Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Even before the establishment of the State of Israel, there were tensions in the Palmach and the Haganah between the needs of the military and the soldiers’ religious needs. These tensions had also manifested themselves in the British army within the Jewish Legion in WWI and the Jewish Brigade in WWII, in response to which the British created a military rabbinate to provide religious services for their Jewish soldiers and to otherwise support them.

Upon the birth of Israel and the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) in 1948, the need for an independent religious institution within Israel’s military to reconcile the halachic needs of IDF soldiers, for whom military service was compulsory, and the needs of the military, including its ability to respond to exigencies as they arise, became apparent.

Was Rav Chaim Dov Rabinowitz supposed to be Israel’s first military rabbi?

The government concluded that addressing the specific needs of individual religious soldiers was impractical and determined that a broader approach to harmonize Jewish law within the contemporary military context had to be established. Accordingly, the first general orders for the establishment of the Military Chaplaincy were issued in 1948 through the efforts of Rav Shlomo Goren, who served as its first chaplain general, also known as the chief military rabbi.

Although my research has yielded no reference to anyone other than Rav Goren ever being considered for appointment as the first chief military rabbi, a document from my collection exhibited here proves that Rav Chaim Dov Rabinowitz was designated for the position and that, although he had received an important endorsement from Rav Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, Rav Goren vetoed the selection. (R. Goren was then appointed chief military rabbi by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Herzog and Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rishon L’Tzion Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel.)

In this very puzzling November 1948 correspondence, R. Goren writes to R. Rabinowitz:

Most Respected Rabbi

I hereby advise you that you have been appointed permanent Rabbi of the IDF.

In connection with your appointment, I request that you come to the main office of the Chief Rabbinate in Matcal [“mateh killali,” or army center] AKA [“Irgun Koach Adam,” or in charge of staff] on Wednesday, 8 Cheshvan [November 10] 1948 between 9:00 a.m. and noon.

If you experience any difficulties gaining entrance, ask to be connected to Line 52, the office of the Chief Rabbinate of the IDF.

In a revealing postscript, Rav Rabinowitz writes:

I was never called to appear. I think that this letter was sent at Rav Herzog’s initiative, and that Rav Goren was not full-hearted with my appointment and he never called me. [Emphasis added.]

The Lithuanian-born Rav Rabinowitz (1909-2001) was eminently qualified to serve as chief military rabbi. He studied under some of the foremost charedi leaders of the time, including Rav Elchonon Wasserman and Rav Shimon Shkop, and he was the author of Daat Soferim, a monumental commentary on the Hebrew Bible, and From Nechemia to the Present, a well-regarded history of the Jewish people. Shortly before WWII (1937), he made aliyah and settled in Tel Aviv, where he directed the Ohel Yaakov Talmud Torah, the first charedi Talmud Torah in that city.

During Rav Goren’s 20 years as chaplain general, military rabbis generally served only in the top echelons of the IDF, such as the General Staff, the regional commands, and the districts, while lesser religious officers and chaplains were assigned to lower units. However, Israel launched its first courses for military rabbis in 1971 and, since then, the IDF Chaplaincy has provided instruction on religious-academic problems and trained the rabbis on situations which are likely to arise in military practice.

The result has been an expansion of the pool of IDF rabbis, many of whom previously served as military officers or combat soldiers, and Israeli law currently mandates that a military rabbi be assigned to every unit or base, even at the reserve battalion level. As uniformed officers, they must be well versed in military tactics and warfare, and as rabbis, they must be halachic experts so that they may serve all the religious needs of the soldiers.

The military rabbi’s very broad duties include issuing guidelines on instilling IDF units with religious values and traditions; securing and ensuring the full spectrum of religious services, including establishing and maintaining synagogues, designing and implementing religious services, and providing religious materials such as a Sefer Torah, siddurim, and chumashim; and seeing to the holiday needs of the soldiers, such as arranging sederim on Passover and for the use of lulavim and etrogim on Sukkot. Upon request, the military rabbi also performs marriages, brit milot (circumcisions), and the like.

