The Red Beret and the Rabbis

Navigations, the English title on the copyright page of Elazar Stern’s recent memoir, does not really capture the flavor of the book’s Hebrew title. Masa kumtah is the exhausting trek that an Israeli combat soldier must undertake at the end of basic training, before receiving the special beret, or kumtah, that he will subsequently wear. But this is when masa is spelled with a samekh and an ayin. When spelled with a sin and an aleph, as it is in Stern’s title, it means “burden.” The author, an ex-general whose beret was paratrooper-red, is telling his readers that he has taken a long and difficult road.

Elazar Stern

The product of a Religious Zionist upbringing, Stern grew up in Tel Aviv, joined the paratroopers, became the commanding officer of a platoon, and rose through the ranks to become the commander of the IDF officer school, the Chief Education Officer, and, in his last post, the IDF Manpower Chief. He has written a book in which he tells us just how much better he has always understood things than have many generals, most rabbis, and all politicians. While Stern doesn’t pretend to have won all of his battles, he is sure that he was always on the right side. The fact that he was indeed right in most cases hardly makes this any less irritating. “Tell me if I’m right,” he quotes himself saying to former general and former deputy head of the Mossad, Amiram Levin, only to receive the predictable answer: “you’re right.” Throughout this book, people either admit in advance that Stern is right, admit it after the fact, or are condemned by the author for their refusal to see the light.

Not surprisingly, quite a few Israelis, most of them Religious Zionists, consider Stern to be a pain in the neck. For many years, he had been a source of pride within the Religious Zionist community as a prominent member of the first generation of shomer shabbat generals. As he made his way through the ranks and units in which he was serving, Stern wore his kippah unabashedly, never shying away from his background or camouflaging his beliefs and practices. On the contrary, he often displayed what many perceive as the superiority complex shared by many in the Religious Zionist camp, their sense of themselves as the true heirs of the original Zionist pioneers.

Yet even as he was pursuing his military career, Religious Zionism was changing in ways that made him the contrarian that that he is today. Attracted by its more stringent practices, Religious Zionists were sliding toward ultra-Orthodoxy in halakhic practice. At the same time, their ever-intensifying devotion to the land of Israel had eroded the significance—even holiness—they had once attributed to the state. Stern, who remained religious and Zionist in equal measure, discovered that his performance of what he considered to be his duties to the State of Israel brought him foes of a new kind. After being shoved around by Orthodox bullies while praying at the Western Wall, he has sometimes even needed bodyguards to protect him from his coreligionists. Distinguished rabbis have decried him as “criminal” and “evil.”

Yet Stern’s enemies haven’t been able to chase him off and he has no thought of abandoning his community. “I continue to send my children through the Religious Zionist educational system and would like to see my grandchildren growing up within these institutions,” he writes. But this hasn’t stopped him from criticizing the rabbis who currently lead those institutions.

Where have they gone wrong? Stern tells us about a meeting between military men and some leaders of the settlement movement in 2005, in the days preceding Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip. This was a very tense period, filled with fears of civil war. As the general in charge of military manpower, Stern was at the eye of the storm. This wasn’t easy, especially not for a regular worshipper at a synagogue full of people outraged at what they regarded as a disastrous governmental action. Stern did his best to remind such people that “a day will come . . . when we will continue to need one another. To live, to move forward, to build . . .” When he visited Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the head of the Atzmona Yeshiva in the Gaza Strip, his wife Dorit asked Peretz’s wife how they were preparing the kids for the coming trauma of evacuation. “What pullout? It will never happen!” Peretz’s wife shot back.

There were also formal meetings between the military and the leaders of the settler and the Religious Zionist movement. “The goal was to understand the problems and to lessen the potential for violence,” Stern explains. That was his goal, at any rate. The rabbis who were calling on religious soldiers to disobey orders, or threatening to issue such a call, had other things in mind. Warned at one meeting that a mass refusal to obey orders could lead to the “military or even the state breaking apart,” Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a distinguished resident of the hard-line Elon Moreh settlement, had a telling response: “So be it . . . Maybe it’s a step toward geulah [redemption].”

