Modern armies win wars. Medieval armies do not.
I am terrified that the IDF has started down a path that will make it something other than the superb fighting force that it is. Reports about this threat have been trickling out for some time. If you care about Israel’s security, take notice, and beware.
The issue is this: Will the IDF continue to make use of the most talented, highly educated individuals in Israeli society, men and women, or will it bow to religious dictates and begin a process—apparently already underway—to exclude capable women from key roles in the military? Let’s be clear about the stakes: If Israel does not exploit all of the human resources that it possesses as an advanced, sophisticated Western democracy, it will be unable to combat terror and defend its borders.
This is not primarily about whether or not Orthodox soldiers must listen to women soldiers sing as part of a military ceremony. By itself, this is a rather minor issue. (Still, I wonder. Why has it arisen now, when for so long no problem has existed? Over the years, the halakhic prohibitions have been variously interpreted and inconsistently applied. And is it really unreasonable to think that soldiers tempted by a woman’s voice might be asked to heed the teaching in Avot 4:1: “Who is a hero? He who subdues his passions.”)
And this is not a simple matter. Since serving in the army is a fundamental obligation of Israel’s citizens, if religious soldiers fail to serve, they bring dishonor to Torah. But if Orthodox soldiers are to be encouraged to serve in the military, all reasonable efforts should be made to accommodate their religious needs. Thus, the stricter Kashrut standards being proposed for the army should be supported by all.
Yet accommodation is one thing, and undermining the effectiveness of the army is something else. And the real problem with the demand that Orthodox soldiers be excused from hearing the voices of women is the slippery slope that has already crept into the argument. Already we are hearing: Is it really necessary to have mixed-sex entertainment troupes? Is it really necessary for Orthodox soldiers to have women as sports or physical education instructors? Couldn’t some arrangements be made to limit the presence of women in units where Orthodox soldiers predominate?
We can see where this is leading. Either women, facing discrimination, will avoid the military, or Israel will end up with two separate armies, one for Orthodox soldiers and one for everyone else.
Some conclude that it is best to keep very observant soldiers out of the army altogether. Such a claim, in my view, does a profound injustice to the Jewish tradition. Countless religious soldiers demonstrate that army service is consistent with Torah observance, even if it is not always easy.
What we need now are Orthodox rabbis who understand two things: a) That women will serve in the army on a completely equal basis with men; and, b) That the task of the rabbis is to help religious soldiers to serve in such an army, while remaining loyal both to their tradition and their country.
I am not asking these rabbis to support religious pluralism or religious freedom—values that I personally cherish. I am asking them to see that only by having a modern army—which means one in which men and women serve together with pride—will Israel be able to defend the lives of its citizens.