Recruitment of Women: The Problem in the IDF Leadership

Although the IDF improved its attitude toward religious women soldiers, the recruitment of women remains problematic because of a dangerous processes in the army * The mixing of male and female soldiers creates situations of absolute Torah prohibitions * The cultural deterioration among the youth also weakens the level of modesty * Even if in certain communities rabbis are correct in directing girls in their community to enlist, such guidance is not proper for the general public * The problem of recruiting women may become even more severe as the trend of blurring of identities continues in the IDF * The double failure of the General Staff: distancing sectors of the public from the IDF, and praising women, while at the same time undermining the motivation of men

Military Service for Women

Q: 1) Are women permitted to serve in the IDF, and 2) are the claims against the Chief of Staff and the General Staff justified?

A: According to the opinion of the majority rabbis, the Torah instructs that women should not serve in the IDF. However, this prohibition is not absolute like the prohibition of eating meat and milk together, because, in principle, it is a mitzvah for every Jew, whether man or woman, to protect the nation and the country, and therefore, in times of national ‘pikuach nefesh’ (life-threatening danger) such as the 1948 War of Independence, women also have a mitzvah to serve in the army (Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve’ Ha’Aretz 4:11). But in practice, the instruction of the vast majority of rabbis is that women should not serve in the army. There are two reasons for this: One is the guarding of ‘tzniyut‘ (modesty), for specifically in the army the Torah commanded us to be stricter in the observance of the sanctity of the camp (Deuteronomy 23:10-15). The second reason is the fear of a decline in the religious-spiritual level of a young woman, situated in a secular framework under secular command. In combat units, the damage to the sanctity of the camp is so severe that apart from a situation of national ‘pikuach nefesh’, virtually, it can be said that serving in such units involves absolute Torah prohibitions. Regarding other units, the severity of the problems depends on several factors, and the closer women serve to a home and among decent individuals, the lesser the problems are, but nevertheless, the general instruction is that the women should not serve in the army.

In recent years there have been a few changes that have led to new circumstance that call for consideration.

Processes since the Establishment of the State

In the early decades after the establishment of the state, most observant women served in the army. And although the majority of rabbis and educators opposed this, the prevailing view among many of the religious public was that the need of maintaining the country’s security and integrating into the general public were supreme values for which endangering one’s religious level was worth the risk. In practice, during those years more than half of the graduates of the religious educational system abandoned the traditions of Torah and mitzvot.

Following the bitter results of this unchecked joining of the army, and thanks to the strengthening of Torah education through the establishment of yeshivas, ulpanot and Hesder yeshivot, and the growth of a new generation of rabbis and educators, both men and women, the values ​​of Torah and mitzvot became more central, and the percentage of those leaving the fold greatly diminished (approximately 20%). At the same time, the number of observant women serving in the army lessened, and the number of those serving in ‘Sherut Leumi’ (National Service) increased. In the year 2000, approximately 1,700 religious girls enlisted in the army out of a total of 7,000 girls, and in 2008 their numbers dropped to less than 1,300, which is less than 20% of the graduates of the religious educational system.

Changes in the Past Decade

In the past decade there have been significant changes: on the one hand, with the demographic growth, the number of young women wishing to serve in ‘Sherut Leumi’ increased, while the number of challenging opportunities of service failed to increase accordingly. For every prestigious position dozens of high-quality young women competed, and thus, many of them received rejections and became frustrated. In order to provide a response to all those who wished to serve, other tracks were opened in which it is difficult for young women to maintain a proper religious framework. Thus, even in the framework of ‘Sherut Leumi’, girls are forced to cope with difficult ordeals.

At the same time the army, which had come to recognize the value of female graduates of the religious educational system, began to make significant efforts in order to recruit observant women. To this end, the army opened challenging paths for them, agreed to provide them a framework of religious support, and with the army’s encouragement, midrashot preparing girls for military service and providing them with guidance and support were established. Consequently, the religious situation of women serving in the army improved. If in the past it was difficult to distinguish an observant woman soldier because, except for a few, they all dressed in pants as secular soldiers, today, there are many more observant women who are careful to dress modestly, and pray and recite blessings, and in this manner sanctify God’s name through their behavior.

Along with the improvement in the situation of observant women in the army, the number of recruits rose again to approximately 1,700 annually, and perhaps a bit more. Despite the army’s ugly propaganda campaign against rabbis and religious educational systems, it seems that the percentage of observant girls serving in the army has not changed significantly from the situation 20 years ago (in contrast to the false data of the IDF Spokesperson).

