A Jewish Soldier’s First Allegiance

You’d think the Israeli army had licked the problems of Palestinian terrorism, Iranian nukes and Hizbullah missiles. How else would you explain its sudden preoccupation with religious soldiers wearing beards, as if this were a national security matter of the highest order?

Deputy Defense Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, a beard-wearing Jew himself, has tried to dismiss the new regulations, which were set to go into effect on March 1, as technical, legal matters. In what has become a disturbing pattern, the government blames the High Court whenever it wants to shake up the status quo and undermine authentic Judaism. Whether it’s giving the Reform and “Women of the Wall” legitimacy, despite the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Israelis, or forcing religious soldiers to shave their beards, the High Court is a convenient excuse.

“What happened was that a group of non-religious soldiers appealed to the Supreme Court against the army, asking why a religious soldier has a simpler and easier path to growing a beard, while a non-religious soldier who wants to grow a beard goes through a more complicated route to receiving permission,” Ben-Dahan explained. “The Supreme Court, as usual, claimed that the State of Israel, and of course the army, must act equally and so demanded that the army set equal standards and not discriminate between religious and non-religious soldiers. It told the army to make a single path for anyone who wants to grow a beard.”

If it were that simple, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, known to be a leading moderate in the national religious camp, would never have publicly called on soldiers to refuse to obey orders to shave.

But here he draws the line, because he recognizes that the new directives are about much more than equality or uniformity in the army. They are part of a growing attempt to marginalize the role of the Rabbinate in the IDF in order to ensure that soldiers are under the exclusive authority of their secular commanders rather than their Rabbis. A soldier with a beard and kippah, wearing his tzitzis out, is saying that his first allegiance is to Hashem, the Torah and the Rabbanim, and this is what the army is trying to put a stop to.

The new directive, which was postponed (not canceled) at the last minute due to the storm of protest, makes it more difficult for religious soldiers to get an exemption from shaving. Instead of going to their military chaplain and getting a note saying they can’t shave for religious reasons, they must go to a number of different officers for multiple approvals. The message is: Don’t think your Rabbi has any authority or influence in the IDF; the 22-year-old officer with the two bars on his shoulders will decide whether you can wear a beard, not the Rav.

This explains why the army is trying to “disappear” its Rabbis, cutting the budget for chaplains by 40 percent. And why it has taken from them responsibility for the “Jewish Identity” program — and given it to the Manpower Branch which can farm it out to liberal, progressive elements offering “pluralistic Judaism.”

The army appears to be frightened of the success and influence of its religious soldiers who make up a significant proportion of the officers throughout the ranks. When IDF Col. Ofer Winter, the commander of the Givati Brigade, sent an official dispatch to his battalion commanders on the eve of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, with a tefillah “that the G-d of Israel make our path successful as we go and stand to fight for the sake of Your people of Israel against a foe which curses Your name,” he came under fierce criticism from the secular, liberal elite. In the middle of the war, the IDF spokesman was busy fielding questions about an official military dispatch containing religious messages.

While the army has the right to impose discipline and uniformity on its soldiers, it cannot deny them religious rights. As Prof. Aviad Hakohen, deacon of the academic center Shaa’rei Mada U’Mishpat, said of the new beard regulations, they are an example of anti-religious coercion.

“Any such order, in the absence of an operational requirement, has no place in the IDF, and is a violation of freedom of religion,” he said.