The Beit Hillel association of national-religious rabbis issued a ruling in Jewish law on Wednesday that women are permitted to perform military service, despite the longstanding opposition by the Chief Rabbinate and several senior rabbis.
The ruling came on the same day that a Knesset committee hearing found that the majority of religious girls’ schools do not allow the IDF to brief pupils about their enlistment options.
The debate surrounding national-religious women serving in the army has become increasingly strong within the community, as increasing numbers of women from the sector have enlisted.
In January, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef reiterated the Chief Rabbinate’s longstanding prohibition on women’s enlistment, which prompted Finance Minister and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid to call for him to be fired.
Additionally, senior rabbinical figures from the national-religious community’s more conservative wing, such as Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, have come out strongly against the phenomenon and have actively tried to halt the trend.
In the position paper that Beit Hillel issued on Wednesday, the association provided various sources from Jewish legal texts, emphasizing in particular not only the permissibility of women serving in the army, but women’s obligation to take part in wars for the defense of the Jewish people and the national effort required for this task.
“The purpose of this position paper is to encourage young women to enlist in the service of the people and the land – substantial service, whether in the national service program or in the IDF, as befits someone who sees herself as a graduate of the religious- Zionist education system,” the organization’s rabbis wrote.
In 1950, chief rabbis Yitzhak Halevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel issued a ruling explicitly forbidding women to join the IDF.
The national service program was established to provide a solution for religious women who nevertheless wanted to contribute to the state.
One of the central concerns in Jewish law on the issue is the comparison that the Talmud makes between “men’s clothes” – which women are forbidden to wear – and military weapons. This comparison – along with a statement in the Talmud that “it is not the way of women to go to war” – was the basis for rabbinic bans on women’s enlistment.
More than 40 rabbis from Beit Hillel deliberated these and other issues in recent months and issued their decision, which argues that medieval Jewish scholars’ interpretation of the relevant Talmudic passages does not prevent women from serving in the army, especially since the wars and military operations Israel conducts today can be considered obligatory under Jewish law due to the real threat to Jewish lives.
According to Beit Hillel director Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, statements in recent years from senior rabbis in the national-religious community – including Eliyahu, who said serving in the army was a sin for girls, and Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who has also forbidden female military service – have put the hundreds of girls who do military service in an awkward position.
“They felt let down by the senior rabbinic leadership, and we received numerous messages from such girls who were worried how they would be viewed in the community,” Neuwirth said.
The Beit Hillel rabbis also leveled criticism at the Chief Rabbinate, saying that while its position had not changed, society in general, including the national-religious community, had changed.
However, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner – a prominent national religious figure and dean of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City – criticized Beit Hillel for its ruling, saying that it did not have sufficient authority to make such decisions, and noting that several senior rabbis had forbidden female enlistment.
“They are good people [in Beit Hillel], but it is the great arbiters of Jewish law who may rule on such weighty issues,” Aviner told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “They don’t have the legitimacy or authority, and neither do I, to make such innovations, and for sure not to overrule the Chief Rabbinate.”
The rabbi said even non-combat roles in the IDF were unsuitable for women, since they involved inappropriate contact with men and were immodest.
In reference to the growing numbers of religious girls joining the army regardless of rabbinic prohibitions and the rabbinic leadership’s position, Aviner said that “the criteria of truth are not pragmatic; truth is not what people do. Sometimes people make a mistake, and there’s a need to redress the mistake.”
Beit Hillel’s position paper included a section relating to possible problems for women in the army regarding contact with men, and the possibility of suffering form sexual harassment. However, it said that the IDF had changed significantly in recent years and had become much more protective of women in its ranks against such harassment.
The organization also recommended that religious women wishing to join the IDF seek to enlist in units such as Intelligence, the Education Corps and others where there are specific frameworks for them.
Also on Wednesday, the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women and Gender Equality found that 70 percent of religious girls’ schools did not allow IDF personnel to present information about enlistment to their pupils.
Committee chairwoman Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) criticized this position, calling it a failure of the religious school system.
“The Council for the State Religious Education System has turned a blind eye to the issue of women’s enlistment in the IDF and the changes that are happening among national religious girls,” Lavie said.