There is much cynicism and gall in the demand made by a group of rabbis from the National Religious camp, urging the IDF chief of staff to exclude women from combat units in the name of a so-called “unity of the IDF and unity of the nation.”
I salute Aviv Kochavi, the chief of staff, who chose the professional considerations and operational needs of the IDF, as he prioritized the service of both men and women in the military. He justifiably continues to show a welcome determination on the issue of gender equality as he did recently, when the Western Wall Heritage Foundation demanded that a female officer should be prevented from leading a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall.
While officers initially gave in, Kochavi rebuked this capitulation. His current response to the Supreme Court is an essential message by the IDF to the rabbis: “You do not scare us. Do not threaten us!”
In essence, the rabbis are threatening to instruct their students not to enlist in IDF combat units if female soldiers are included in them, since “religious soldiers who adhere to the Halacha cannot serve in a mixed-gender combat unit.”
As is well known, the Halacha is not necessarily in their pocket. The Chief Rabbinate, for example, which claims to be the supreme halachic authority in Israel, does not regard these rabbis as a competent authority to determine Halacha at all. As far as the rabbinate is concerned, Halacha forbids any service of female soldiers in the army.
Already in 1951, the Chief Rabbinate pronounced: “The Torah’s position is that the recruitment of women (even unmarried ones) in a military setting in any form is strictly forbidden.” Unsurprisingly, even then the rabbinate warned that enlisting women would result in undermining “the unity of the nation.”
The authors of the letter allegedly sanctify the “procedures that have always existed in the IDF.” However, they ignore developments in the IDF and in the entire country over the decades since then. The concept of gender equality has intensified in all areas of society, including religious life and military norms. If Israel had surrendered to the rabbinate on matters of Halacha and the army, there would have been no women serving in the IDF at all.
Already in 1920, Rabbi Avraham Kook, the presiding chief rabbi, announced that women should not be allowed to participate in elections for the first Assembly of Representatives. Imagine where Israel would be today if his ruling had been obeyed.
In a similar example, extremist halachic elements demanded that women should be prevented from singing at military ceremonies, since “Kol B’Isha Erva” (“the voice of a woman is nakedness,” i.e., it is forbidden to listen to women singing as it is considered sexually stimulating). However, as in many other issues, “where there is a will, there is a way,” and even the chief rabbis themselves found a halachic way to be present at state ceremonies at which women sing.
All of the ultra-Orthodox politicians have no compunctions about serving in the Knesset and the government alongside women, even though their party newspapers are careful to blur the faces of women or eliminate them altogether, on the grounds of modesty.
JUDAISM AND Halacha are much more flexible, evolving, and adaptive to the changing needs of life than the rabbinate would have you believe. We see this, for example, when we read the severe prohibition in the Torah against charging interest, which cannot be reconciled with our changing economic reality.
A halachic solution was found, the “transaction permit,” which may be found hanging in every bank, religious and secular alike, and they all charge the same high-interest rate. For similar reasons, we also have the fictitious sale of hametz every year, or the sale of all the agricultural land in Israel to an Arab to get around the biblical prohibition of the shmita sabbatical year. during which land in Israel must lie fallow and debts are canceled.
If a mixed military service leads “with high probability to situations that are forbidden according to Halacha,” as the rabbis proclaim, they should respectfully specify what it is they are referring to. It would surely be possible to find practical solutions that would neutralize or reduce this concern.
Even if it turns out that this is not possible, the solution is not to exclude women and deny them the ability to contribute to national security as equals. It may be necessary to expand the units created for the absorption of the ultra-Orthodox and populate them with the followers of Rabbi Haim Druckman and his colleagues.
Fortunately, the majority of the public abhors religious extremism, and most military units will continue to implement Israel’s core values, including gender equality.
Ostensibly, the exclusion of women from combat units is being required in the name of “IDF unity and the unity of the nation.” However, in the name of artificial unity, they want Israel to go back to a distant and offensive era when the equality of women was mostly an empty slogan, if that.
There can be no unity, either in the nation or in the IDF, if women are not full and equal partners in this unity. The rabbis describe a doomsday vision of the IDF as an “army of different tribes.” This is cynical demagoguery.
Even if Israel is doomed to allow an extreme religious minority (whether ultra-Orthodox or national-religious of various degrees) to maintain parallel units to those of the general IDF units in which equality will be upheld – this is still preferable to the exclusion of women.
Furthermore, women’s exclusion from combat units has far-reaching and toxic consequences that affect their equality in society outside of the army, given the army’s role in shaping the national ethos and the values of Israeli society.
The current demand is not a new one. Already five years ago, a group of rabbis (some of whom are the same as in the current demand), instructed their students at the hesder yeshivas that it is “forbidden” to serve in mixed combat units, such as Border Infantry. Fortunately, they were unsuccessful in their attempt to intimidate the IDF at the time, and it is satisfying to know that they failed this time, as well.
Surrendering to the dictates of the rabbis would be suicidal for the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and we must not allow that to happen.
The writer heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, an Israel-Diaspora partnership of religious freedom and equality.