Can the Israeli Army talk about God?

This article was published on November 25th 2014 on Haaretz.  It is an attempt to consider a form of religion that might work in a modern state, and that would neither inflame internal or external passions, nor lead Israel into a religious war.  

On heading into battle during Operation Protective Edge, Colonel Ofer Winter invoked the “God of Israel” to bolster the fighting spirit among his troops. This provocative gesture, echoing something from a Biblical narrative, generated huge controversy and could become the undoing of his career.

Israel Harel defends the colonel in an opinion article for Haaretz, and my first instinct was to disagree and say that God should have nothing to do with the army, that religion should be a private matter. Harel’s history as a founder of the settler movement surely highlights the dangers of fusing religious ideals with the national project.

Harel’s presumption of moral superiority is also galling, particularly his assertion that the religious right’s teaching “the values of Judaism, Zionism, love for the Jewish people and love for the land, fill them” – a vaguely defined leftist coterie, one presumes – “with anger… and envy.”

All of that said, it’s perhaps not so simple. For Colonel Winter and many like him, one imagines that preparing for battle is one of the most challenging and difficult moments in their personal lives, as well as having a more obvious national dimension. The personal and the national cannot always be neatly kept apart.
And at moments like these people turn to God, to the personal God who dwells in their depths.

The question then becomes: is it possible for an army colonel to speak about God in a way that is non-problematic? Can a private God be called upon who is different from the nationalistic God who is invoked to justify territorial ambitions and violence?

On one level, it feels like an injustice to deny Colonel Winter the right to connect with his own framework for courage, with his own deepest roots, with his sense of his place in the world.

He makes such a case in his statement that ‘“When a person is in a life-threatening situation he connects with his deepest internal truths, and when that happens, even the biggest atheist meets God.”

The challenge is to find a less inflammatory way of doing this, to be able to speak of God without taking us down the dangerous path of a religious war. In the State of Israel, we must make room for more than just the God of the Bible. We need a God that is a universal and humanitarian force, connected with liberal tolerance and personal strength.

The philosopher Paul Tillich is famous for developing the idea of God as a personal force who provides us with courage. Writing in 1952, he speaks of an existential encounter which replaces anxiety with the courage needed to live with integrity.

But, as Europe lay in ruins, he was very conscious of the dangers of nationalism and was aware that it can provide an easier answer than that of genuine courage. The pressure of the collective makes it harder to stand firm as an individual, to resist the mentality of tribalism which gives us a clear and easy sense of purpose.

Returning the insight to our military situation, we might set up the following opposition to clarify our possibilities:

God can give courage through promising to get involved, through assuring us – in spite of Bob Dylan’s query – that He is on our side.

But God can also give us courage through enabling us to access reserves of strength we never knew we had, through helping us attain a level of moral seriousness which might otherwise escape us, through helping us remember the values that run most true and deep in us. He can help us to wrestle with our fears, and to find a better way of living side by side with them.

It may not be easy to cry out to the God who answered Abraham and Moses, David and Daniel, without calling out to a force with a vested interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without presuming that He prefers one outcome over the other. It seems hard to evoke these names as mythical legendary characters, without implying a Divinely mandated plan for history.

It feels like it would probably be safer to speak of a purely personal God, to take some quiet moments of reflection and commune with the ineffable presence, who remains wholly ungraspable, beyond the ken of mankind. Whose shadowy hints we may encounter in our depths, but whose explicit intent we affirm as inscrutable.

I suggest that we might approach God as a soothing mother, without needing Him to don His armor and intervene in our world like a violent father.

And if the two cannot be kept apart, if my personal invocation of God must necessarily lead to a mindset which values certain pieces of territory and certain sacred sites, then perhaps God is, indeed, best left out of the conversation.

If we are all – soldier and civilian alike – able to transition into thinking about the personal and non-partisan aspect of God, then we might approach the situation with courage and hope. But if we continue to be bound up with the God who gets physically involved, then we play right into the hands of those looking for a war of religion. And in doing so, we relinquish the moral and religious high ground that we might have once occupied.