In 1980, the Mizrachi Movement convened in Jerusalem for its annual conference.
Attendees heard lectures by prominent rabbinic figures from Israel and the
Diaspora. On the last day of the conference, they had a special treat – a
performance by an all-girls choir.
One rabbi, a known scholar from the
United States, turned to Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the former chief rabbi of Israel
and of the Israel Defense Forces, and asked how he had allowed the girls’ choir
to perform at the conference. “These are kosher girls,” Goren reportedly
t is no longer 1980, but the question of shirat nashim –
women’s singing – is today one of the most hotly contested issues in the IDF and
is stirring controversy amid claims that the military is undergoing a religious
On the surface, the issue is quite simple. Like any
military, the IDF holds regular ceremonies – from the graduation of a cadets
course at the Bahad 1 Officers Training School to a memorial service for
assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
In recent months though there
has been an upsurge in cases of soldiers who have walked out of ceremonies after
female singers took to the stage.
In similar incidents, soldiers from one
infantry brigade left a unit vacation at a resort near Ashkelon because female
soldiers were also vacationing there.
In the Artillery Corps, a battalion
commander transferred two female instructors to another unit because a haredi
company was being established in his unit.
In other units, religious
soldiers have refused to train with female fitness instructors.
nashim is not the real issue at hand, but is instead being used as a springboard
to debate the current social makeup of the IDF and whether it is becoming too
religious and a halachically run military.
In addition, it seems that the
presence of religious soldiers in the IDF is not the cause of concern –
religious soldiers have served in the military proudly and prominently since the
state was established – but rather the feeling that the rights of secular and
female soldiers are being set aside in favor of their religious
On the surface, there is no question that the rise of the
numbers of religious soldiers in today’s IDF has drawn changes. Take a look at
the Golani Brigade, the most-popular infantry brigade in the military as an
The commander of the brigade is religious, as are six of the
seven lieutenant-colonels. In the Paratroopers Brigade the situation is the
opposite except that all of the deputy battalion commanders are religious and
they are next in line to become commanders of the battalions. In all of the
infantry brigades, the pool of medium-level officers – company and platoon
commanders – is predominantly religious, a direct result of Bahad 1 graduating
classes that are between 30 and 40 percent religious.
of new programs for haredim – in the Israel Air Force, Military Intelligence and
C4I Directorate – in addition to the continued growth of the Nahal Haredi
battalion, reinforces the argument by those who claim that the IDF is more
religious today than ever.
There are currently about 2,500 haredim
serving in male-only units in the IDF, raising into question the whole issue of
“proper integration”– the term used to describe the continued integration of
female soldiers into the military – particularly when these soldiers refuse to
serve with women.
If kibbutznikim were filling officer ranks in the IDF
just 20 years ago, they no longer are and have instead been replaced by the
religious. According to the latest studies conducted by the IDF’s Manpower
Directorate, the highest motivation to serve in combat units comes from youth
originating in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“This is the sector
today that is sending its children to serve in combat units and they have rights
as well,” a former head of the Manpower Directorate said. “If someone has a
problem with this, they can send their children instead.”
The debate over
shirat nashim is welldocumented in Jewish law, but many rabbis claim that once
inside a ceremony, a soldier should sit in his seat rather than walk out. If he
feels uncomfortable, the soldier can lower his eyes and, in extreme
circumstances, insert earplugs.
Radical statements by rabbis like Elyakim
Levanon that it is preferable to be shot and killed than to hear a woman sing
are dangerous not because a soldier might actually take them at face value but
rather due to the impact they can potentially have on an already delicate social
fabric between the religious and secular in the IDF.
One could question
why the government doesn’t suspend funding to the Elon Moreh hesder yeshiva led
by Levanon, who is known for his radical views such as when he called on
soldiers to refuse orders to participate in the disengagement from the Gaza
Strip in 2005.
On the the flip side of this rift comes the letter
published last week in Haaretz, signed by 19 former IDF major-generals warning
against giving in to religious demands.
The debate has led to questions
regarding the allegiance of religious soldiers and whose voice they heed – their
commander’s or their rabbi’s – when it comes to social and religious
Some officers in the IDF, even religious ones, believe that there
is a need for Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz to get involved in the issue
and to do more than just declare that he is concerned with the social changes in
the IDF. Almost a year into his term, Gantz has not yet really gotten his hands
dirty. He might need to.
The same is the case with OC Manpower
Directorate Maj.-Gen. Orna Barbavai, who Gantz appointed months ago to recommend
what should be done about integrating religious and female soldiers together and
who has yet to do so.
Barbavai has stood up for the right of female
soldiers to continue singing at IDF ceremonies, but she might be
misunderstanding the real problem. A few weeks ago, IDF top brass convened for a
two-day conference to review the military’s requirements over the coming years
and to hear from brigade and division commanders about their operational
Barbavai later said that she was impressed to hear from one
brigade commander deployed along the Gaza border – who happened to be religious
– that conducting operations on Shabbat was a trivial matter for him. She seemed
not to realize that combat operations on Shabbat have never really been an issue
for religious soldiers, since according to the Torah life-or-death matters come
before the observance of Shabbat, and that this is irrelevant to the current
debate within the military.
Then there is IDF Chief Rabbi
Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz, who was appointed in 2010 due to his moderate and
compromising character but has not stood up to rabbis like Levanon and others
whose influence is growing within the IDF.
“By dragging their feet and
not clarifying the issue, Gantz is doing an injustice to the entire IDF and
particularly to religious soldiers,” one former member of the General Staff
Barbavai has said that she is inclined to rule that soldiers need
to remain in certain ceremonies but that she will leave room for consideration
to the unit commanders.
It is not clear if this is the right move, since
without an across-the-board ruling, the issue will not be put to rest and
threatens to advance the already growing rift within the IDF and within Israeli
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