Soldiers from the co-ed Caracal Battalion complete their rigorous eight months of training to receive their beret.
(photo credit:IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
On Wednesday evening the Caracal Battalion, the IDF’s first coed combat unit, conducted its swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall.
This was the first time a mixed-gender combat battalion held a ceremony like this at Judaism’s holiest site.
It is a sign of the times. Increasingly, women have been integrated into combat roles in the IDF. If in the year 2000, when the Caracal Battalion was created, only a handful of women served in combat roles, today the military has three mixed-gender combat battalions – Caracal, the Lions of the Jordan and Cheetah (known in Hebrew as Bardelas).
Female soldiers also operate air defense installations and artillery systems and serve in field intelligence units.
There was no more fitting place to give expression to the increasing gender equality in the IDF than the Kotel, a symbol of Jewish continuity and strength. The Kotel is a place where all Jews can connect to their roots. One need not be religious to feel emotional ties to the generations of Jews who lived, dreamed and worshiped in Jerusalem more than two millennia ago. No place in Israel resonates so strongly in the hearts and minds of Jews. A combat battalion that integrates females is a testament to the vitality of the Jewish people.
There are, however, competing forces in Israeli society that see female integration in the IDF, and mixed-gender prayer areas in the Western Wall Plaza, as a threat to Jewish continuity. Just one day after the men and women of the Caracal Battalion were sworn in as soldiers tasked with the defense of the Jewish state, haredi lawmakers were advancing legislation in the Knesset that would consolidate the Orthodox establishment’s control over the entire Western Wall Plaza. Prayer services – and perhaps even IDF swearing- in ceremonies – will have to adhere to the strictures of Orthodox practice as set by Israel’s rabbinic courts and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel if these lawmakers get their way.
The bill seeks to criminalize forms of worship the Orthodox establishment deems to be deviant. For instance, participants in mixed-gender prayer services or women who read publicly from a Torah scroll or don a prayer shawl or phylacteries in the Western Wall Plaza would face six months of imprisonment or a NIS 10,000 fine.
Shas and United Torah Judaism are pushing for the bill to come up for a vote on Sunday in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which decides government policy for legislative proposals.
The legislation coincides with the first anniversary of a cabinet decision to set aside a space for gender egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall that would not be subject to Orthodox control.
At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed the plan, calling it “an appropriate solution, a creative solution.”
The solution, spearheaded by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, would leave the status quo at the Western Wall Plaza unchanged so that those interested in worshiping in accordance with Orthodox customs can continue to do so.
In addition, an “official and respected” section capable of accommodating 1,200 people would be added. It would have a state-funded staff, Torah scrolls and other ritual objects and be open to all forms of Jewish prayer.
Unfortunately, the prime minister has since trotted back his support for the initiative in the face of opposition from the haredi parties and a number of MKs in Bayit Yehudi.
The plan developed by Sharansky is a Solomonic solution that has already received majority support in the cabinet. It allows Orthodox Jews to continue to worship in accordance with their customs, but also provides Jews of more liberal streams with an honorable place at the Kotel.
Some Jews believe the secret to Jewish continuity is a strict, undeviating adherence to tradition as interpreted by Orthodox rabbis. And this approach to Judaism should be respected.
There are, however, others who believe that a dynamic Judaism that embraces change and integrates women in a fair and egalitarian way – whether it be in the IDF or in religious worship – is the best way to ensure Jewish continuity.
Both approaches should be given expression at the Western Wall. A year has passed since the government voted to adopt the Sharansky plan. It must be implemented without delay. The Kotel belongs to all Jews, whether they be a female soldier protecting the Jewish state, a Reform Jew from America or a devout Orthodox adherent to Jewish tradition.
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