Is American Orthodoxy not Orthodox?

Why do they do it? Because they can!

This week, the Supreme Court issued a ‘show cause’ order against the IDF in a petition Hiddush submitted regarding non-observant and non-Jewish soldiers being allowed to possess chametz in their own private domain (or in pre-designated spaces) and consume it during Passover.

IDF soldiersIDF soldiers

This week, the Supreme Court issued a ‘show cause’ order against the IDF in a petition Hiddush submitted regarding non-observant and non-Jewish soldiers being allowed to possess chametz in their own private domain (or in pre-designated spaces) and consume it during Passover, even as the IDF kitchens, cafeterias, and dining halls are strictly kosher for Pesach (click here for a more detailed account of the case, written as we prepared to submit it to court several months ago.)

As could be expected, the case was met with strong reactions from the Orthodox religious and political establishment. They denounce in the strongest language any possibility that non-observant or non-Jewish soldiers would be allowed to have or eat chametz on base, even in their private domains. One such advocacy organization ‘Torah Lechima’ (the Torah of Fighting), which advocates against the Supreme Court undermining the IDF, its soldiers, and its Jewish character reacted: “It is shocking to see how the thuggishness of the radical left, through the Supreme Court, which is under absolute control of the anti-Jewish minority, trample the only Jewish army in the world and demolish the foundations of the Jewish identity that have sustained it from the day that the IDF and State of Israel were founded…”

The attack on the Supreme Court and its preoccupation with matters of religious freedom came not only from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leaders, but also from personalities such as MK Dr. Shlomo Karhi (Likud). He posted a post on FB, in which he refers to a conditional order issued by the Supreme Court and writes: The Supreme Court is not Jewish. They will deeply regret having raised a hand against the Torah of Moses.” Then MK Karhi uses gematria to reinforce his demonization of the Supreme Court: baga’tz = 95 = Haman: “The end of this despicable institution will be the end of the house of Haman.

This was a preliminary hearing, which resulted with our crossing the first hurdle. The court rejected the State’s attempt to have the petition dismissed. Rather it ordered the IDF to provide reason within 60 days as to why the all-encompassing prohibition on the presence of chametz or its consumption at any location by anyone on any military base during Passover and the preceding days should not be curtailed.

Naturally, the case is attracting media attention, as well as strong reactions from rabbinic and political figures on the religious right. (See, for instance: Israel Hayom article, Feb. 24, 2022)

The title and subtitle we chose for this article stem from the fact that the halakhic position presented by the State in opposition to our petition can be characterized as extreme and encompassing. Namely, the bottom line is this: there is no halakhic way to allow non-Jewish and non-observant Jewish soldiers to have chametz in their possessions while on base or consume it. In preparing our response, we both checked the halakhic sources cited in the State’s brief and found that they do not say what the Military Rabbinate through the State Attorney’s Office is claiming they say. Rather, the opposite can be understood from them. Also, we reached out to Rear Admiral (ret.) Rabbi Harold Robinson and Rabbi Dr. Joan Freedman, Chair of the CCAR Responsa Committee to inquire what the practice is in the US armed forces in parallel situations. (Click here to read Rabbi Robinson’s detailed response.) Robinson’s own experience as the most senior Jewish chaplain in the US armed forces from 2003-2007 and the Director of the Jewish Welfare Board 2007-2016, which, among other things, certifies military and federal hospital rabbis of all denominations, has been consistent: no halakhic prohibition prevents observant Jewish soldiers from sharing rooms and offices with non-Jewish and non-observant Jewish roommates fellow personnel, who continue eating and possessing chametz during Passover, as long as the observant Jewish soldier himself/herself keeps the halakhic requirements incumbent upon them with regard to chametz.

We stand, therefore, in the face of blatantly contradictory applications of the commandments of Halacha for observant Jewish soldiers.

Rabbi Robinson did not merely rely upon his rich personal experience of 46 years of active service in the religious field in the US Army. Therefore, he turned to a number of senior Orthodox military rabbis [all above the rank of colonel] with decades of experience in the U.S. military rabbinate, and they confirmed that:

"... the observant service member is responsible only for the observant service member’s personal food and space and has no claim on others nor does the behavior or food of others diminish the observant personal’s pesach observance. All those consulted began and ended with the admonition that respectful relations amongst service member was of high concern and as military officers worked to ensure everyone’s courteous deportment. All personnel were expected to respect the choices of their comrades in arms and consume the food of their choice without intrusion or slight to the other’s religious feelings. In their combined more than a century of military rabbinic service there was only one instance that required intervention with a non-Jew or a non-observant Jew being disrespectful..."

We stand, therefore, in the face of blatantly contradictory applications of the commandments of Halacha for observant Jewish soldiers. The position of the Military Rabbinate in Israel, which holds that if, God forbid, the rights of non-observant Jewish soldiers or non-Jewish soldiers are accommodated, then religious soldiers will no longer be able to serve in the army on Passover; and - there is no halakhic way to allow non-observant or non-Jewish soldiers to consume chametz in any compound of any military base; and – all the more so – not in the residential rooms or shared offices… For halakha forbids a Jewish soldier to be in a room where chametz is located, and - at least - He must erect a stable barrier of at least 80 cm between himself and the chametz, and, therefore, the ability to maintain comradeliness and cohesion among IDF soldiers will be completely undermined.

On the other hand, consistent rulings of Orthodox rabbinical authorities in the U.S, over decades, in the military and at universities, hold that the proper interpretation of "(chametz) shall neither be seen nor found in one’s domain" - based on the halakhic principle underlying this biblical prohibition – is: "you may not see your own [chametz], but you [may] see [chametz] belonging to others". This is to say that as long as the soldier who keeps kosher makes sure that the chametz he owns is burned or sold, there is none in his presence, in the residential room, in the office, or in the dining room – the fact that there are colleagues, both non-Jews and Jews, who may have and consume chametz does not constitute a breach of his observance.

What should we learn from this? We have tried to express the lesson in the title of this article: Why does the Military Rabbinate hold such an exceptionally strict interpretation of halacha, radically different from that prevailing in parallel circumstances in other armies, such as the US Army; and why does it require that keeping kosher for Passover should supersede the autonomy and freedom of choice and religion of all soldiers, even if they are not Jews or non-observant [i.e., most IDF soldiers!] - because they can! Because the military authorities do not bother to use logic, critical examination, or comparative examination. They simply accept the Military Rabbinate's policy of religious coercion as "the words of the living God."

The other possible interpretation of this contradiction is unreasonable and unacceptable: American Jewish Orthodoxy is not really Orthodox and is not really faithful to halakha; and the Military Rabbinate in Israel is the only authentic and exclusive interpreter of Halacha! It is clear that even though we are dealing with the issue of chametz on Passover, this matter is only a parable for a much broader reality and challenge. This is the situation, for example, in regard to the issue of “Who is a Jew” and the laws of conversion, which is deeply controversial not only between religious and secular Jews and between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, but also among Orthodox religious authorities themselves. Therefore, it is clear that the extreme and coercive interpretation of the establishment Rabbinate in Israel is unbound by reality and unbound by halakhah. Moreover - Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must not see the position of this Rabbinate as an exclusive representation of halakhah. The State must withdraw its hand from granting monopolistic governmental authority to any rabbinical group, whether in the military or in civilian life.

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