When push finally came to shove in 2005, the military and the state held together, but the threats have not ceased. What will happen in the event of some future evacuation from the West Bank will depend on many factors, including the timing, the public mood, and the reason for a pullout. But one thing has become clear: the rabbis of the Religious Zionist camp will play a much more important role than will its politicians or generals.

Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlements,” a Crisis Group Middle East Report, describes the National Religious Party (NRP), the political arm of Religious Zionism, as the main national-religious actor on the Israeli scene after 1967. The report provides an accurate account of the twists and turns the party has taken over several decades, concluding with an explanation of its division, after the withdrawal from Gaza, into “the National Union, an amalgam of far-right, pro-settler groups, and Jewish Home-New NRP, a more moderate lay faction.”

While technically without fault, this description understates a crucial point: in the course of their gyrations and splits, the political representatives of the Religious Zionist sector have lost their importance. A group that was once led by political men (and it was always men) of substance is currently represented by relative nonentities. Their constituency may vote for them for lack of better options, but if the community follows anyone, it follows rabbis such as Elyakim Levanon.

Levanon’s views on security and foreign relations, his grasp of democratic procedure and state affairs are, to say the least, not particularly well-informed. But as Stern’s book makes abundantly clear, he cannot be ignored. When Levanon argued that a woman who wanted to have an impact on public affairs in her settlement should encourage her husband to run for office in her stead, he provoked a barrage of protest, but he also received support from some fellow rabbis. One of them was the distinguished Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba. Viewing the issue as part of the larger question about “women in the workplace,” Lior concluded that a woman can leave the home to work only if there is no other choice, but would be better advised to stay home, if possible.

Lior revealed his position in a pamphlet called Giluy Da’at, which is distributed in thousands of synagogues around Israel. Giluy Da’at and dozens of similar publications have a captive audience consisting in large part of restless synagogue-goers and religious news hounds who can’t watch TV or surf the net on Shabbat. I read these pamphlets myself every week, with some pleasure and curiosity, but with a mounting sense of dismay as well. I would imagine that Elazar Stern reads them with similar unease.

Ten years ago, Professor Kimmy Caplan calculated that the number of synagogue pamphlets printed every weekend in Israel to be about 1.5 million, which is more than the total number of copies printed for the weekend editions of all three of Israel’s main newspapers. And while the newspapers have lost ground over the past decade, the number of pamphlets has continued to grow. Three years ago, Yair Ettinger of Ha’aretz counted more than one hundred of them. The largest, Shabat Be-Shabato, prints more than 70,000 copies every week.

Rabbis of all (Orthodox) stripes write for these pamphlets. They take positions on halakhic matters (Question: Can a woman wear a tallit? Answer: No); personal matters (Question: Should I date a secular Israeli who has a heart of gold for the purpose of getting married to him? Answer: Think about it twice; it will make your life complicated); and national affairs (Israel should not apologize for the flotilla debacle!). There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, except for the fact that many of the writers seem to believe that their strong political opinions on domestic and foreign policy have some special value because, well, because they happen to be rabbis.

Elazar Stern has been repeatedly caught in the middle, between the state and the rabbis, both ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and Religious Zionist. For instance, when he tried to simplify the process of conversion for Russian immigrants serving in the IDF, the official Israeli Chief Rabbinate would not cooperate. Once the pride of Religious Zionism, the Rabbinate is now controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, who oppose the drafting of women altogether and consequently make it difficult for female immigrants serving in Israel’s army to convert. “I was not surprised, I was shocked!” writes Stern. According to the Rabbinate, “you’re either a Jew or you’re a soldier in the IDF!”

But even with the more moderate rabbis who remained closer to the outlook of old-style Religious Zionism, Stern couldn’t make much headway. He met with four of them about another conversion case, “and they all agreed with me on principle that this [IDF conversion] should be done.” But they were still adamant at piling up more demands, insisting that the process be longer and harder than what Stern had in mind. “I explained that if the rabbis insist on . . . checking what exactly the mother of the convert’s girlfriend is up to, and if she turns on lights on Shabbat, then in my opinion, in fifty years there won’t be a Jewish state.” This wasn’t exactly a rigorous demographic prediction, but it ought to have made clear to the rabbis that broader considerations should be in play when conversion is the subject. Sadly, even moderate Religious Zionist rabbis have demonstrated little ability to think strategically about the problems of the community they lead and of Israel in general. They seem to be much more concerned with proving that they can be as rigorous as the ultra-Orthodox.

