Rabbis vs. the Army: New Tensions between Religion and State

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Dr. Kalmen Neuman discusses the conflict faced by Orthodox soldiers who feel they must choose between religious commitment and the authority of the state or their military commanders, specifically regarding the evacuation of settlements.

The latest furor in the wake of the Minister of Defense's decision to exclude the Yeshiva at Har Bracha from the list of Hesder Yeshivot has again brought the question of insubordination of religious soldiers to the forefront of public debate. Hesder Yeshivot are institutions of religious studies for post high-school men which have an arrangement (a hesder) with the IDF in which their students are drafted for a longer period than the mandatory 3 years, but spend  only some  16 months in uniform, while during the rest of the time they study in the yeshiva. The yeshiva as such is a civilian institution, but has to be approved by the Ministry of Defense in order for its students to be included in the Hesder program.

Pronouncements by some of the rabbis of these yeshivot,  calling on religious soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate Jewish settlements, have raised questions regarding the commitment of such soldiers and the proper response of the army.

Sometimes the dilemma is posed to the Orthodox soldier as a choice between the authority of the army command and the authority of the rabbi. This is somewhat simplistic. Clearly, any person can be confronted with a dilemma in which laws or military commands contradict his basic values. There are cases where military law itself recognizes the obligation to refuse orders that are clearly immoral, but there may be other cases of conflicts in which a person finds himself obligated to refuse orders.

Similarly, the religious commitment to Halacha (Jewish Law) takes precedence over the authority of any state or commander. In practice, a state which respects freedom of religion will attempt to avoid such conflicts with religion. In the IDF, there are longstanding rules regarding Sabbath observance and kosher food which protect the rights of the religious soldier, and prevent situations in which a religious soldier (or any soldier for that matter) would be given a command that requires the transgression of religious law. Of course, there may be borderline cases (such as when a commander deems certain Sabbath activity as necessary, while in fact it is not,) where the religious soldier will certainly disobey, as his ultimate concern (to use Tillich's terminology) is his devotion to God's Law. In practice, freedom of religion as it is protected by IDF policies prevents most conflicts.  One example in this regard is the army's compromise on its standards of proper military appearance in order to allow religious soldiers who do not shave during the Omer period to observe this religious practice.

This modus vivendi exists in the domain of religious ritual. However, the issue is aggravated when claims are made in the name of religion that the very instructions that the army has received from the government are themselves forbidden. Obviously, freedom of religion cannot prevent the army from executing those directives, which it sees as included within the realm of political decisions made by an elected leadership. This is precisely the situation created as a result of rabbis' decrees that any territorial withdrawal or evacuation of settlements in Judea and Samaria (a.k.a. the West Bank,) is categorically prohibited, and that the participation of a soldier in such activity is a transgression of Jewish Law.

The tension could be eased to some extent by exempting soldiers on an individual basis. When confronted with such a conflict, from participation in these evacuations. This seems to have been the policy during the disengagement from Gaza and could be implemented elsewhere without undermining military discipline. However, some of the rabbis have made such a tacit arrangement impossible. They ruled that the evacuations are so evil that soldiers must refuse not only direct participation but even playing only a supportive or logistical role in "second and third circles". Such reasoning could bring about the conclusion that any soldier on active duty in fact assists in the committing of religious crime by freeing another soldier for such activity. In addition, some rabbis have presented refusal to obey orders as not merely an act of conscience, but as an act of civil disobedience aimed at advancing a public campaign to prevent the army from carrying out the directives of a legitimate government. When this aim became apparent in the anti-evacuation signs carried by soldiers (in uniform) at army ceremonies, the question of insubordination could no longer be treated in a discreet fashion within the army's domain. In fact, the expulsion of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's Har Bracha Yeshiva from the Hesder arrangement took place not because of his long-standing call for soldiers to disobey orders, but rather in wake of his refusal to unequivocally condemn the phenomenon of soldiers in uniform engaging in political demonstrations.

The threat of insubordination in the case of settlement evacuations in the future goes beyond the statements or policies of any individual yeshiva.  There are rabbis of similar opinions in other Hesder Yeshivot as well as prominent rabbis outside of the yeshiva framework who call for insubordination, thus increasing the threat. It is probable that the Ministry of Defense's administrative measure—inevitable as it was under those circumstances—will change few minds. In fact, these rabbis reflect an ideological trend within Religious Zionism, which exhibits a critical or even adversarial attitude towards the institutions of the State, even while they accept the State as a concept. In these outward expressions they diverge from Religious Zionism's classic stance, which accepted the legitimacy of the State and acquiesced to its basic nature as a liberal democracy while attempting to influence it incrementally. There is reason to believe that the radical trend is a minority within Israeli Religious Zionism, as was evident during the disengagement from Gaza. However, the continuing trauma of the events of 2005 and the possible political events to come may attract more adherents. Indeed, some responses to the Ministry of Defense's actions show a closing of ranks behind the head of Har Bracha. Clearly, future decisions including evacuation of a significant number of settlements may create a collision not only with one rabbi, but with a large community. No doubt, this will challenge Israeli society, its political institutions, and its social fabric. This challenge requires the strengthening and upholding of the State's authority, as well as a sensitive and pragmatic approach to the complex nature of Israeli society.