Avichai Rontzki, a controversial former IDF chief rabbi who expanded Jewish awareness and religious knowledge in the army, died Sunday, aged 66, after a two-year battle with cancer.
President Reuven Rivlin praised Rontzki as “a scholar and a warrior, a rabbi and a commander,” who led those under him by example.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Twitter that Rontzki was a “fighter and a Torah scholar who loved the People of Israel and the Land of Israel.”
Rontzki was born into a secular family, becoming religious during his military service. During the 1973 Yom Kippur war he commanded an elite company in southern Israel and the Egyptian front.
Following his army service he worked with street kids in Jerusalem and began studying in Machon Meir Yeshiva. Later he studied in Merkaz Harav Yeshiva and taught in Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva.
In 1980 he was one of the founders of a Hesder yeshiva — one whose students combine study with army service — in Elon Moreh, a settlement overlooking Nablus. Then, in 1984, he and his wife co-established the West Bank settlement of Itamar near Nablus, along with other newly religious families. There, he served first as the settlement’s rabbi and later also as the head of its yeshiva, which he created and led until July 2016.
Rontzki’s tenure as military chief rabbi, from 2006 to 2010, was marked by his conviction that the role of the rabbinate should not merely be supervision of kashrut and religious service but also include Jewish teaching among soldiers to strengthen the fighting spirit — an approach that provoked controversy both within and outside of the military.
Following the 2009 Second Lebanon War he also increased the number of battalion rabbis, giving them training not only on matters of Jewish law, but also urging them to provide a moral compass for the soldiers.
“During the war it became clear that there is a significant gap between the number of positions available to rabbis in various units and their actual manning by military rabbis,” Rontzki said at the time. “Due to the fact that many units went into combat without the accompaniment of a military rabbi, we chose to train over one hundred motivated rabbis, who know the field and aspire to return to combat battalions.
During his tenure he attempted unsuccessfully to ban broadcasts by Army Radio on the Sabbath and worked to expand a “Jewish Awareness Department” to an extent that brought him into conflict with other departments, such as the IDF Education Corps.
Rontzki authored a four-volume set of books about Jewish law for religious soldiers entitled “Kehitzim B’yad Gibor” (As Arrows in the Hand of the Mighty.”
During the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza conflict known as Operation Cast Lead, Rontzki was criticized for trying to imbue a political, nationalist ideology within the army after he circulated religious texts to soldiers and commanders which contained rabbinical prohibitions against showing mercy to enemies.
He spoke out against women serving in combat units and criticized the army magazine BaMahane for publishing an interview with a gay soldier.
He also expressed extreme views about Palestinians, calling for collective punishment of the village from which a terrorist emerged to murder the Fogel family in his settlement of Itamar in 2011 and telling the Israel National News site that same year that convicted terrorists should not be arrested but rather that Israel should “kill them in their beds.”
Rontzki was a close associate of Naftali Bennett, now the education minister and leader of the religious, pro-settler Jewish Home party.
In May 2013, with Bennett serving as minister of religious services, Rontzki was appointed to head the ministry’s Jewish identity division.
In 2014, he competed unsuccessfully for a slot in the Jewish Home party primaries.
In September 2014, he found himself at the center of a row between Bennett and then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon over how aggressively the army should have responded to the threat of attack tunnels built by Hamas and reaching into Israel during that year’s conflict between Israel and Hamas, dubbed Operation Protective Edge.
The IDF accused Rontzki of visiting IDF units while not on reserve duty and of leaking information to Bennett — a charge that both men denied.
Naftali Bennett called Rontzki his “teacher and fellow traveler,” while Jewish Home lawmaker Betzalel Smotrich described him as the “perfect warrior scholar,” who was “brave and groundbreaking” on the road to bringing about the Jewish People’s redemption.
הרב רונצקי הלוחם והאהוב איננו.
מפקד נועז בסיירת שקד ביומהכ״פ, רב צבאי ראשי, ראש הישיבה באיתמר, מחנך ומנהיג, אך בשבילי היה מורה ושותף לדרך.
בחמישי האחרון ביקרתי אותו וכל מה שביקש בלחישה היה להתחיל מנהג בישראל שכל אחד אומר ברחוב לשני ״שלום, בוקר טוב״ עם חיוך.
נוח על משכבך, אהוב. pic.twitter.com/gPxiuZuvjL
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) April 1, 2018
Rontzki discovered that he had cancer after volunteering to donate a kidney to a stranger.
Due to be buried at Itamar later Sunday, Rontzki leaves behind a wife and six children.