Rabbi’s sermon on KIAs stirs ire

A former Israeli chief rabbi stirred controversy by suggesting that soldiers who die in the line of duty are insufficiently religious.

Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardi chief rabbi and longtime spiritual mentor to the powerful Israeli political movement Shas, noted in a weekend sermon that the Bible requires that only pious Jews go to war for their homeland.

“Is it any wonder that soldiers who don’t observe the Torah, who don’t pray every day and don’t put on tefillin every day are killed in wars? It’s no wonder,” Yosef said, according to excerpts from the sermon carried in Israeli media. “God helps soldiers who have faith and who pray. They are not killed.”

The remarks drew censure from across Israel’s political spectrum, fueling an already raging debate about whether, in the wake of the Lebanon war, the fervently Orthodox should continue receiving exemptions from mandatory military service.

Opposition lawmakers on Monday called for Yosef, whose sermons have frequently raised hackles by containing observations deemed racist or sexist, to apologize in public.

But Shas, which is part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition government, rose to the rabbi’s defense, saying that he only intended to inspire Jewish repentance and remind Israelis that they are responsible for one another.

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