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Divine Service? Judaism and Israel’s Armed Forces by Stuart Cohen (review)
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In Divine Service?, Stuart Cohen, a foremost expert on religion in the armed forces, weighs in on the relationship between Judaism and military service in Israel. The volume explores some of the most contentious issues at this intersection, including the integration of observant Jews into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the growing presence of non-Jewish soldiers in the IDF. Underlying all these are the author’s twin interests in the influence of religion on Israel’s security discourse and the prominence of security-related concerns in contemporary Jewish thought. Thorough in its sources, lucid in its presentation, and balanced in its analysis, this text brings together some of Cohen’s most influential publications as well as novel work.

Three initial chapters set the stage by providing a historical background. Cohen explores traditional Jewish attitudes towards the use of force and the effect of the founding of Israel on these ideas. The decision to conform the framework of the IDF to basic Jewish precepts led national religious Jews to embrace military service as an article of faith and prompted leading rabbis to formulate an entirely novel codex of religious regulations regarding military life. The positions of this segment of Israeli society on national security issues, such as territorial compromise, are rooted in theological justifications. Yet these very theological justifications, Cohen shows, require its members to defer ultimate authority in military matters to the expert opinions of democratically elected secular leaders.

The next three chapters investigate the various means by which this community has adapted to the extreme demands of service in a modern military, such as the arrangement that allows pious soldiers to alternate between studying in a yeshiva and an abbreviated term of military service in homogenous units. Cohen also explores the intrusion of religious motifs into the IDF as sources of inspiration in battle, as teachings that legitimate the use of force, and as guidelines for military ethics. He concludes, however, that given the wide range of rabbinical opinions on the laws of war and given their oblique relevance to tactical or strategic issues, these sources have had no direct effect on military planning or operations.

Contemporary correspondences between rabbis and their pupils in uniform, on the other hand, have addressed a wide range of mundane issues, such as reconciling military life with traditional Jewish practices. This responsa literature is Cohen’s greatest area of expertise, and he offers a broad survey and a careful evaluation of prominent texts in that literary tradition. The highlight of the book is a latter chapter in which Cohen analyzes the legal standards from which contemporary rabbis develop rulings on warfare as well as the norms and meta-norms on which these standards rest. These include universal, even humanist, themes such as the preservation of life and a respect for the values held by the international community.

The volume concludes with an exploration of contentious contemporary issues. For example, Cohen argues that the evacuation of all Israeli settlements from Gaza did not lead to rebellion or conscientious objection among religious-nationalist soldiers in large part because these soldiers tend to prioritize personal and ritual issues, such as Sabbath observance or gender relations. In the future, failure to accommodate such practices will be far more likely to lead to dissension in the ranks than provocative policy questions. Cohen’s optimism on this front is, however, coupled with a pessimism regarding the integrative potential of the armed forces. Precisely because observant soldiers place a premium on preserving their distinctive religious identities, the IDF tends to reflect rather than bridge religious schisms in Israeli society. It follows that efforts to integrate ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israeli society by means of forced conscription are unlikely to succeed. Instead, Cohen makes the controversial proposal that the IDF be transformed into an all-volunteer force, though he offers no comparative analysis of such reforms in militaries elsewhere.

Divine Service? offers insightful commentary on a broad range of key issues relating to religion and the state in Israel, as well as their legal and political history. Cohen’s analysis is careful and nuanced. For example, rather than dismiss as mere draft-dodging the ultra-Orthodox claim that Torah...

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