Army Service for Women
Q: Rabbi, in your opinion, are women permitted to serve in the Israel Defense Forces?
A: The opinion of almost all rabbis is that women should not serve in the I.D.F., and for two main reasons. The first reason is the importance of maintaining tzniyut (modesty) in the framework of the army, for the Torah specifically commands us to be stricter about guarding the sanctity of the military camp (Deuteronomy 23:10-15). The second reason is the fear that in a secular framework and under the command of non-religious officers, a young woman’s spiritual and religious level will decline. And although these two reasons relate primarily to army service in combat units, in practice, such concerns exist in other units as well. Therefore, the rabbis who recently ruled categorically against women serving in the army were correct, with some of them vigorously encouraging National Service as a substitute for military service.
The Chain of Events
In the first decades of the State of Israel, the majority of national-religious girls served in the army. Within the national-religious community, the prevailing attitude was that the need to safeguard national security and to assimilate into the general public was supreme values worth endangering one’s religious level. In practice, roughly half of the graduating class of the religious school system abandoned the tradition of Torah observance during those years.
Following the bitter consequences of this unsupervised assimilation into the army, and thanks to the strengthening of religious education, Torah values and mitzvoth became more predominant, and the percentage of those abandoning religion declined to around twenty percent. At the same time, the number of religious girls serving in the army diminished significantly. In the year 2000, out of the graduating class of 7,000, only 1,700 (24%) religious girls enlisted in the army. In 2008, their numbers dropped below 1,300, which was less than twenty percent of the female graduates from the religious school system.
Although the percentage of girls who became non-religious is similar to the percentage of those enlisting in the army, they are not fully compatible. Some girls abandoned religion without serving in the army, while others who did serve became religiously stronger. But in general, the trends of enlistment in the army and weakening of religious observance were compatible.
Changes in Recent Years
In recent years, significant changes have occurred. On the one hand, the number of girls wishing to do National Service continued to rise, but the number of challenging positions to serve in has not increased accordingly. Every prestigious position attracts competition, and as a result, many girls are rejected repeatedly, and feel frustrated. In order to address the demand of girls wishing to serve, new programs were opened in which it is difficult to maintain a proper religious lifestyle. Thus, even in the framework of National Service, girls are faced with difficult trials.
At the same time, the army is making a great effort to recruit high-standard religious girls. To do so, they offer the girls challenging programs, promising to provide a supportive, religious environment, and in fact, some of the units have been successful. Thus, within five years, the number of religious girls enlisting in the army has grown from less than 1,300 a year, to over 1,500. Together with this, the religious situation of the girls serving in the army has improved, thanks to the improving conditions in the army, and also the preparation and guidance the girls receive from the midrashot (seminaries) established for this purpose.
I heard a story about a religious girl serving in the Intelligence Corps in the Tel Aviv area. Most evenings she sleeps at her parent’s house, but occasionally, she has to do night-duty. One Shabbat, as she stood at the gate of her base, a senior officer drove up. She requested to see his permit to drive on Shabbat. Seeing as he did not have one, she refused to open the gate. The officer became angry, shouted and intimidated her, but she refused to open the gate; the officer was forced to enter the base by foot. Another example was a religious female soldier who was not provided with a long, military skirt as required by halakha, and refused to continue serving until she received the skirt, as promised. Such girls are worthy of admiration.
The Ruling Remains the Same
Together with the praise due to all those assisting the observant girls maintain their religious level while serving in the army, and the girls themselves, the fundamental reasons for opposing serving in a military framework stands, and therefore, the rabbi’s position objecting to girls serving in the army is correct.
And although we realize there are girls who serve in non-combat units and are not weakened religiously as a result of their military service, the ruling does not come because all the girls are weakened, but rather, because significant percentages of them are weakened. This is comparable to the closing of a road in which the percentage of accidents is exceedingly high, even though the majority of the drivers handle it safely.
Indeed, there could have been room to propose that army representatives meet with the leading rabbis to examine the possibility of religious women serving in home-front units, such as the Intelligence Corps, while at the same time, attempting to establish programs similar to the hesder yeshivot suitable for religious girls to serve in. If such meetings were to be held, everything must be laid on the table, including the questions of women carrying weapons, and gender separation of units. In the meantime, however, when even the service of religious men in the I.D.F. is not properly regulated, especially in the area of tzniyut – it is impossible to raise such a proposal.
