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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Holy Garments: Reflections on the IDF Uniform

A Jerusalem chassidic rabbi banned uniformed IDF soldiers from his group’s study halls, synagogues and yeshivas.
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Photo Credit: IDF

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How one dresses matters. Judaism adheres to a code of tzniut (modesty). I have had many an occasion to consider the kinds of clothing that are often worn in our society, clothing that adheres to no standard of modesty at all and so demeans the care and consideration we are to show our physical bodies, which are temporary vessels for the spirit of God that dwells within us.

So when I recently read the words “These clothes proclaim, ‘Heresy,’” there were many contexts within which they could conceivably ring true for me as a Torah-observant Jew. However, when I learned the actual context of those words, I was astonished.

“If a Jew enters a study hall [synagogue or yeshiva] with such clothing, haredim should yell at him, ‘Tamei [unclean one], get out of here!’ These clothes defile…. To pray with those clothes is like praying while making the sign of the cross, may God save us. These clothes proclaim, ‘Heresy!’ ”

Still not enough context?

The full context is that a Jerusalem chassidic rabbi banned uniformed IDF soldiers from his group’s study halls, synagogues and yeshivas. According to news reports, after the IDF ended a policy that had exempted haredi soldiers from having to wear their uniforms when visiting their neighborhoods, Rabbi Moshe Zev Tzaurger banned all uniformed soldiers from haredi neighborhoods.

The IDF uniform heretical? This I must absolutely reject.

Much of Rabbi Tzaurger’s motivation is political – his proclamation was in response to the IDF’s above-mentioned policy change, which he claimed was made to “transmit the message that military service has become the norm” and therefore make it easier to draft haredim. He said the IDF’s strategy was working and he wanted to put an end to it.

Politics in Israel is a sharp-elbowed affair. It is not for the faint of heart. But to claim that wearing the uniform of the Jewish state is heresy? To turn a political disagreement into a religious war? To have extremist rabbis issuing halachic rulings about the so-called impurity of the IDF uniform?

This is not consistent with Judaism.

The sentiment expressed by Rabbi Tzaurger is not about clothes but about an angry radicalism and sentiment that runs counter to true Judaism. It is a sentiment that stems from and is carried forth by a mindset that seems to have willfully turned its back on the horror that occurred when we did not have the God-granted privilege, glory and strength of the IDF to protect and defend us.

Such a mindset must be confronted.

* * * * *

In the meantime, Rabbi Tzaurger’s words have been having an effect. There have been instances of rock throwing at haredi soldiers in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. In addition, haredim have lit trashcans on fire. One such incident occurred after a recent anti-draft demonstration staged by the Eda Haredit organization turned violent, with haredi protestors throwing rocks, glass bottles and other objects at the police in front of Jerusalem’s IDF recruiting office in Mekor Baruch.

We live in angry times. There is a general ratcheting up of rhetoric and hardening of positions in the United States and even more so in Israel. Still, the rancor and hatefulness that is displayed in the proclamations about the IDF uniform bring great hurt to the Jewish community and our Jewish state.

It is nothing new for Jews to disagree. But the degree of hatred and antipathy in the discourse between the haredi and non-haredi camps has not been heard in decades. Fellow Jews are called non-Jews, reshaim (evil) and apostates. Haredi soldiers are referred to as chardakim, related to the Hebrew word for germs, chaidakim. The wounds we are inflicting on ourselves are not easily healed.

Haredi soldiers who live in haredi neighborhoods are repeatedly insulted when they return to those neighborhoods. Principals of Talmudei Torah refuse to enroll boys whose fathers serve in the army. Despite the hardships, the haredim who serve do so proudly. But the level of tensions is rising ever higher now that legislation regarding haredi enlistment has been pushed forward.

* * * * *

To immerse oneself in a life of Torah and Torah study is a Jew’s supreme privilege and blessing. But our greatest sages, our ultimate models of living a righteous life, also knew what it meant to live in the world. Ignorance of the world does not make us more holy, only more limited in how we embrace God’s creation.

The majority of today’s haredim never learn, and so never appreciate, what the state of Israel is and what it represents in our post-Holocaust era. They never learn what the IDF uniform truly represents.

Among those who most cherish and appreciate Israel and the IDF uniform are individuals who were most directly affected by the Holocaust – survivors. People who experienced hell on earth, who prayed and dreamed that someone, somewhere, would care enough to save them from the unspeakable horrors of Nazi Europe. This remnant blesses and prays for every Jew who wears the IDF uniform. They solemnly commemorate Israel’s Yom HaZikaron, honoring the soldiers who died so that the Jewish nation might live.

But, sadly, there are those who have grown up without an understanding and appreciation of the 65-year-old state of Israel. Despite having benefited from the haven for Jews that Israel is, and having been nourished by its milk and honey, they have the audacity to not only take its defenders for granted but to characterize them as heretics! It cannot stand.