The Military Rabbinate is also responsible for the halachic treatment of the bodies of deceased soldiers, including identification of the bodies, performing taharot (ritual purifications), conducting military funerals, and comforting and supporting bereaved families, and it also sees to the respectful burial of enemy soldiers and their exhumation for prisoner exchanges. It also assumes various religious duties as the need arises as, for example, the dismantling of the Gush Katif cemetery and disinterring 48 graves during Israel’s heartbreaking and unfortunate retreat from Gaza in 2005.

Military rabbis must also serve as counselors and psychologists who uplift the soldiers and inspire them, particularly in times of war. For example, even to date, in one of Israel’s most poignant and inspirational rituals, the Military Rabbinate presents a Tanach to each soldier at his or her IDF swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall.

The role of the IDF military rabbis is dramatically different from the role of chaplains in the armed forces of the United States in two fundamental respects. First, American military chaplains provide religious services to all soldiers of all religions in a non-denominational army, while the military rabbis serve only the religious needs of Jewish soldiers in a Jewish army. Second, the U.S. army as an institution does not seek to operate according to any religious law – although it does attempt to accommodate the needs of individual soldiers, where possible – while the function of the Military Rabbinate is to ensure that the Israeli military operates to the greatest possible extent in accordance with Jewish law.

Much credit for the success of the Military Rabbinate as a national institution must go to the secular majority in Israel. Notwithstanding the bitter secular-religious battles in Israel, secular Jews have generally accepted that the military must conduct itself in accordance with halacha, even though the overwhelming majority of Israeli soldiers are not strictly observant.

Moreover, they do so even with the percentage of observant soldiers in the army being significantly less than their percentage in the general population because nearly all charedi men avoid military service. Because the Military Rabbinate was seen across virtually all of Israeli society as a body dedicated to strengthening Israel’s military in general and to meeting the religious needs of every soldier in particular, regardless of his level of observance, it became not only acceptable to all but, indeed, much beloved.

The chief military rabbi, who is appointed by Israel’s Chief of Staff and is the highest religious authority in the IDF, is not subordinate to the Chief Rabbinate. In fact, his independence and authority are such that all his halachic rulings are binding on the Chief Rabbinate.

Command Regarding Kosher Food for Soldiers (1948).

A particularly important responsibility of the military rabbi is to maintain the kashrut and constant monitoring of the kitchens and of all food served. Exhibited here is the original “Command Regarding Kosher Food for Soldiers,” to become effective November 18, 1948. It is signed (in the print) by Ben Gurion as prime minister and minister of defense, Rav Yehuda Leib Fishman as minister of religious affairs, and Felix Rosenblatt as justice minister.

Pursuant to the order, the Provisional State Council Mandates that all Jewish soldiers in the IDF are guaranteed kosher food and that the minister of defense and the minister of religious affairs are charged with carrying out this order.

Military Court jails two cooks for refusing to cook on Shabbat.

Notwithstanding the government’s professed interest in protecting the religious right of IDF soldiers, there were noteworthy failures in that regard at the inception of the chief military rabbinate. In the horrific example documented here, a trial was held in a military court of the Alexandroni division resulting in two religious cooks receiving three-month jail sentences for refusing to cook on Shabbat.

An IDF officer had ordered army cooks Shimon Manheim and Eliezer Blumanthal, two soldiers from a religious unit who were graduates of a Talmud Torah in Bnei Brak, to cook food on Shabbat for their fellow religious soldiers. When they refused, the commanding officer directed other cooks to prepare the food, but the religious soldiers refused to eat food cooked on Shabbat. Manheim and Blumanthal were tried, sentenced to prison for a week, and had their heads shaved to humiliate them. While in jail, they appealed to their divisional army court, but the court rejected the soldiers’ appeal and, as shown here, actually extended their sentence to three months:

On 2 Elul, September 6 [1948], the military tribunal of the Alexandroni Brigade upheld a sentence against two religiously observant cooks who refused to cook on Shabbat in the religious corps.

