It’s not about the army

Tensions expressed via religious language are often more about power struggles than Halacha.

Haredi soldier (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Haredi soldier
The IDF has everything from accountants to rabbis to computer engineers, doctors, lawyers and more. The army encompasses almost every field, and in every professional office there are low-ranking soldiers working as secretaries and aides, many of whom return to civilian life every day after work. IDF personnel are drawn from every sector of society, including Arab Israelis, Druse, secular, religious and immigrants. There are soldiers who are blind, wheelchair bound and even intellectually disabled.
Notwithstanding the question of who and how many people the army needs or wants, if you can offer something that interests it it will find or create a framework of service to accommodate your needs, whether physical, mental or religious.
Frameworks for all-male, all-female and mixed-gender units already exist. The army’s interest in haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) has already given rise to Nahal Haredi and other programs that accommodate haredi soldiers. So too, the mutual interest of both the army and the national- religious sector in the enlistment of national-religious males gave rise to what is now known as the hesder yeshiva system that combines military service with yeshiva studies.
The Bnei David Yeshiva in Eli, headed in part by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, is part of the hesder system.
The experience of working with the army to be part of a special service track that accommodates the needs of religious male soldiers should have taught Levinstein, and other national- religious leaders, that if the army, as it exists today, does not accommodate the needs of national-religious females in a way they see fit, then they should work to ensure such a framework is created.
National-religious females often go through the National Service system as an alternative to military service.
They are assigned to work in places like government offices, schools, immigrant absorption centers and non-profit organizations, many of which are not connected to the government.
Females in both National Service and military frameworks often work in what are essentially office settings, and even those in National Service are often in co-ed environments, without objection from “the rabbis.”
The biggest difference can sometimes be the uniform and rank.
Though individuals in the military generally go through basic training, not all do. Regardless, Israel has many different tracks for basic training that are designed to reflect the varying frameworks in which different soldiers serve. The experience already varies widely from one track to another, and some are far removed from the conventional idea of what a boot camp looks like. Were there a movement aimed at creating a hesder parallel for females it is likely that an appropriate training regimen could be designed. In the meantime, the sight of religious female soldiers in skirts remains common.
I am not against the National Service framework and am not saying that the army is necessarily the most worthwhile way to serve the country, or that it is for everybody. Both the army and the National Service system are capable of placing individuals in roles of life-changing importance, and both are also capable of placements that are less worthwhile, but there is nothing religious about asking which roles are most impactful.
The Jerusalem Post recently published an analysis by Raymond Apple, who reviewed halachic sources pertaining to female military service (both for and against). But the halachic concept of what it means to be a soldier does not remotely resemble the lives of those whose army service amounts to office work in uniform, so the traditional texts he drew from cannot apply.
It is completely possible to live a socially integrated modern lifestyle in accordance with halacha, but it requires both common sense and a genuine desire to do so. The reason that neither Levinstein, who is now at the center of a storm that arose out of comments he made rejecting female army service, nor other national-religious rabbis can be heard calling for the creation of an army track for national-religious females is because the army is not the real issue. From gender-based controversies to kosher certification to other areas of conflict, tensions expressed through religious language are often more about rabbinic authorities asserting their rejection of political and legal authorities, out of consideration for power, prejudice and self-righteous arrogance, than they are about halacha.
The author grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Jerusalem. Previous columns of his have appeared in media outlets in both the United States and Israel.