* * * * *

Soon after I graduated Yeshiva University, I spent the summer of 1969 in Israel with some friends. We naturally visited the resting places of the great tzaddikim, including the sanctified military cemeteries throughout the country. We paused to reflect on the graves of men – boys! – younger than ourselves who had sacrificed their all for our Jewish state and Am Yisrael.

If there is an explanation as to why they were called on to sacrifice so that Jews in Israel and throughout the world could now know safety, security, pride and strength while I was able to live in comfort in America, I did not know it then, and I still don’t know it now.

But one thing I do know: the explanation I have searched for cannot be found on the printed study sheet that was given to kita alef students of a renowned chassidic yeshiva one recent Yom Ha’Atzmaut that proclaimed the 5th of Iyar a “bitter” day.

Nothing is to be achieved from the negative messages about Israel so prevalent in the haredi world. It is time for a change in approach so that new generations learn about what Israel is, not what it is not. Then the madim (uniform) and kelei ha’mikdash (the sanctified vessels and tools used daily to rebuild our Promised Land and safeguard all its citizens) will be seen in a proper light.

Blessedly, the radical sentiments of many haredim have been – and continue to be – answered by the voice of true Torah scholars.

Rabbi Nachum Stepansky, in his magnificent Ve’Alehu lo Yibol, tells the story of a young man who came to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the gadol hador, and asked for a couple of days away from learning to address some personal problems. He said that while he was away he would visit the kivrei tzaddikim, the graves of righteous men, in the Galil. Rav Auerbach looked at the student and replied, “For kivrei tzaddikim you don’t have to go to the Galil. You have them right here in Yerushalayim on Har Herzl.”

The noble regard in which Rav Auerbach held IDF soldiers was shared by the revered Mirrer rosh yeshiva Rav Yerucham Levovitz, who commented in his Sichos Mussar regarding those who were killed in Lod in Talmudic times: Harugei Lud ein kol briya yechola la’amod be’mechitzatan. “No mortal can be in their presence” because they sacrificed their life on behalf of Israel. Likewise, “regarding those who currently sacrifice their lives so we can be saved, no one in the entire world can stand in their presence [no one can measure up to their level]. And our obligation to pray on their behalf is limitless…”

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, head of Har Etzion hesder yeshiva, related that on a trip to America he was visiting with his father-in-law, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and posed a series of questions he had received from students serving in the IDF. One student’s job was cleaning out and maintaining the tanks. Often his uniform got covered in oil and grime and he wanted to know if he needed to change before davening Minchah, something that would be terribly inconvenient and difficult.

The Rav looked at Rav Lichtenstein and wondered out loud, “Why would he need to change? He is wearing bigdei kodesh” – holy garments.

These sacred garments have restored Jewish pride, faith and fortitude. These bigdei kodesh safeguard and secure all that is holy and worthwhile in God’s Promised Land and throughout the world.

No lesser voice than Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook shared the regard and reverence for Israel’s soldiers and the uniform they wear. In Sichot Rabbeinu (Yom Ha’Atzmaut 5727) he wrote:

A student of our yeshiva approached me. I said to him: “At first I did not recognize you.” He was wearing the army uniform. You know that I relate to this uniform in holiness. A lovely and precious man, full of God-fearing and holiness, was approaching, and he was wearing an army uniform. At that occurrence I mentioned what I said at one wedding [of HaRav She’ar Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa] when the groom came dressed in an army uniform. There were some who were pointing out that it is inappropriate for a groom to stand under the chuppah with an army uniform. In Yerushalayim, the Holy City, it was customary that they came with Shabbat clothing, holy clothing, like a shtreimel.

I will tell you the truth. The holiness of the shtreimel – I do not know if it is one-hundred percent clear. It was made holy after the fact. Many righteous and holy gaonim certainly wore it. There is certainly so much trembling of holiness before them, and we are dirt under the souls of their feet, and on account of this fact, the shtreimel was made holy. Also Yiddish, the language of Exile, was made holy because of its great use in words of holiness. But from the outset it [was] not so certain. In comparison, the holiness of the army uniform in Israel is fundamental, inherent holiness. This is the holiness of accessories of a mitzvah, from every perspective…

Rabbi Yehoshua Zuckerman relates (in Iturei Yerushalaim) that Rav Kook was “teaching a class and a student who was on leave from the army was standing next to him. During the entire time, our rabbi rested his hand on the student’s arm. At the end of the shiur, another student asked about this. Our rabbi explained, “It is simple. He was wearing a Tzahal uniform and I was touching holiness the entire time.”

* * * * *

Thankfully, there are those in the haredi community who are willing to speak out against the angry and misguided radicalism that would diminish the glory of the IDF. Writing on Behadrey Haredim, Rabbi David Bloch, founder of Nahal Haredi, expressed his resentment at Rabbi Tzaurger’s words. “We have been told by our ancestors: ‘Anyone who opposes the good in his friend may end up opposing the good of Hashem’; anyone who is not grateful toward the soldier for his defense of the Jews in Israel so he can live here in relative peace is ungrateful.”

