Thursday, Aug 5, 2021

“He Must Be a Man of Values”

He learned in Ponovezh and in the kollel of the Mirrer Yeshiva, and he was offered a position as a military rov. Rabbi Dov Povarsky reached the rank of lieutenant colonel and received a commendation when he served as the rov of the Israeli Air Force.

Today, he is an educator, and a prolific writer and lecturer, and deals with youth at risk. We spoke to him about two subjects that have evoked great controversy throughout the country over the past few days: the apology to a soldier who was punished for eating ham at a military base (“The IDF spokesman was wrong; the soldier needed to be punished”) and the decision of the Chief of Staff to prevent the military rabbinate from being involved in education (“Eizenkot is right; the military rabbinate should be involved in halachah, kashrus and Shabbos”).

This past week, the State of Israel was in an uproar over a sandwich.

It began when the military correspondent of Kol Yisroel, the national radio station, revealed that a soldier who had eaten a ham sandwich on the army base where he was serving had been sentenced to 11 days in prison. In the army, this is not considered a particularly severe punishment, but the news sent shockwaves throughout the country. The story even made its way out of Israel and was publicized on Reuters as a bizarre news item, as well as on CBS, perhaps because the soldier is originally from America.

As a result of the uproar, the soldier’s punishment was first commuted from imprisonment to confinement to the army base. Ultimately, that punishment was also dropped and he was allowed to return home. Brigadier General Moti Almoz, the spokesman for the IDF, apologized both to the soldier and to the public: “The bottom line is that we made a mistake.” He added, “We will continue observing the laws of kashrus in the army, but, at the same time, we won’t examine every soldier’s sandwich.”

At the same time, the soldier’s grandmother also apologized. “I didn’t know that it would cause such a ruckus,” she said. “I have never made him a ham sandwich before. It was a one-time occurrence.”

She added that she had asked him to eat it in private, but someone else saw it and reported it to his commanders. The grandmother remarked, “I have a son who became religious, and because of him, there is no ham in my house at all. We are very sensitive to this subject, and we don’t do things for the purpose of making trouble. Everyone can really live together with sensitivity and acceptance. The boy acted properly; he didn’t do anything to offend anyone.”

The grandmother spoke very nicely, but there is one thing that I do not understand: She claims to have a son who became religious, yet she also claims that this grandson is not Jewish at all.

Rabbi Dov Povarsky, grandson of the famed Rav Dovid Povarsky zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh Yeshiva, says unequivocally, “That apology was a mistake. The soldier needed to be punished.”

Rabbi Povarsky, who lives in Yerushalayim today, served for many years as a military rov and was a close friend of many officials in the army. In short, he knows a thing or two about the army and the military rabbinate.

Here is another news item from last week, although you may find it difficult to believe: The front page headline in Haaretz on Thursday announced, in large black letters, “Eizenkot Will Limit the Authority of the Military Rabbinate.” Gadi Eizenkot is the Chief of Staff of the IDF, and according to his new policy, Haaretz reveals, the military rabbinate will deal only with rabbinic issues, while the Education Corps will handle education.

A few words of explanation are in order. The Israeli army has many different divisions. There is the Armored Corps, the Artillery Corps, the Air Force, and the Navy, and there are also support divisions, such as the Medical Corps, the Education Corps, and the Military Rabbinate Corps. While the commander of every corps holds the rank of major general, the support divisions – including the Military Prosecutor and the IDF Spokesman’s Office – are commanded by men holding the rank of brigadier general.

It hasn’t always been this way. The first chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, demanded and received the rank of major general. He insisted on that in order for the important status of the military rabbinate to be made clear. It was David Ben-Gurion who acceded to his demand. Rabbi Goren was followed in that position by Rabbi Mordechai Piron, who subsequently served for many years as a rov in Zurich and passed away just last year, in Iyar, at a ripe old age. The next chief rabbi of the IDF was Rabbi Gad Navon. Before his appointment, the IDF tried to abolish the rank of major general held by the chief rabbi, but Rabbi Navon fought them, making use of his friendship with Yitzchok Rabin, and won. The issue of rank not only has bearing on the respect accorded to the chief rabbi himself, which is important enough in its own right, but also has ramifications for his subordinates.