Those Who Do Enlist
There are rabbis, as well as male and female teachers, who, out of close acquaintance with the girls in their circles, claim that army service does not harm their religiosity. Apparently, they are also a bit mistaken, for in truth, some of their girls are weakened religiously in the army, as well. Nevertheless, apparently quite a few girls from their circles indeed manage to maintain their level of religiosity – both because of their advanced religious awareness, and also due to the fact that even before entering the army, they were not so careful about keeping some of the halakhot, and thus found it easier to maintain their religious level in a secular environment.
However, the ruling objecting to the enlistment of girls is not based on this circle of people, for with all due honor, they are quite small. Rather, out of an all-inclusive assessment, the general ruling of the overwhelming majority of rabbis that girls should not serve in home-front army units as well is justified.
It is also important to add that thanks to the rabbi’s position opposing their recruitment, even girls who fail to listen to their rulings and enlist in the army, now benefit from improved religious conditions. Precisely because of the rabbi’s opposition and criticism, the military establishment is making greater efforts to prove that serving in the army does not harm religious girls. However, had the rabbi’s position changed, the secular approach of most of the army officers probably would have prevailed, and the conditions for religious girls would have worsened, as is the case with religious male soldiers.
Therefore, the policy of the State-Religious schools opposing military service for women – in accordance with the rabbi’s ruling – is correct. And they are justified in not permitting army representatives to present the various programs in front of the girls.
Must Women Serve?
After all this, I will suggest my fundamental position, according to which it would be appropriate to cancel compulsory military and national service for women.
From a security and economic aspect, this type of service is ineffective. By employing fully-paid civilians instead of girls doing national service, the I.D.F. and the social service systems would achieve much better results, at an immensely lower cost.
There are two main reasons for this. First, each girl doing national service costs the state an average of NIS 4,000 per month – not far from the minimum wage. Many of the women soldiers and girls doing National Service could make a far greater contribution had they first studied a suitable profession. But because they serve immediately after finishing 12th grade and lack professional training – despite all the good will, their contribution is relatively insignificant. The second reason is that since service is compulsory or semi-compulsory (in the case of National Service), the state is obligated to employ all female recruits and volunteers, even when there is no need. Thus, we find girls complaining about meaningless military and national service (like cutting cartons and serving coffee).
For the Good of the Country
The one significant reason for serving is its expression of an individual’s commitment to the nation. However, it seems that this reason alone does not grant the state the moral justification to require each and every woman to devote two years out of her life. The only justifiable reason for this is security needs crucial to the survival of the state, and currently, such needs do not exist.
Moreover, from an economic aspect, compulsory service causes the state huge losses – in the hidden unemployment occurring in the army, and in the loss of two years of work and tax payments that young women could have provided in the free market. This is not the place to elaborate, but we are talking about the loss of billions of shekels.
Serving in the army is also a factor in delaying the age of marriage by roughly two years, and thus inhibits the demographic growth of the remnants of the Jewish people who have gathered to the State of Israel. This is not the place to go into detail, but if the state were to absolve all girls from army service, and thus lower the age of marriage and parenthood by one year alone, within fifty years there would be over a million more Jews, even if the number of children each woman gave birth to remained the same. Even from a purely military aspect, this would make a greater contribution to the Jewish people.
Furthermore, religious girls coming from low-income families are harmed more than others by doing National Service. The two year delay increases the risk that such girls will not be able to attain a respectable profession, and find a suitable groom.
These are the reasons which have led me to the conclusion that in the best interest of our nation, it is preferable to encourage young religious women to hasten their professional studies, thus making it easier for them to get married at the age of twenty.
Indeed, many people are shocked at the possibility of casting doubt on the requirement of national service, and for a good reason. An individual’s willingness to devote himself for the sake of the common good is extremely important, to the point where for some people, casting a doubt on it seems like a violation of the holy of holies of our national existence. In spite of this, we are obligated to consider what’s best for our nation.
In my estimation, there is a reasonable chance that within a decade or two, logic will prevail and compulsory service for women will be cancelled, and consequently, National Service as well. Must the religious community wait until the non-religious realize this, or can it promote this change by itself?
Proposed Solution: A Deferment Program for National Service
I will endeavor to introduce a proposal which takes into account all the considerations mentioned.
Programs can be created in which the girls first study for a Bachelors degree in their respective professions, and afterwards, volunteer to work full-time for a year or two in their specialized fields. All the funds the State of Israel invests in the National Service girls will be given to them while volunteering after their studies. This amount can add-up to more than NIS 2,500 per month.
Such programs can be created in many areas: education, nursing, law, social work, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and others. A program can also be created for outstanding students who will serve after completing a Master’s degree, or PhD.
Perhaps we can suggest to the heads of National Service that they lead this move, which will only improve the quality of service.
This article was translated from Hebrew.