[ ] agreed that they did this for reasons of religious conscience and to recommend to the tribunal to be lenient in imposing their punishment. The Chief Military Rabbi S. Gorenchik [Rav Shlomo Goren] and head of the Military Religious Service Nathan Gerdi testified in this matter; the prosecution consisted of the standard brigade prosecutors; and the advocate/lawyer S.D. Koussevitsky-Shachor volunteered for this purpose.

The tribunal did not consider the testimony of two witnesses who testified to the merits of the soldiers, which witnesses worked in accordance with training directives, in accordance with the Military Kosher Law and according to the law of the Torah. The tribunal also did not receive the arguments of the prosecution, but it nonetheless reached a verdict of three months in prison and determined that this was a light punishment due to attenuating circumstances.

Letter from Ben-Gurion to Rav Kalman Kahane.

In this September 9, 1948, correspondence written to Rav Kalman Kahana three days after the three-month sentence was confirmed, Ben Gurion writes tersely “The law with respect to kashrut is not subject to interpretation. It means exactly what it says.”

In response to this miscarriage of justice, religious soldiers went on a hunger strike and members of the Military Rabbinate, including prominently Rav Goren, urged the heads of the political parties to help the prisoners. Although the military censor prohibited publicizing the trial and the sentencing of the soldiers, the news leaked out and created a public storm.

The rabbinical leadership of Eretz Yisrael convened an emergency meeting to undertake unified political action, the result of which was a parliamentary question directed by members of Knesset to the minister of defense. The government meeting was stormy, but the majority of ministers ultimately supported the religious ministers and rabbis. Consequently, the minister of defense ordered the release of the soldiers from jail and simultaneously ordered the chief of staff to publicize orders of the general staff to arrange and resolve religious matters.

The Alexandroni Brigade (3rd Brigade) was an IDF brigade formed by Ben-Gurion in February 1948 to operate in the Sharon central area, and Ariel Sharon served as a platoon commander. During the Israeli War of Independence, the brigade participated in a number of operations, including the first battle of Latrun (“Operation Ben Nun Alef”) and a diversionary attack on Wadi Ara designed to draw forces away from the Golani and Carmeli brigades (May 1948).

Ben Gurion apparently later accepted fully the authority of the mlitary rabbinate, as evidenced by this historic March 8, 1955 correspondence to Chief Military Rabbi Goren:

Ben-Gurion’s letter to Rav Goren.

I have received your letter in which you complain that your authority is being restricted.

Well, I state that in religious matters related to the IDF, you are the religious authority – the equivalent of the chief of staff’s authority.

Any question of mixing these powers between you and the Chief of Staff will be brought to me for an inquiry.

Ben Gurion closes by wishing a happy Purim to Rav Goren.

R. Goren is best known for organizing the formal military chaplaincy in the Israeli army; for designing and implementing the rules and regulations for total religious observance in the Israeli armed forces; for writing many important responsa on questions of religious observance in war and peace in the modern Jewish State; and for serving as Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Tel-Aviv (1968) and as Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel (1973-1983).

R. Goren’s prayer for soldiers liberating Jerusalem (1967).

Exhibited here is the original prayer written by R. Goren for the welfare of IDF soldiers that he distributed to them before their attack to liberate Jerusalem during the Six Day War. It forms the basis of what has become the T’fillah L’Shalom Medinah which is recited today in many synagogues on Shabbat, both in Israel and worldwide.

Born in Poland, R. Goren was taken to Eretz Yisrael (1925), where he entered the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem and achieved great fame as a child prodigy, publishing Nezer ha-Kodesh, a commentary on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah at age 17 (1934) and Sha’arei Tahara (on laws of Mikvah) at 21 (1938). He joined the Haganah (1936), fought in Jerusalem during the War of Independence, and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He accompanied the troops during the Sinai Campaign and the Six Day War and was the first to conduct a prayer service at the liberated Kotel HaMaaravi (see exhibit).

Rav Goren was awarded the Israeli Prize for Jewish Scholarship for the first volume, on Seder Berachot, of his comprehensive commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, Yerushalayim Ha-Meforash (1961). A collection of his halachic and philosophical essays was published as Torat Ha-Moadim (1964).

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].