I waited a couple of weeks before writing about this story, as I was hoping it would trigger responses and perhaps even action from appropriate quarters. I was wrong. The total silence (as far as I know) with which this story has met, has reinforced my disillusionment with the zeitgeist of religious thinking in Israel and the impotence of the establishment.
Effi Eitam, Brigardier General (ret.) turned right-wing politician, met earlier this month a group of high-school graduates undergoing a pre-military programme and told them the following story (as published by Srugim).
During his time as commander in Lebanon he asked some rabbis how he can “enhance” his military duty with an appropriately religious flavour, and was told to set up a “prayer commando unit” that would assist his soldiers in time of need. Eitam put (yes, “put”, not “asked”) R. Mordechai Eliyahu z”l, ex Chief Rabbi and de-facto spiritual leader of the Hardal branch of national-religious Jews, at the head of this commando unit.
The special commando unit was put in action soon enough. One of Eitam’s units found itself trapped in a Hezbollah minefield and even though it was the middle of the night Eitan called R. Eliyahu. The rabbis started praying, and R. Eliyahu instructed Eitan to tell the soldiers to start moving out of the minefield. Eitan gave the command and the soldiers exited the minefield safely. Eitan adds that he heard (over the communications network) the commander of the Hezbollah unit complaining that the mines are malfunctioning and he is unable to set them off. Only after the soldiers reached safe ground, and the rabbis stopped their prayers, did the mines finally explode.
(The story appears also on Eitam’s website, so there is no reason to think Eitam’s words have been misreported in any way.)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. As a religious Jew, I fully recognize the importance of prayer and firmly believe both in its necessity and its effectiveness. I don’t know why some prayers get answered and some don’t, but that does not diminish my belief in them. I also think that R. Eliyahu z”l was a leading rabbi and mentor to many Jews.
Eitam’s story crosses a dangerous line. How can the IDF put up with a senior commander who allows his personal beliefs to override his military judgement? Would the army tolerate a commander who, say, consults the stars before telling his men to attack? What about a commander who believes in tasseography or practices cleromancy? A military commander should base his decisions on his military knowledge, not on some extraneous “force”. The IDF should strip Eitam of his rank, or at the very least send out a clear message that it disapproves of such behaviour.
But the more disturbing aspect of this story is the total, absolute silence of religious leaders and educators in Israel. Eitam spoke in front of a young audience, freshly out of high school and attending an educational programme. There is no report of any of the adults present at the event warning the soldiers-to-be about the ramifications of Eitam’s actions and line of thought. I didn’t see any rabbi or religious politician speaking out against the Voodoo Judaism hiding (or, perhaps, not really hiding) in Eitam’s fantastical story. With all due respect to R. Eliyahu z”l, such behaviour borders on human worship that is dangerously close to idolatry.
Instead of educating young people to think independently, to have faith in their prayers and their relationship with God, to understand that rabbis are learned teachers and not a medium to God or God’s representatives on Earth – we are witnessing a continuous drift towards the ultra-orthodox model of human worship and unquestioning obedience to the rabbi. Is this the model that we want our children to follow?