The IDF Rabbinate Has Failed. Replace It.

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column on the failure of the IDF rabbinate is up at Ha’aretz in Hebrew and in English translation:

The news in brief: A woman soldier asked to say kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, in an army synagogue. The rabbi of the base refused to let her. Again the army rabbinate showed narrow-mindedness that offended its legitimate target audience – soldiers with religious needs.

And for the news in full: In mid-May, a woman soldier serving at a Nahal base learned that her grandmother had died and received the standard one-week furlough to be with her family. The next day, her parents flew to America, where the funeral and shiva were to be held. The soldier – a member of a Nahal group from Noam, the youth movement of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement – returned to her base. There she got a call from her father, who said that he was unable to say kaddish where he was, for lack of a minyan. He asked her to say kaddish in his place.

The soldier spoke with the rabbi of her base and suggested that she organize a minyan of women in the synagogue at the base. At first, the rabbi agreed. But another religious woman soldier objected to such openness. Her own rabbi, she told the rabbi of the base, forbade such a practice. The army rabbi consulted his commanders in the Israel Defense Forces rabbinate. Then he informed the soldier from Noam that if she liked, she could organize a minyan in a classroom on the base. But she could not say kaddish in the IDF synagogue. The soldier was deeply offended. A representative of the Masorti Movement contacted the office of IDF Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski – who supported the base rabbi’s “solution.”

Please note: The army rabbinate transgressed twice. Its first sin was discrimination against Conservative Judaism. An army base has a synagogue to meet the religious needs of soldiers. Soldiers from the Masorti Movement have every right to use the facility.
But the rabbi could have suggested another solution. In Orthodox Judaism, there are also synagogues where women say kaddish, from the women’s section. Some halakhic authorities oppose the practice; others permit it. The IDF Rabbinate doesn’t need to take the more stringent stance. Its job is to serve soldiers. In this case, a soldier needed to mourn in a religious framework. Instead of providing spiritual support, the rabbinate worried about what religious hard-liners would say – a common form of cowardice in the religious world – and failed to perform its mission. That’s the second sin.

Read the rest in Hebrew or English.

3 thoughts on “The IDF Rabbinate Has Failed. Replace It.”

  1. Doesn’t the soldier have her own version of a Congressman who she can contact to complain? This happens fairly often in the U.S. military and it is a check against abuse of enlisted men and women.

  2. No, Lloyd, she doesn’t…something many of us from the Old Country would like to see changed: a vote for district representation instead of party lists.

    Let’s go one further–the Rabbinate as a whole is a failure, totally unresponsive to the majority of Jews outside the Haredi world. Let’s leave a structure in place for kashrut supervision, and mashgiach training, mikvaot attendants and maintenance etc. but otherwise take the money for the Rabbinate, divide it per capita among each city/town/district (however you want to do it) and let every community choose its own rabbis which THEY pay. Buchman in Modi’in can have a Modern Orthodox rabbi or five; Kaiser in Modi’in can have a Reconstructionist rabbi; Kfar Vradim can pay their Masorti rabbi out of the community coffers; Tel Aviv can pay for its Reform rabbis.

    The only restriction is that if the funds aren’t used for the rabbi’s salary/upkeep and construction of a beit knesset/Jewish learning programs through the congregation, it goes back into the General Fund to be used for other communities who want these.

  3. I appreciate your comments Aliyah06. It’s not my country to argue about so I’ll take your word for it. I like the “Tel Aviv can pay for its Reform rabbis” line. It reminds me of the “why wasn’t Jesus born in Australia?” joke. A. Where would you find three wise men and a virgin? [now insert Tel Aviv in place of Australia] Anyhow, if that happened here in the states, every servicemember can pick up the phone or email his congressman to get assistance. Trust me those congressmen love the military. They take good care of us by having a staff member directly communicating with a service liaison officer who then calls the local chief of staff of the admiral or general (or some variation thereof). No retribution allowed either. For this situation with the rabbinate, we have a name for that: SNAFU.

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