This is exactly what happened following the appointment of Rabbi Yisroel Weiss, who succeeded Rabbi Gad Navon as chief rabbi of the IDF. Rabbi Weiss agreed to accept the rank of brigadier general, with the result that his deputies received a lower rank than the deputies of his predecessor. After Rabbi Weiss, whose tenure in the position was a stormy one marred by controversy, the position was given to Rabbi Avichai Ronsky, a Dati-Leumi figure from the settlement of Itamar and a senior officer who became a baal teshuvah. Since 2010, the position has been held by the current chief rabbi, Rafi Peretz, a former pilot who is therefore a high-ranking officer in the Air Force.

It was during Rabbi Weiss’ tenure that the military rabbinate began moving in the direction of education. The rabbinate first began addressing the area of “Torah values and combat,” and Weiss’ successors continued his work, until the military rabbinate opened a “Jewish Awareness” branch and began organizing courses and lectures. This placed the rabbinate in constant conflict with the Education Corps and its director. At this point, the Chief of Staff has decided to put an end to the situation and put the military rabbinate back in its proper, natural place. And while this seems like an anti-religious move, it is nothing of the sort. Rabbi Dov Povarsky asserts that the Chief of Staff is correct: The rabbinate should deal with halachah, kashrus and Shabbos, not with education and identity.

 

An Illustrious Grandfather

Rabbi Povarsky, a former talmid of the Ponovezh Yeshiva and then the kollel of Yeshivas Mir, expresses himself well and is an impressive speaker. Today, he works in chinuch, mainly with youths at risk, and he delivers shiurim and learns half a day, in addition to helping his wife with the family shaitel business. He is a sought-after speaker and writes many columns and articles for both the religious and secular media. Above all, he is a grandson of the man who served as the rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh Yeshiva and passed away about 16 years ago, in February 1999.

Rav Dovid Povarsky zt”l had three sons: Rav Sholom, who serves today as the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kol Torah in Yerushalayim; Rav Boruch Dov (Berel), who serves as rosh yeshiva of the Ponovezh Yeshiva; and Reb Chaim, who worked as a lawyer and legal advisor. Chaim lived in Flatbush for many years and served as a lecturer on the faculty of a law school. Several years ago, he returned to Bnei Brak, where he now spends his time writing seforim. 55-year-old Dov Povarsky is Reb Chaim Povarsky’s son.

How old were you when your grandfather, Rav Dovid, passed away?

“I was already in the army. I was almost 40 years old.”

Were you close with him when you learned in Ponovezh?

“Of course. He was my grandfather… Of course, I was also very close with Rav Berel, my uncle.”

Looking back, do you feel that you have achieved the goals you set out to achieve?

“One of the areas in which I worked very hard was the issue of kashrus on the bases and in the units where I served. I took care of all the needs of religious soldiers. I managed to reach the point where chiloni commanders in the army paid attention to my demands. I enjoyed the full cooperation of the most senior officers.”

Such as whom?

“The most recent one was Benny Gantz, the previous Chief of Staff. I had an excellent relationship with him, both on a working level and on a personal level. In order to be successful, a military rabbi must know how to present the requirements of halachah in the proper terms and in pleasant language, and sometimes also with force. But it is crucial to work one on one, not to look for publicity.”

A military rabbi generally holds at least a rank of captain. The rank may be higher, depending on whether he is the rabbi of a division, a battalion, or a corps. The corps rabbis are generally at least majors, and after their service in the corps, they either retire from the army or are moved to the main command center of the military rabbinate, where they become direct subordinates of the chief rabbi of the IDF. Today, there are two colonels and nine lieutenant colonels in the military rabbinate; in the past, there were many more.

Dov Povarsky became a corps rabbi and found himself working with the corps commanders, all of whom held the rank of major general. He was a good friend of Shaul Mofaz, who later served as the Chief of Staff and then the Minister of Defense, as well as Benny Gantz and Major General Yitzchok Eitan, who concluded his service at the IDF’s Central Command during Operation Defensive Shield.

Many lower-ranking officers, even senior ones, are personal friends of Rabbi Povarsky and have been guests at his home. He himself served as the chief rabbi of the Air Force during the tenure of Major General Herzl Bodinger, as the rov of the IDF officers school, and as the rov of Bahad (Training Base) One during the tenure of Major General Elazar Stern, who later became a member of the Knesset and is known to be no great fan of chareidim.

Rabbi Povarsky also served as the rov of the Yehuda and Shomron division of the army, and even of Unit 8200, the army’s famed intelligence unit. His final position was as the rov of the Home Front Command. After finishing his service in that capacity, he retired to the reserves. During his reserve service, he was promoted from the rank of major to that of lieutenant colonel.

