with a dilemma. As long as their students remained a small and insignificant minority of the IDF's combat forces, they were not considered a threat to mainstream secular Zionist ideals. They were free to educate a new generation of religious soldiers, and grow by leaps and bounds.

But, in recent years, as they have become what Ma'ariv's Caspit referred to as "the backbone of the IDF," some secular commanders see them as a foreign, potentially negative influence that is liable to take over the IDF. Unlike kibbutzniks and moshavniks, religious Zionists cannot claim to represent mainstream Zionism. They will always be viewed as outsiders by the secular majority.

The pre-military academy rabbis are wary of the potential for a secular backlash.

"We have no intention of 'taking over' the IDF," assures Sadan. "We don't want to be setting the dominant tone at a time when the majority of Israelis are secular. If that were to happen, the IDF would cease to be the army of the people. And that would be bad for everyone." a

 

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