Over the past few days, there has been a furor about the issue of women serving in the Israeli armed forces, especially religious women. First, the new Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef reiterated their opposition to women serving in the army. Then Finance Minister Yair Lapid called for their dismissal. Then his number 2, Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron, backed up the rabbinate. “Rabbi Piron against Lapid: No halakhic authorities allow girls to enlist” reads the headline on Srugim, a national-religious news site.

Well, that’s a lie. Don’t take my word for it: read the actual article. A decade ago, Piron wrote, in response to a student’s question, “I am not familiar with any halakhic authorities who allow girls to enlist.” When asked about it this week, he stated: “There are virtually no halakhic authorities who allow girls to enlist.” So, this all-encompassing halakhic ban has moved from reality to perception to virtuality.

This distinction is actually very important. You see, neither the Chief Rabbis nor Rabbi Minister Piron made this declaration unprompted; they were goaded into it by right-wing underlings. In the case of the former, it was Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, he of the “Don’t rent to Arabs” ruling. His dad was Chief Rabbi too, from 1983 (when the current Sephardic Chief Rabbi’s father finished his term) to 1993 (when the current Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi’s father began his term). In the case of the latter, it was a former hesder yeshiva student of his, Ran Huri. R. Eliyahu wanted to know if our current CR’s upheld the rulings of their predecessors; Huri wanted to know if the EM upheld his own “ruling.”

I have been told by many friends and acquaintances that it is Lapid who is out of line here. They mainly rely on three arguments: a) freedom of conscience; b) precedent; c) secular (hiloni) Israelis’ supposed disengagement from religion. Don’t the Chief Rabbis have the right–nay, the responsibility–to voice their halakhic views? Aren’t they just reiterating a tried-and-true principle? And why is that hiloni Lapid opening his big fat mouth? (We should note who his father was: Tommy Lapid, anti-haredi firebrand.)

That’s why I think it’s so important to consider how the paper which broke the story, Israel Hayom, concludes their coverage:

Officials at the Chief Rabbinate stressed that the ruling was not directed at women who chose to enlist, but rather at rabbis who have been using the Halachah to allow women to join the military.

This is not about freedom of conscience, which the Chief Rabbis are welcome to exercise in the privacy of their own homes. This is, unsurprisingly, a power play. More and more religious girls are serving in the army, and here’s the response, as formulated at a heated meeting of the Chief Rabbinical Council:

During the discussion leading up to the decision, the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, infamous for instructing Safed residents not to rent to Arabs, warned that female enlistment threatened “to erase the identity of Israel as a Jewish state.” Beersheba’s chief rabbi, Yehuda Deri, framed the debate as a matter of life or death.

(No, Yehuda Deri’s father was not a Chief Rabbi. Don’t be silly! Although his brother is Aryeh Deri, head of Sephardic haredi party Shas. And his mehutanim are Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and his brother Rabbi Avraham Yosef. Mere coincidence, I’m sure.)

The problem is that the Chief Rabbis are symbols of the state. They’re the ones who greet the popes, presidents and premiers who visit Israel. They’re the ones who are present at official state ceremonies, when we honor all of our soldiers, including females and (gasp!) non-Jews. Is this the look they’ll have on their faces when a young hayelet is publicly commended for her valiant service?

Source: Kikar Shabat

Source: Kikar Shabat

That’s their reaction to a woman singing at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s funeral yesterday. Maybe they were overcome with emotion. At least they didn’t run away.

But this is not about restating the Chief Rabbinate’s opposition to drafting females, which dates back to the 1950’s. This is about religious women enlisting and the rabbis who support them. It isn’t the 1950’s anymore. We are much more aware of issues such as sexual harassment, but more importantly, the workplace itself has changed. Women, including religious women and especially haredi women, are in the workforce, if not the breadwinners. When they finish their service/ education, most women do not leave the public sphere. Moreover, the army itself has changed. Over ninety percent of the soldiers are not in combat positions. Is it really so different for a religious girl to serve in an office building in green rather than in a hospital in white in the allegedly kosher framework of national service? Rabbi Eliyahu is busy dispatching letters to all religious high schools about the dangers of women in the army. Does the Education Minister support this initiative? Do the Chief Rabbis?

Secular Israelis have a stake in this, because their children go to the army. Not like Sephardic CR Yosef, who never served. Not like Ashkenazic CR Lau, who had his father arrange for him to become an army chaplain with the rank of major, but also in practice did not serve. This matters to hilonim, which is why Lapid supported a more moderate CR candidate. But the selections are essentially self-perpetuating, which is why the same names keep popping up. (You can read the law here.) I must admit to being confused as to what Lapid’s opponents want: should he not criticize the CRs because he’s not religious, or should he stop trying to get the Rabbinate out of secular Israelis’ lives? It is profoundly disrespectful to tell hilonim to butt out of this, and it’s abominable to patronize them by essentially stating (I paraphrase): No, it’s fine for your daughters to serve, they’re sluts anyway.

I’ll end with a short anecdote. The same day this story broke, I was walking to my bus stop in Tel Aviv, across from the Kirya, Israel’s Pentagon. I passed a group of soldiers, one of whom was a religious girl wearing a long army skirt (yes, they have those). What I thought then, and what I still believe, is the following: “That girl does more to sanctify the name of God every day by going to work than I will probably accomplish in my entire life.”

Just don’t tell her rabbi.