 

The Apology Was a Mistake

 

You mentioned before that it is necessary to act with wisdom and delicacy, but also firmness when necessary. Can you give us an example from your own time in the army?

“Yes. The case of the ham sandwich is an example. When non-kosher food enters a unit, there can be no compromise. There was once a case on Shevi’i Shel Pesach in one of the units that was under my command: A high-ranking officer came to the army base several hours before Yom Tov was over. He had bought a crate of pitas on the way. He rationalized that it wasn’t such a terrible thing to do, since the holiday was about to end. The baking of the pitas, of course, was done through chillul Shabbos, and the bakery wasn’t kosher, not to mention the prohibition of chometz she’avar alav haPesach. But let’s forget about all that. This officer brought bread into an army base on Pesach. The rov at the base told me about it as soon as Yom Tov was over, and I traveled directly from shul to the base. My car – a military vehicle, of course – was parked next to the shul, since I used to drive to shul before Shabbos or Yom Tov and then drive home at the conclusion of the day. I traveled straight to the unit, which wasn’t far away, and I threw out the pitas and demanded that punitive measures be taken against the officer. He was put on trial.”

What was his punishment?

“He was reprimanded and fined, and the incident prevented him from being promoted. The army considered his actions as a sign that he might not be fit to be a commander of soldiers, or a commander in the army in general. I was very firm at the time, and I resisted the pressures that were brought to bear on me to hush up the incident.”

Then the soldier who ate ham on an army base in private should also be punished?

“Absolutely. Of course, it’s possible to make a joke out of everything, as the media has been doing all week. ‘What happened, after all?’ they ask. ‘Why are you looking through a soldier’s plate? He didn’t know it wasn’t allowed!’ The media was angry about the seemingly degrading way that the soldier was treated, and then they added that his brother from America, who was also considering enlisting in the army, is no longer prepared to do so. But all of that is utter nonsense. I don’t believe any of it. Ask anyone in the world and he will tell you that Jews despise pig. Who doesn’t know that Jewish people don’t eat the meat of a pig? Who doesn’t know that it symbolizes something?”

Povarsky is furious with the IDF spokesman who apologized for the soldier’s punishment. “I don’t understand all the concessions and apologies,” he says. “If I violate a traffic law because I don’t recognize the sign, will I be forgiven for it? And if an officer insists on issuing me a ticket, will some authority figure in the police force feel the need to apologize?”

He considers the incident part of a wider trend. “In this country, everything associated with religion or mitzvos is being trampled. There is some sort of effort underway to show derision to the Torah. There is a reason that everyone tried to turn this incident into a joke. These people are causing harm to the army, because they are destroying the possibility for us to live together, and thereby destroying the possibility of our serving in the same army.”

It has been reported that the soldier isn’t Jewish.

“That makes no difference. He is a soldier, and he is required to respect the regulations of the army, not to mention respecting his fellow soldiers, religious and secular alike. There is a very nice story about a Jewish man who was traveling by train while dressed in chareidi garb, when he encountered a more modern Jew who accosted him, demanding, ‘How long are you going to keep that beard and those clothes, looking like someone from golus? When will you start to act normal?’ The man answered him in English that he didn’t understand a word, as he is a member of the Amish sect. The Jewish critic instantly apologized and assured him that he respected the Amish faith, their allegiance to tradition, and their attachment to the lifestyle of the Middle Ages. The man then said to him in Yiddish, ‘What have you come to? If I were a non-Jew from the Amish sect, you would understand and respect me, but since I am a Jew like your own father and grandfather, you mock me?!’”

What is the message of that story for us?

“It is very simple. There are people who disparage and mock everything connected to Yiddishkeit, but they themselves would not dare enter a Muslim holy site without removing their shoes. After all, they respect the ‘mitzvos’ of Islam…”

 

Reason to Resign

The majority of Rabbi Povarsky’s service in the army took place under the command of Rabbi Gad Navon.

“He knew how to stand his ground,” Povarsky recalls. “He knew how to avoid giving in on the tiniest detail of anything having to do with halachah or important principles, as well as the status of the military rabbinate.”

And what happened after him?

“After him, the status of the military rabbinate deteriorated sharply. The army abolished the rank of major general for the chief rabbi, and the following chief rabbi was only a brigadier general. There was a certain symbolism to that move. The salaries of the military rabbis were reduced and their authorities were whittled away.”

Can you give us an example?

