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In Israeli army, rabbis deepen religious tone. Is that kosher?

One told soldiers in a pep talk during the Gaza war that their holiness would preserve them in the battle between the 'children of light' and the 'children of darkness.'

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"Talking to the troops about the meaning of the war is a necessity," he says. "Meaning must be given."

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Discussions of war ethics and courage can be framed in a humanist or a religious discussion, Mr. Kasher says. But the anecdotes about the rabbinate's messages appear to undermine the IDF's political neutrality as well as its effort to avoid harm to noncombatants, he says. "Talking to them about who owns what parts of the Land of Israel ... is way beyond the limits."

The Israeli army declined a request for an interview with Rontzki or any other representative of the chief rabbinate. Army spokesman Elie Isaacson said the pamphlet and the motivational "chat" are viewed by the military as an "isolated" occurrence.

"Values are intrinsic to the way the Israeli army operates. They are ... such a large part of the way you're trained. The military rabbinate is such a small unit. Anything that they put out that would contradict the army line can't compete with what's been drilled in from Day 1," says Mr. Isaacson.

Increase in religious nationalists

But in the past two decades, the face of the army's combat corps has changed. Nationalist religious conscripts have replaced soldiers from secular farming kibbutzim, and have risen to be mid-level officers. A handful have become generals. The more observant core might give a military chaplain more of an audience.

Hailing from Itamar, one of the more ideologically charged Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Rontski – also a former commando – was reportedly appointed to defuse a crisis of confidence between the army and national religious right after the 2005 evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements.

Religious settlers felt betrayed as the military carried out what they saw as an illegal policy; youths debated whether to enlist.

Kasher said speculation about political appointments harms the army: "Ideally, I as a soldier, don't know where my commander lives and what his political views are," he says. "Once ... there is a suspicion that his commands stem from his political position, that's the end of discipline.... That's the end of being able to function as a combat unit."

Chief rabbi ordered monthly Torah discussions

Regardless of questions surrounding the appointment, Rontzki sought a proactive role, bringing the rabbinate to soldiers instead of waiting to provide ritual needs. He told an Israeli news outlet that he had ordered military rabbis to "ensure that every base and every platoon will have a discussion on [the] Torah at least once a month."

Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, who lost to Rontzki in heading the military rabbinate, gives him high marks. "He sees himself as part of the spiritual leadership of the army," he says. "He's speaking to soldiers and trying to improve their motivation and morality. He spends the shabes [Sabbath] in the army. He's changed the status of rabbis in the army."

But Rabbi Sherlow faults Rontzki for not anticipating the political fallout from spreading his spiritual beliefs. Sherlow said that for Rontzki, issues like territorial compromise are, foremost, spiritual questions.

"Not withdrawing from territories for him is not a political issue but a spiritual issue," Sherlow says of Rontzki, and that the rabbi feels "there's no problem to disseminate that [spiritual issue] in the army."

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