Do the New IDF Chief Rabbi’s Personal Opinions Matter?

Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim has been appointed by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eiznkot as the next IDF Chief Rabbi, replacing the outgoing rabbi Gen. Rafi Peretz, who is retiring after six years in the position.

Karim currently serves as the head of the Rabbinate Department in the Military Rabbinate. He previously served as an officer and then commander of the elite paratrooper Sayeret commando unit, and fought in two of the Lebanon wars (pretty cool for a rabbi). He studied in the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva and headed up the pre-military academy of Ateret Kohanim, before returning to the IDF Rabbinate.

Karim has come under fire for statements he made implying that woman are prohibited from serving in the IDF and that soldiers can rape gentile women during war. He made the statements in responses to questions he received on the website The rabbi has clearly stated that his statements were made in response to purely theoretical questions of Jewish law and were not meant to be applied in practice.

In response to the claims that Karim sanctioned rape in wartime by IDF soldiers, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office issued a statement saying: “Col. Karim asks to clarify that his statement was issued as the answer to a theoretical question and not in any way whatsoever a question of practical Jewish law. Rabbi Karim has never written, said or even thought that and IDF soldier is permitted to sexually assault a woman in war—anyone who interprets his words otherwise is completely mistaken. Rabbi Karim’s moral approach is attested by his years of military service in command, combat, and rabbinical positions in which he displayed complete loyalty to the values and spirit of the IDF, in particular the dignity of the person.”

But that hasn’t stopped the attacks against him. Why? Because there apparently is a fundamental misunderstanding in how to differentiate between theory and practice in Jewish law and scholarship.

The Torah sanctions certain actions that are considered to be no longer applicable in practice. Examples of these are slavery, the killing of Amalek and the rape of gentile women during war. But these concepts are still “on the books” and are studied and analyzed as part of Jewish law. They also contain valuable homiletical messages and lessons that go far beyond their literal readings.

There’s not a rabbi in the world who would say that slavery is permitted today. No one would permit killing someone on the basis of them being from Amalek. The same is true regarding the Torah law of permissible wartime rape, which happens to have many conditions and caveats attached to it to dissuade soldiers from committing rape and was infinitely more progressive than the norm in the ancient (and not so ancient) world.

When a rabbi is asked a question relating to the intricacies of the laws of these types of issues, he must respond within the context of the question even though he doesn’t intend his answer to be taken as practical law. The entire discussion is clearly within the theoretical realm of intellectual scholarship.

Taking these theoretical statements as reflecting a rabbi’s practical stance is a mistake, and shows a lack of understanding of the concept of theoretical discussion and scholarship.

The statement of the IDF spokesman clearly explains this.

But Rabbi Karim’s opinion regarding the prohibition against women serving in the IDF, particularly in combat roles, might not be so theoretical. Karim might be agreeing with most Haredi rabbi and those on the extreme right wing of the National Religious sector that in fact do prohibit women from serving in the IDF due to modesty concerns. As a result of this, the IDF has traditionally provided religious exemptions for women who choose to not to be drafted. Many of those women volunteer for national service (Sherut Leumi) instead.

Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid has called on Karim to clearly declare that he approves of women being drafted and serving in the IDF. If he doesn’t believe in the right for women to serve in the IDF, then Lapid feels that Karim cannot be appointed as Chief Rabbi, for how can someone be a rabbi for soldiers that he does not believe should be serving?

While Karim should absolutely state his opinion publicly, whether his views on women serving or not should effect his ability to serve as the rabbi of the entire army is not so clear. Isn’t it possible for a person to have personal beliefs that are not in sync with those of his employer?

Just because a rabbi believes that women shouldn’t be drafted doesn’t mean that he cannot effectively serve their religious needs.

Or perhaps personal opinions of public servants, especially Chief Rabbis, do matter?