Rabbi Bloch continued: “There is no connection between the Zionist ideology and gratitude to those who physically make it possible with God’s help so that each resident can live here, and manage his life as he sees fit…. One can be anti-Zionist and still be grateful to those who [save] lives….”

The most basic Jewish value is that of expressing hakarat hatov to anyone who does anything that is of benefit to me and certainly to society at large.

Every form of Orthodoxy has radical elements. To be radical in one’s love of Torah and God is not a sin. However, when one’s embrace of Torah is expressed as hatefulness toward IDF soldiers and a damning of the bigdei kodesh they wear, it is a radicalism that has lost sight of true Torah.

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About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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15 Responses to “Holy Garments: Reflections on the IDF Uniform”

  1. Les Legato says:

    I am a kosher and shomer shabbat Jew. That rabbi is a moron and should be deported from Israel.

    LET HIM GO LIVE IN GAZA.

  2. Stan Brin says:

    Precisely. These extremists are like those who divided the Jews during the last days of the Temple. Secular and religious can discuss anything, but neither can sit with an extremist who insults the uniform. Let them live in the galut. In Jerusalem, that is not very far away.

  3. Reuven Prager says:

    Sir, the unmitigated gall and ignorance of this person you refer to as a chassidic rabbi is pathetic. When I was inducted into Zahal I redesigned all my army uniforms into four cornered garments and tied…tzitzith (fringes) and techelet (Biblical blue strands) onto the corners of my uniforms. I was duly charged with destroying army property. At my trial I defended my actions by stating that far from destroying my uniforms – I sanctified them, making a bracha (blessing) when I donned them in the mornings.
    The second mishna of tractate Brachot (Blessings) asks when the proper time arrives for saying the Shma (Hear Oh Israel) in the mornings. It states that the time begins when one can distinguish between techelet (Biblical blue) and lavan (white) [when it is light enough to distinguish between the contrast of light and dark colors], Rav Eliezer states: between techelet and kharti (khacki green) [about 8 minutes later when it is light enough to distinguish betweeen two dark colors]. The Gamara clarifies that what the mishnah is referring to is the techelet and lavan of the tzitzith. Beged Ivri teaches that also Rav Eliezer is referring to the tzitzith of an IDF soldier, and until one can distinguish between the techelet and lavan – AND – between the techelet and kharti of the tzitzith on one's madai tzahal (IDF uniform) one can not even begin to recite Shma Yisrael!

  4. Mark Perez says:

    you tell it like it is Reuven.

  5. Yacov Stanley says:

    While I respect and am thankful to our brothers and sisters who chose to be a part of this modern Army that fights for the state of israel, I can also recognize why someone would not want their children or their talmidim to join an army that does not support a Torah lifestyle. Sure there are individuals who manage in the IDF, but even in your beautiful story about raising the sparks of your uniform, the IDF is against that. I have no doubt in my mind that the decision to force Haredi soldiers to wear their uniforms when they are home is a propaganda tool like Rav suspects. "the IDF ended a policy that had exempted haredi soldiers from having to wear their uniforms when visiting their neighborhoods…. to “transmit the message that military service has become the norm” and therefore make it easier to draft haredim. " during the three weeks isn't it important to work on loving every Jew whether we agree with them or not? should that include Jews with "extreme" political ideas, and especially the ones that disagree with you?

  6. Eva Feld says:

    Absolutely absurd! And who was the Mashgiach on the uniforms (if they were any, rather doubtful) of the conquest of Israel. And who supervised the uniforms (and they were none so to speak of) of the PALMACH, HAGANAH, IRGUN, LEHI, etc. We really need this divisiveness in the 21st century. These Rabbis only know how to create this meshugas all repairable of course with a goodly amount of……… I better not finish the sentence.

  7. Reuven Prager says:

    Yacov, I don't know if you ever served in Zahal, but Zahal is the holiest and most serious Torah institution in Israel today. When prior to my mishpat I met with the Rav HaRashi of Zahal, a general, on a Friday morning, to get permission for my changes to my uniforms, during the 10 minutes I stood in his office awaiting his attention he was speaking on two intercoms and three phones, issuing orders to army doctors and officers as to which operations could be performed prior to the beginning of Shabbat and which missions could begin before or had to wait till after Shabbat. It was mamash Torah L'Ma'ase with life and death consequences. Absolute Torah.

  8. Reuven, your passion is wonderful! Shabbot Shalom .

  9. Charlie Hall says:

    Reuven, you should write something about this for the Jewish Press. People need to know!

  10. Reuven Prager says:

    Would be happy to. I have many incredible stories.

  11. Ch Hoffman says:

    And yet, the OU refuses to disassociate itself with extremists, and accepts them as its kashrut representatives.
    if the OU really cared, it would cut off funding to these groups too.

  12. Yoel Schaper says:

    Hillel, I never asked, did you go to the IDF? I assume you did…

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