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  • Religious Zionism, Jewish Law, and the Morality of War: How Five Rabbis Confronted One of Modern Judaism's Greatest Challenges by Robert Eisen
  • Elisheva Rosman-Stollman
Robert Eisen. Religious Zionism, Jewish Law, and the Morality of War: How Five Rabbis Confronted One of Modern Judaism's Greatest Challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. xv + 291 pp.

Rabbis play both intramilitary and extramilitary roles in relation to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In intramilitary roles, rabbis oversee religious life in uniform: maintaining kosher kitchens, upholding Sabbath observance on base, ensuring requirements for holidays are met (such as Passover and Sukkot), dealing with military funerals, and even protecting the religious rights of non-Jewish soldiers. Outside the military, rabbis serve the Religious Zionist civilian community sending its sons (and increasingly daughters) into the IDF, providing guidance and support to both parents and youth before conscription and during military service. Soldiers turn to their civilian rabbis with questions from the field, most of them practical, such as: How can a kohen perform his duties and bless the congregation when in the field and it is difficult to take off one's shoes? Can one take spoils of war from a house about to be demolished? How can one hold a seder when in the field? Immediate responses to time-sensitive questions can be easily received by cell phone. At times soldiers ask such questions after the fact, many of which are complied into volumes of responsa (she'elot u-teshuvot) for future reference by both military and civilian rabbis.

The military issues rabbis address touch on both meta-Halakhah, dealing with broad halakhic categories and thinking, and the daily and more mundane workings of Halakhah in everyday life. When reviewing twenty-first-century military responsa, it becomes clear that most of the fundamental halakhic-moral questions regarding military service seem to have been settled. Religious Zionist soldiers take it for granted that the State of Israel meets the halakhic criteria for obligatory war (milḥemet miẓvah), is within its halakhic rights to conscript them, and that killing for the sake of protecting the collective is allowed. These questions are the main focus of Eisen's book.

It is therefore especially interesting to examine the formative years of the State of Israel through Eisen's book and revisit the basic moral issues and the metahalakhic discussions surrounding them. Eisen focuses on five central Religious Zionist rabbis and their views regarding a number of moral issues concerning military service in a Jewish state. The founding of a Jewish state with military power, after so many years without political independence, necessitated tools with which to address new dilemmas.

Most of the rabbis depicted in the book are in decidedly extramilitary roles. Rabbi A. I. Kook (the elder) did not live to see a Jewish military, and his views on these matters are more theoretical. Rabbi Isaac Herzog served in an entirely civilian capacity, but Jewish soldiers and fighters directed their halakhic questions to him, before and after the founding of the state. Likewise, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg were first and foremost civilian rabbis whose war-related responsa by no means encompass their vast—mostly civilian—halakhic contribution. The only representative of halakhic intramilitary expertise in the book, as the author himself notes, is Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served as the [End Page 250] chief military rabbi (1948–71) and in many ways created the Military Rabbinate in his own image, continuing to influence it well after his retirement. Juxtaposing these rabbis and their thinking on issues of morality in war is thought provoking, especially when looking back at their views from twenty-first-century Israel. In this respect, the book is an interesting intellectual experience even for those who are familiar with the halakhic discussion of war in its present form.

The book comprises three main parts. The first two chapters set the stage, presenting the halakhic framework needed in order to understand the world of the five rabbis who are the main subject of the book. This section maps out the main issues and dilemmas and explains key terms, which is enlightening and important for...