Against rabbis of a very different type, the leaders of the “Hesder yeshivas,” Stern has a different set of complaints. These yeshivas, which offer a program combining an abbreviated term of military service with years of Talmudic study, have for many years been a sacred cow, esteemed by the majority of Israelis, religious and secular alike, for their singular contributions to the strength of the country’s military forces. Stern is now worried, however, that the heads of those yeshivas “are stealing our soldiers.” The number of religious soldiers joining the Hesder program instead of “regular” military service has grown exponentially in recent decades, and Stern thinks that this is one example of an “ultra-Orthodox approach” that should have no place in the lives of Religious Zionists. He thinks Hesder yeshivas should be reserved for a small intellectual elite rather than providing something of a haven for thousands of youngsters whose parents want them to serve shorter, hence safer, terms in the army. Moreover, he argues that all Hesder students, while in uniform, should serve in “mixed” units, alongside the “regular” soldiers, rather than in segregated all-religious units:

I believe this encounter is important to both sides: the secular soldier who never really met a dati [religious person], and similarly to the other side. In my view, it is important that the religious soldiers meet the secular soldiers, since they will also benefit from it. We will all benefit from it.

This makes good civic sense, but the heads of the Hesder yeshivas balked. Wishing to keep the students together under their leadership, they argued that maintaining the strict religious lifestyle in a mixed unit is more difficult. When Stern tried to force the change upon them, he was publicly “held in infamy and contempt.”

And indeed, more than two years after his departure from the military, many members of the Religious Zionist sector still hold Stern in contempt. He continues to give them new reasons for doing so. This past June, for example, he appeared in his capacity as chairman of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, one of the most vocal proponents of easing conversion procedures for Russian immigrants and other Israelis. Those opposed to such measures, he declared, should stop trying to confuse him “with halakha.” Jewish law is, of course, the rabbis’ proper concern. But Stern is right that their growing power in other realms of Israeli life has damaged the Religious Zionist community, as the recent brouhaha over the rabbinic letter instructing Jewish homeowners not to rent apartments to Arab Israelis has demonstrated once again.

In the summer of 2010, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, one of the more thoughtful Religious Zionist rabbis of the new generation, published a compilation of his answers to thousands of questions he had received during the disengagement from Gaza. It makes for interesting reading, especially because Cherlow isn’t a hotheaded zealot. Interviewed by Ha’aretz when the book was published, Cherlow admitted that the “web-based Q & A system” that he employs “is both a curse and a blessing. The curse is creating dependence, spiritual domination, manipulation, and loss of independence.” He encourages rabbis to “protect” those asking questions from this curse by fostering “independent thought and presenting answers as possibilities and not as the final word.”

Nonetheless, it is not clear that Cherlow allows much room for independent thought among his readers. He is indeed a “moderate” in the sense that he opposed calls for Religious Zionist soldiers to disobey orders (which he aptly describes as presenting an “existential danger” to Israel). During the disengagement, Cherlow never claimed that the state lacked the authority to make the decision to pull out of Gaza, but he did argue that there is a halakhic way to judge such a decision, and that it was at least “borderline.” Rabbis, he writes, are qualified to make judgments on matters of policy and security because they “are experts on the premises of the larger debate . . .” Moreover, “the state is not allowed to act . . . against the Torah,” presumably as it is defined by its rabbinical spokesmen.

Religious Zionism is in urgent need of being led away from the notion that the premises of every policy debate are ultimately halakhic, away from the rabbinical and back to the political. Elazar Stern might have been the man to accomplish this task, but he is too stubborn, too divisive, and finally just too annoying to become an effective political leader. However, his book is a salutary example of the kind of thinking now so uncommon in Religious Zionist circles in Israel. It is a wake-up call, and like most wake-up calls it is noisy, irritating, and very necessary.

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