The Decline in the Level of Modesty

Along with the good treatment accorded to observant women soldiers, as well as the opening of special tracks for Haredi men soldiers, another process is taking place in the army – an increased integration of female soldiers into several units. Since the behavior of many of the secular youth has become more permissive over the years, this is also how they behave in the army in the mixed-gender units, which have become extremely unsuitable for an observant male soldier, and all the more so, for a observant female soldier. In the traditional combat units the situation has hardly changed, but in the semi-combat units and in combat supporter units, it is very difficult for an observant soldier to serve.

True, there are mixed-gender home-front units where the behavior is relatively decent because the male and female soldiers come from families that invested more in their education, and also their service is closer to home, and even this, provided the commanders enforce the military orders relating to modesty.

Those who enlist and the Instruction for the General Populace

There are rabbis, along with educators both male and female, who, out of close acquaintance with the girls in their circles (more liberal communities), claim that military service does not affect the religious level of the girls, according to their norms. A girl who is part of such a community and wants to join the units in which modesty is relatively maintained may rely on their opinion, since Torah guidance is also contingent upon one’s community and the individual himself. The fact is in recent years, rabbis of the liberal religious communities have succeeded in strengthening the religious identity of the young women and members of their communities.

However, the general instruction disapproving enlistment is not based on this group, which, despite its importance, does not characterize the entire religious public, and out of a broad assessment, the general ruling of the vast majority of rabbis is that girls should not serve in the army, including home-front units. Therefore, the policy of the ‘Hemed’ educational institutions (Hinuch Mamlachti Dati – Religious Public Education), which opposes military service for girls is correct, and their policy of not allowing army representatives to present the various paths of service to the girls is also correct. It should not be forgotten that thanks to this position the attitude towards observant girls who do enlist is much better, so the army can prove that military service does not harm them. However, if this phenomenon becomes widespread, there is reasonable concern that their conditions of service will change for the worse, as happened among the men.

Secular Leftist Positions have permeated the IDF

In addition, the secular left’s position which blurs gender and national identity, and sees all people as equal in everything without any substantive characterization, has permeated the IDF.

Despite the significant difference between your average man and woman in physical character and abilities, because there are exceptions, the left views gender separation as an injustice (contrary to the rules of sociology). In their view, each army unit must accept soldiers according to their suitability for the position without regard to their gender. On behalf of this position, IDF commanders and spokesmen are always careful to highlight the female soldiers who succeeded in positions that until recently were considered for men only, and often do so without mentioning that the requirements were lowered so that women would also be suitable for service in those same units.

The same holds true in regards to ‘tzniyut’ – since there are many soldiers for whom permissiveness is not a problem and some soldiers who by nature are easily disciplined and overcome their inclinations, the army rejects the demands of halakhic modesty. The leftists reinforce the army’s position by saying that the fact is that even among the religious public from time to time offenses occur, while on the other hand, even among the secular public there are those who behave in a moral and modest manner – by that very fact, there is no need to take into consideration the halakhic position directed at all people, since it does not apply to people on the fringe.

Although there is a point of truth in taking into consideration marginal individuals, the position that takes into account gender, national, and cultural identity, in most cases, is more just and on the mark. I hope to explain this on another occasion.

However, in such a situation, the fundamental position that disapproves of military service for women is reinforced, for even if currently there is a certain improvement in the situation of female observant soldiers, there is reasonable fear that secular attitudes will prevail, and many girls will go downhill religiously in the army.

The Failure of the General Staff

Apparently, the members of the General Staff are unaware of the depth of the dispute over gender and national identity and its implications, and therefore, despite their basic loyalty to their people and homeland, lacking an alternative, moral foundation, they adopt the left-wing positions prevalent in academia and the secular media, without noticing the inner contradiction in their position.

I will now address the second question about the harsh allegations against the Chief of Staff. I do not know how he has prepared the army for its security duties, but in the national-social sphere he has failed in the IDF’s two main challenges.

The first challenge is to encourage dedicated, military service to protect the people and the country. In the trial of Elor Azaria, as in other statements made by members of the General Staff, they turned their backs on the combat soldiers, and damaged motivation to volunteer for meaningful service.

Also, the granting of equal status to female combat soldiers on par with that of male combat soldiers, without them meeting the true threshold required of any combat soldier, harms the status and dignity of combat soldiers, and thus undermines the motivation of young men to “give their souls” for the sake of intense training.

The second challenge is involving all sectors of the nation in military service, with the main challenge directed toward graduates of the Haredi educational system, who in ten years from now will be more than a quarter of the candidates for enlistment. A process of mutual debate and influence exists between Haredi and religious societies, and in particular, the Chardal (National Haredi) society. When military service becomes more problematic from a religious standpoint, and army commanders harass and insult rabbis who encourage young men to serve in the army, many of them accept and maintain the Haredi position that one should not enlist.

These are the main challenges facing the IDF, in which the Chief of Staff has failed. If his resigning would bring about change, it would be proper to demand it. The problem is the candidates to replace him are also afflicted with the same blindness.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

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