Amid protests, IDF chief sticks with controversial top rabbi pick

Lawmakers feud over nomination of Eyal Karim after his contentious statements come to light seeming to condone rape during wartime, oppose drafting of women

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim (left), nominated to become IDF chief rabbi, sits next to his predecessor, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, on April 21, 2016 (Diana Khananashvili/Defense Ministry)
Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim (left), nominated to become IDF chief rabbi, sits next to his predecessor, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, on April 21, 2016 (Diana Khananashvili/Defense Ministry)

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot on Wednesday upheld the nomination of Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim as head of the military rabbinate, rebuffing a storm of criticism against the appointment over controversial remarks made in the past by the rabbi.

The decision to back Karim’s appointment as the IDF’s chief rabbi came after a meeting between the two to discuss a series of rulings by Karim, many of which appear to be sexist, homophobic and racist, that have come to light in recent days.

Karim has faced fury from some lawmakers over past rabbinic rulings appearing to condone rape during wartime and a series of other responsa regarding women’s role in the army and disobeying orders on religious grounds.

After meeting with the IDF personnel head Tuesday to discuss the statements, Karim was summoned Wednesday by Eisenkot for a private meeting.

During the discussion, Karim apologized for the implications in some of his rulings and promised Eisenkot that he was committed to the moral code of the IDF.

Eisenkot nominated Karim as the army’s chief rabbi on Monday, a move that immediately drew flak.

Karim was embroiled in controversy when he joined the army’s rabbinate in 2012 for his response to a question posed to him on the religious website Kipa, asking in the light of certain biblical passages if IDF soldiers, for example, were permitted to commit rape during wartime despite the general understanding that such an act is widely considered repugnant.

In his response, given in 2002 but largely unnoticed for a decade, Karim implied that such practices, among several others that were normally prohibited — including the consumption of nonkosher food — were permitted during battle.

When the responsa surfaced in 2012 and caused a media firestorm, he published a clarification stating that his comments were in no way meant to be applied in the modern era, but rather pertained to a theoretical discussion of the biblical permission for a Jewish soldier to kidnap an enemy woman and wed her.

“Obviously, in our times, when the world has advanced to a level of morality in which one does not marry captives, one must not perform this act, which is also entirely against the army’s values and orders,” he wrote.

He has also written a number of rulings against women’s involvement in the army.

On the matter of women’s enlistment, Karim wrote in 2002 that it was explicitly forbidden. In 2011, Karim wrote that women should not sing at army events. If women do perform, soldiers who object to attending the events on religious grounds should be allowed to skip, he added.

Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In a cutting Facebook post Wednesday, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachmovich said that based on his comments, “Karim cannot be the chief rabbi of the IDF. Period.”

“The chain of chilling and disturbing statements he has made that continue to come to light directly contradict the morals and values of the IDF,” she continued.

Earlier Wednesday, another past ruling of Karim was discovered which suggested soldiers should disobey orders if they contradict Jewish law.

“Sometimes there are questions about the ethics of war that are enshrined in halacha [Jewish law]. An order that is at odds with the halacha must not be followed,” he wrote in 2003. “An order to commit a sin or prevent the fulfillment of a commandment should absolutely not be followed.”

Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony on May 26, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony on May 26, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Former IDF chief Rabbi Brigadier General (res.) Israel Weiss came out in support of Karim, telling Channel 10 News that the statements were not meant to be taken as instruction. “I think that these expressions were part of a study program, with learned scholars who sit and deal with Torah issues,” he said.

Zionist Union number two Tzipi Livni said that in any case, the sentiments expressed should disqualify Karim from the position.

“Even if he was dealing with a theoretical debate about rape during battle or [if he] opposes female service or song in the military, no, he cannot be the military rabbi,” she wrote on Twitter.

The latest criticism follows similar statements on Tuesday from Meretz party leader Zahava Galon and Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid.

Knesset members from the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party have slammed criticism leveled against Karim.

“The attack against Rabbi Karim is the worst possible form of slander,” wrote MK Betzalel Smotrich in a letter to Eisenkot praising Rabbi Karim. “It is a bitter attempt to discredit a good and just man, rabbi and fighter.”

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, also of the Jewish Home party, told critics to “stop taking things out of context.”

Jewish Home MK Shuli Mualem also blasted the comments.

“The aggressive campaign against the rabbi stems from worrying ignorance and a deep fear of a ‘religiousization’ that they think is infecting the commanders and soldiers of the IDF,” Mualem wrote on Facebook.

Mualem said Karim must be supported “because he is a brave and valued commander” and “because of his ability to lead the army rabbinate in a complicated period while maintaining great personal modesty and respect for all.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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