When is the last time you saw a pair of green tzitzis? I’m not talking about the type that desperately needs laundering. This is a pair of clean, brand-new, green tzitzis. I had heard about them before, but last Shabbos was the first time that I actually saw them. They were shown by an old friend who was a scholar-in-residence over Shabbos in Lawrence.
Lieutenant Colonel (Res.) Rabbi Yedidya Atlas, the rabbi of the IDF’s Ground Forces Command and head of special projects of the IDF Chief Rabbinate, is in a unique position to shed some light on a wide array of subjects pertaining to the IDF, in particular from a religious perspective. Atlas spoke several times over Shabbos about life inside the IDF and especially of the recent Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza.
He said that unlike other armies, where chaplains are not trained to fight and do not, for the most part, join the forces in the theater of operation, that is not the case in the IDF. The rabbis, who in a sense are the spiritual fighting force of the State of Israel, are there with the men in the field. Rabbi Atlas was on the outskirts of Gaza, working amongst 30,000 troops called up to deal with Hamas in that region. Atlas confirmed that there were indeed three times when the order was given for the ground forces to enter Gaza, but each time the operations were called off at the last minute, for a variety of reasons.
Rabbi Atlas brought the camouflage-green tzitzis with him and said that they were the most requested item by the young men preparing to go into battle. This despite the fact that most of the young men getting ready to enter Gaza were not, he said, what we would consider in a conventional or traditional sense religiously observant. “I don’t know what you would call it, but there is a feeling amongst the troops that the tzitzis provide a shemirah, a protection of sorts.” And that is precisely the duty they perform.
Rabbi Atlas pointed out that while the cloth part of the tzitzis is green so that it blends in with a soldier’s uniform and does not appear as a white cloth beneath his shirt, the fringes themselves are the traditional off-white color. He says that it is against army regulations to wear the fringes of the tzitzis outside a shirt because they might get caught on something while on maneuvers or in battle. Therefore, Atlas explained, it really does not matter what color the tzitzis are.
The rabbi said that he ordered 10,000 pairs of these tzitzis for the Pillar of Defense or Amud Anan operation, as it was known in Hebrew, along with 30,000 very thin siddurim with prayers printed on extra-thin paper so that the prayer book can fit into a soldier’s pocket beneath his protective military vest. On the back of the siddur is the special prayer recited by a soldier prior to going into combat.
One of the remarkable insights that Yedidya Atlas shared was about the mindset of a young Jew as he prepares, at the age of 19 or 20 years, to enter into battle in a rugged and unpredictable place like Gaza. A soldier in the IDF can do what he does because his training is focused on his or her being a cog in something greater, that being the land and the state of Israel. If soldiers about to enter a battle were concerned or exclusively focused on themselves or their wives, their children, or parents, there is significant doubt that they would be able to accomplish their objectives.
“How do you think a soldier has it within him to throw himself on top of a grenade (as has been done) thereby shielding and saving the lives of others in his platoon or unit?” Atlas asks rhetorically. It is apparently a training that addresses a special place in these young recruits.
Then the conversation moved on to other aspects of military service in Israel from the vantage point of a military rabbi. He said that he and the other rabbis field many questions from soldiers in the field on a continuous basis. These run the gamut from whether a sleeping soldier can be counted in a minyan in a tank or in an armored personnel carrier (for some aspects of the tefillah he can be counted, for others, like the reading from the Torah, he needs to be awake) to accounting for the presence of waste in a tank when soldiers are unable to leave the tank for days and want to daven in the tank.
Also, Rabbi Atlas said that with the arrival of modern technology some policies on halachic issues have had to be adjusted. For example, dealing with family notification when, chas v’shalom, a soldier was killed in action on a Shabbos. The rabbi said that there was a case recently where a soldier was killed on watch duty at the Gaza border. The soldier that died was not supposed to be on guard but switched schedules with a friend at the very last moment. In the meantime, when word circulated that a soldier had died, many in that unit thought that the soldier who lost his life was the individual that was supposed to be there rather than the one who was in fact there.
Rabbi Atlas says that in the age of the cell phone and instant communication, in this particular case colleagues of the soldier thought to have been killed took the well-meaning initiative to inform his family. “If there is an elderly parent or relative involved in the process, such shocking news can endanger lives,” the rabbi said. As a result, unlike in the past, identification procedures now take place on Shabbos and families are informed directly. A unique standard of a Jewish army is that it is disposed to govern and run itself by halachic standards.
Then the discussion veered off in a number of similar directions. For example, what are the rabbi’s thoughts about the issue of chareidim being compelled by law to serve in the IDF? Does he think that it is a good and wise thing or is the previous status of exemption best maintained? Rabbi Atlas said that he feels that the emphasis on passing laws that make national service a requirement for almost all of the population stems in part from the rarely discussed reality that secular Israelis are increasingly finding innovative ways of avoiding IDF service. He says that those numbers have increased dramatically over the last few years. Young men and women from secular Israeli society today utilize psychological excuses to avoid service or use connections to either delay or exempt themselves from serving in the IDF. “It is an issue that is really not discussed in the media at all but a situation that is reaching crisis proportions in Israel,” he says.
As for chareidi men serving, he reiterates two things. There has been an annual increase in chareidim voluntarily joining the IDF even before the law was changed, and all expectations were that this number would continue to grow for a number of reasons regardless of the law. Also, military service does not mean joining a combat unit; there are many other areas of service like support teams, technicians, and military intelligence where chareidim can make an important contribution to the defense of Israel.
Finally, there is the subject of a soldier refusing orders based on conscientious objections. For example, in response to orders to forcibly remove settlers from their homes, should those orders ever be given again like they were in the Gaza withdrawal in 2005? The issue has lately reappeared in the news as a result of Habayit HaYehudi head Naftali Bennett telling a reporter that if he were active in the IDF he would object to carrying out such an order.
Yedidya Atlas says that Bennett would be within his right to refuse the order knowing that it contravenes the law, but he would likely face imprisonment for doing so. “In this case he would know that he is doing something wrong and is willing to face the consequences.” The idea of following orders is a fundamental aspect of order in a military force and no successful or effective army could function properly if each soldier were able to go about doing whatever he felt was right or best suited his personal political position.
It is indeed an intriguing subject and matter of endless debate in Israel. It is another aspect of the uniqueness of a Jewish army dealing with very real and often dangerous issues in an ever-changing and challenging time. The IDF is fortunate to have an intellectual thinker like Rabbi Atlas in such an important position. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.