“I’m sure you remember the uproar regarding the female singers.” Rabbi Povarsky is referring to the religious soldiers who were punished for walking out of an IDF event when female performers began to sing. “They were forced to do something that violates their faith. Under Rabbi Gad Navon, nothing like that could have happened. In his days, a rabbi’s order was carried out without question, just as no officer would argue with a doctor’s diagnosis of a soldier. When a rabbi gave a ruling, his decision was respected. That is the reason there is such a thing as a military rabbi – to rule on what is permitted and what is forbidden.”

Is the problem today with the rabbonim or the commanders?

“First and foremost, the problem is in the military rabbinate. In the past, the rabbinate had a clear order of priorities: Shabbos and kashrus came first, and halachic issues and the needs of religious soldiers were second. Reaching out to chiloni soldiers and teaching them religion was at the bottom of their list of priorities. But ever since Gad Navon arrived, that order of priorities has changed. We have even seen the establishment of a ‘Jewish awareness’ branch, which has become the center of the issue surrounding the military rabbinate, while critical issues such as Shabbos and kashrus receive much less emphasis. Today, for instance, the military rabbis visit the kitchens very infrequently, which makes a terrible impression on the soldiers and their commanders.”

Why did this happen?

“I think it stems from a desire to find favor in the eyes of the chilonim and the commanders of the army, but to me, it is clear that this is a mistake. A military rabbi or rabbinate must be concerned, first and foremost, with the religious soldiers and the issues of kashrus and Shabbos observance on military bases. A subject such as Jewish awareness is very nice, but it belongs at the end of their list of priorities. It has also caused an unnecessary conflict with the Education Corps, where they feel that the rabbinate is encroaching on their territory. The bottom line is that it has weakened the military rabbinate, and when the rabbinate is weak and the chief rabbi finds it difficult to contend with unusual incidents, a decline is inevitable. If I were the chief rabbi of the IDF today, facing the current situation, I would leave the keys on a table and simply go home.”

Or you would simply change the order of priorities…

“If the army is taking away the rabbinate’s authority and status, and a soldier can eat ham on an army base and receive an apology from the army, that is reason to quit.”

 

Back to the Starting Point

 

Is the military rabbinate today less chareidi than it was in your day?

“I do not like discussing this subject. In general terms, I will tell you that in my day, half the military rabbis wore knit yarmulkas, while the other half wore black yarmulkas. Today, the ratio has changed to 95 to 5, and even the few who still wear black yarmulkas have a Dati-Leumi orientation. The door has closed for chareidim, at least as far as senior positions of decision-making are concerned.”

The facts seem to substantiate Rabbi Povarsky’s claims. Under Rabbi Gad Navon, who encouraged rabbonim from all sectors to join the rabbinate and recruited the graduates of “black” yeshivos, the two most senior rabbonim operating under him were men from Bnei Brak: Rabbi Bakst was responsible for kashrus, and Rabbi Zingrevich dealt with halachah. Both held the rank of colonel. A third colonel, who was in charge of religious experiences, wore a kippah serugah. Today, there are only two colonels, both of whom wear knit kippot.

Has the number of rabbonim holding the rank of lieutenant colonel also been reduced?

“Certainly, and there are fewer captains and majors as well. Many cuts were made.”

More than in the Medical Corps, for example?

“More than in any other division of the army.” Rabbi Povarsky speaks with the certainty that comes from clear knowledge of the situation.

Did you see the headline in Haaretz? The Chief of Staff is quoted as saying that when you are steered the wrong way, you must return to your point of origin. He claims to be bringing the military rabbinate back to where it began. He feels that the rabbonim should be involved in halachah, not chinuch.

Rabbi Povarsky is not taken aback by the statement. “He is correct, and I will explain. Today, the military rabbinate is involved in public relations and teaching religion. It did these things in the past as well, but in smaller doses and in a different way. It was important for us to strengthen the religious soldiers’ ruchniyus, to make it possible for them to attend shiurim. There were soldiers from chareidi homes; there were soldiers who had learned in yeshivos, and it was important for them to have backing. The military rabbi worked to make sure that their spiritual level wasn’t impaired. We also used to go on missions of chizuk and the like in order to give the chiloni soldiers some understanding of Judaism – to let them know what the churban Bais Hamikdosh was, what Rosh Hashanah and Pesach are, and so forth. If this were to be happening today, it wouldn’t bother the Chief of Staff or the Education Corps. What makes them angry is what Rabbi Weiss began, and Rabbi Ronsky continued even more, and is still continuing today – the whole idea of ‘Jewish awareness.’ Do you know what ‘Jewish awareness’ means to the military rabbinate? It means everything except genuine Jewish awareness. It means a lecture about leadership and other military issues that have absolutely nothing to do with religion, Judaism, or the rabbinate.”

