IDF chief rabbi: Where are Tel Avivian combat soldiers?
Just before stepping down, Avichai Ronsky tells Ynet there is a problem with high percentage of religious commanders. He doesn't understand opposition to rabbis strengthening fighting spirit, thinks extremist settlers who operate 'price tag' policy are delusional
"Beyond its classic areas of responsibility, like kashrut, Shabbat, and identifying fallen soldiers, the Military Rabbinate's job description also includes 'imbuing Jewish values.' We only implemented this command," Chief Military Rabbi Brigadier-General Avichai Ronsky summed up his tumultuous term in the position in a conversation with Ynet, without making a big deal of it, and certainly without apologizing. His term comes to an end next week.
After he removes his uniform, Ronsky plans on donning much more comfortable clothes, slinging a backpack over his shoulder, and going on a post-army trip. However, instead of trekking for six months in South America, he will hike the Israel National Trail for a few weeks, and from there will return lead the High Yeshiva in Itamar.
"I have already been spoken to regarding a number of roles. One offer I even seriously considered," Ronsky revealed. "But I am actually looking for something with a broad national-public impact on the general public, and not just the religious public. Perhaps in the Education Ministry or something like that. In the meantime, I am at the yeshiva. I don't know of many places where you can have an impact like there."
As a rule, Rabbi Ronsky is always thinking about education. He sometimes gives the impression that the rabbinate interests him far less.
Following intense friction between himself and Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister over the rabbinate's role in the IDF Education Corps, Ronsky said that as someone who fought in the Yom Kippur War – a war in which nearly none of today's IDF commanders fought – he "knows what war is," and therefore had something to contribute to these areas.
According to him, he has a hard time understanding the Education Corps' opposition to the rabbinate's involvement in education. "Overall, we are partners in the same mission, but we are doing it from Jewish sources, while they are doing it from other sources."
Ronsky also said that he had personal conversations with 50 senior officers – all of whom are secular combat soldiers – prior to entering the position on their expectations from the Military Rabbinate under his leadership. "All of them, without exception, said that success would be seen if we address them, the non-religious public," he said. "They said, 'The religious people usually manage, but we also need Jewish content.'"
What do you think about the percentage of kippah-wearing commanders?
"Because I am well aware of the field, I can say that it is much more than the public knows about," said Brig. Gen. Ronsky, "and some people may say it is a scary phenomenon."
He himself admitted that he is uncomfortable with the current situation because the military, in his opinion, must be a reflection of Israeli society. "It is very sad that it belongs to certain sectors," Ronsky said, but noted that the situation is much better among soldiers who are not commanders.
The chief military rabbi said the main omission in combat units are "the guys from the center of the country."
"The mayor of Tel Aviv spoke harshly about the haredi public, and core studies truly are important so that there will be engineers and physicists," he said, "but, perhaps he should look at the schools in his city to see how they strengthen core studies in bible, in connection with the Land of Israel. They should go serve in other places, too, not just in the base next to the house with dad's car to the base entrance. The principal should invite officers to the school who want to increase motivation for combat service, and not just raise more mathematicians, which is important – but also fighters."
What kind of Military Rabbinates are you leaving behind for those who come after you?
"We accepted rabbis with a Zionist world view. After all, it's not a place of work, but the military. We need the soldiers to connect with them. It is important that there are rabbis who went through the combat track. Today, all the rabbis in the infantry and training bases went through a combat track, at least in hesder. Their capacity for connecting to the soldiers and the reality in the field as halachic adjudicators is entirely different. It is not just about taking care of kashrut and prayer times.
"There are questions that in order to answer you need to be familiar with the life experiences of the inquirer. Our rabbis are Torah scholars who went through a combat track. They walk with them on all-night treks; they don't just give a sermon and then return to the office. That wouldn't be serious. They're not just supposed to be a guest, but to go into Gaza with them, into places they are fighting and being shot at."
Ronsky explained that a course was opened for rabbis in order to train them as company commanders. Now, a rabbi can be a commander at a checkpoint, a patrol commander, and can even do shooting practice. "He no longer is the 'pester in the kitchen.' It's a different world. We trained hundreds like this to serve in all the IDF reserve battalions that didn't have a rabbi," he said.
What is the rabbi's status as a halachic adjudicator?
Rabbi Ronsky claimed that the rabbis and yeshiva heads in the Religious Zionism camp view the Military Rabbinate as a halachic authority that is binding for the soldiers, and this is also what they teach their students.
Regarding the chilly relations with Israel's Chief Rabbinate, Ronsky emphasized that he views the Military Rabbinate as "an entirely autonomous unit," but was also careful to note that the Chief Rabbinate recognizes the training the military grants for rabbinical ordination.
What does a religious soldier need to do if his rabbi ordered him to refuse an order?
"A soldier's disobedience is a failure of his commander," Rabbi Ronsky quoted former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. He tries as much as possible to rely on Halutz and his successor Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi on this sensitive topic.
Ronsky emphasized, "Refusing an order is something that is forbidden to do." However, on the other hand, he believes that "using the IDF to evacuate towns is unprofessional and will not work."
According to him, "The units are full of thousands of religious commanders and soldiers. Each one of them either lives himself in Judea and Samaria, or his brothers or his family members or his counselor in Bnei Akiva live in Judea and Samaria. So, it's a problem.
"They won't let a Bedouin soldier evacuate an illegal tent compound in the Negev. It is an impossible test for him. The spirit, soul and heart are supposed to guide the hands and the feet, and he is not capable. It's not like in the army when they say, "There is no 'I can't.' There is only 'I don't want to.' He arrives there, and it truly is not possible. The military tried very hard to avoid this during the disengagement."
What do you think about the "price tag" policy that some settlers use?
"This is a very marginal phenomenon, but, of course, it is negative. It is unfair and immoral. I don't even know what to say about it. Like the State of Judea. They are delusional."