Jonathan Muskat

Charedim in the IDF: It’s all about trust

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s recent endorsement of Charedim serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) marks a significant milestone in acknowledging the importance of all societal sectors in national defense. Though I do not reside in Israel, I strongly resonate with the religious Zionist community there, and many members of my congregation have relatives serving in the IDF. Therefore, it deeply concerns me that while the religious Zionist community actively participates in the IDF, including a notable presence in combat roles, their Charedi counterparts as a whole do not enlist in the IDF. This incongruity has sparked discussions on methods to encourage Charedi enlistment. Despite ethical and halachic arguments supporting Charedi participation in national security, there are still substantial obstacles that must be addressed for their integration into the military to be truly effective.

From a religious perspective, the obligation for every Jewish individual to participate in defending the Jewish people is firmly established in sources such as the Gemara in Masechet Sotah 44b and codified in the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 7:4), which asserts that even a groom must leave his wedding canopy to join a war of national defense. This underscores the necessity for all segments of society, including the Charedi community, to share the burden of national defense, especially given ongoing security threats.

However, the primary challenges to Charedi participation in the IDF stem not from religious law but from a lack of trust. The Charedi leadership does not trust that the IDF will be sensitive to their religious needs, either now or in the long term. When Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion envisioned what Israel could become, he thought of a “melting pot” – a country where Jews of all kinds, religious and secular, eastern and western, would come together and form a new, uniquely Israeli identity. The IDF is a place where this vision could manifest, but the Charedi community is not interested in that vision. Perhaps convincing them of their halachic and moral responsibility to share in the responsibility of national defense could be possible. However, they feel that general Israeli society and culture pose a threat to their religious way of life.

Two examples involving religious Zionist soldiers in the IDF highlight these challenges vividly. Firstly, concerns have been raised about religious soldiers’ discomfort with situations where they are required to listen to women sing at certain IDF events. While interpretations within religious law may vary regarding the permissibility of hearing women sing, it is clear that the religious sensitivities of these soldiers may not have been adequately addressed. The Charedi leadership is closely observing these developments.

Secondly, the issue of mixed-sex units presents a significant dilemma for religious soldiers and their leaders. The decision to increase the integration of men and women into elite combat roles and officer positions has caused unease within the religious Zionist community, leading some rabbinical authorities to advise against enlistment in such units. This highlights a clash between the values of gender equality and religious observance, necessitating careful balance to accommodate diverse beliefs within Israeli society.

While promoting gender diversity and equality within the military is important, it is imperative to recognize and address the concerns of religiously observant soldiers. The experiences of religious Zionist units within the IDF serve as a cautionary tale for the Charedi community. Instances where religious sensitivities were disregarded or compromised have understandably raised doubts among Charedi leaders about the military’s commitment to accommodating their religious needs. Therefore, the IDF’s approach to addressing the concerns of religious Zionist soldiers will undoubtedly influence the willingness of Charedi individuals to enlist in the future.

Fostering open dialogue and collaboration between military authorities and Charedi leaders is crucial for building trust and understanding between the IDF and the Charedi community. While it remains uncertain whether this is achievable, if the IDF can demonstrate a sincere commitment to understanding and accommodating the Charedi religious worldview, then it will have a much stronger chance of convincing the Charedim to enlist.

In conclusion, integrating Charedim into the IDF signifies progress towards national unity and shared responsibility, but it is vital to address the cultural and religious sensitivities that may impede their participation. By prioritizing sensitivity and accommodation and engaging Charedi leadership with openness and curiosity, the IDF can create an environment that respects the diverse beliefs and values of all members, ensuring the successful integration of Charedi individuals into the military and contributing to the strength and cohesion of Israeli society. However, it’s important to acknowledge that achieving both goals of gender equality and Charedi participation may pose challenges, and a balance must be struck.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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