Why does the military rabbinate get involved in these things?

“They are doing it in order to prove that they know how to think ‘outside the box.’ They want to show that not only do they know how to be rabbonim, they also know how to be military commanders. Therefore, not only the commander, but the rabbi as well, will speak about taking pride in a unit. And so Eizenkot came and said to the rabbinate, ‘You should be sticking to what you are supposed to be doing: kashrus and rabbonus.’ And he is right. The military rabbinate has been drawn into these other areas in recent years and they have completely forgotten their purpose. They are dealing with things that are not their job. This is what Eizenkot means and I agree with him completely.”

Have you ever spoken with him?

“Yes. When I was serving in Yehuda and Shomron, I believe that he was the commander of the Golani brigade. I met him on one of our forays into an Arab village. We met each other and spoke briefly, but we haven’t interacted more than that.”

 

Being a Man of Values

Today, Rabbi Povarsky is involved in a shaitel business known as Galit Italia. He imports hair to Israel, uses it to make shaitels, and sells the finished product. The shaitels are also exported to America, Mexico and Europe. How is this a fitting occupation for a former military rabbi? Rabbi Povarsky shrugs.

“It’s a way to make a living,” he says. “I learn and deliver shiurim over the course of the day, and I also deal with kiruv and helping youths at risk. My wife runs the business and I help from behind the scenes. I deal mainly with the importing and exporting aspect of the business. I don’t see it as a contradiction to my more spiritual pursuits.

“We try to import quality hair,” he adds, “to be reliable and honest to our customers, and to provide our products at a price that suits everyone. In the chareidi world, a shaitel is a basic item. Our quality is very high, yet our prices are reasonable.” In other words, he sees this endeavor as a sort of mission, as well.

One last question: Avichai Ronsky went directly from civilian life to serving as the chief rabbi of the IDF. He was the head of a school before he took the position. The current chief rabbi, Rafi Peretz, was also brought to the army from a civilian position. We seem to be seeing a trend. If you were approached today and asked to come back to the army as the chief rabbi, what would you say?

Rabbi Povarsky laughs, then sobers immediately. “No one would make the offer to me, but a person can’t refuse such an offer. It isn’t the type of thing that one can give up. It is a position in which a person has tremendous influence, not only on the army, but on the entire country. I don’t know who the next chief rabbi of the army will be, but he must understand something: If he wants his colleagues in the military to respect him, then he must be a man of values, and he must be meticulous about the dictates of halachah. An ‘instant’ rov who tries to make everyone happy will ultimately be mocked and scorned, and he will have no influence at all.”

 

Sidebar

 

Why Did Rav Dovid Povarsky Faint?

 

I ask Rabbi Povarsky to share a story about his grandfather, the rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh, and he relates, “A talmid in the yeshiva decided that he was going to leave the yeshiva to join the army. Of course, that is a very extreme decision, and it is something that generally takes place only under extreme circumstances. My grandfather called the bochur into his office and asked him gently, ‘Why are you doing this?’ The bochur answered him, somewhat insolently, ‘Because that is the first question that the rosh yeshiva has asked me since I came to the yeshiva.’”

Before you continue, is that a true story?

“Yes, it is. I heard it from someone who was in the room when this exchange took place. My grandfather fainted upon hearing that answer. The bochur and the other people in the room revived him, and then the bochur said, ‘I’m sorry. I will stay here!’ My grandfather, at that point, was totally confused, and the bochur explained himself: ‘If the rosh yeshiva fainted because of this, then I won’t go to the army.’

“But the real question is what that bochur expected,” Rabbi Povarsky adds. “Did he think that the rosh yeshiva would come over to him when there were 2,000 bochurim in the yeshiva? But my grandfather took it very hard.”

Was he that sensitive to other people’s distress?

“Yes, very much so. It pained him when others were in pain. Once, he spent Shabbos with us, and my young son was crying because he had sores in his mouth. On Sunday morning, immediately after davening, my grandfather went to the office of the yeshiva to call us. He didn’t have a telephone in his house. He was very concerned and he asked my wife, ‘How is the baby feeling? Are the sores better?’”

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