This might be one of the more important pieces for my blog because not many people happen to be at the crossroads where I am: an Israeli Orthodox Jew, who learned first-hand how upset some Israeli nonreligious Jews are with “us” and who knows deeply religious Orthodox Jews who are officers in the Israeli army.
There are many angles to this power struggle between the rabbis and the soldiers, and I’ll try to keep it simple and balanced. (To make it complicated or one-sided would be easier — it’s done all the time.)
The fight seems to focus on homosexuals and women. Let’s treat them one by one in that order; the two struggles have here little to do with each other.
O yes, I don’t mention names. We need to discuss issues, not people.
Homosexuals and the Israeli Rabbis
Typically around the yearly pride marches but also throughout the year, the media bring us occasionally absolutely aggressive, hateful and degrading outbursts from a small number of rabbis, often prominent ones. Surprisingly, hundreds of their colleagues then start backing them up, either because they claim that rabbis must be able to say whatever they think the religion is all about or because they agree with them.
Different from their issues with women (see below) they are not onto anything concerning homosexuals. They have not the foggiest idea what they are talking about but they feel compelled to speak like that because they think that homosexuals threaten Orthodox Judaism. They often hold that homosexuals choose a terrible sin (out of wickedness or craziness) as life-style and must be condemned extra because society treats it as OK.
These barrages of rabbinic abuse give away that these rabbis have NO IDEA:
- That the issue is homosexuals and their sexuality, and not homosexuality in heterosexuals. There is a secular life-style that proclaims that everyone can do with their lives as they please, except hurting others. However, the big issue here is not secularism. Rather, like most women need a man to unite with, some men need that too; like most men need a woman to bond with, some women need that too.
- That sexual orientation is not chosen and cannot be changed. Most if not all people can only become one flesh with one of the sexes. That is sexual orientation, which is completely distinct from sexual attractions, action, dreams, addictions, love and closeness.
- That the sweetest and most pious of their Jewish close family members and students could be (and probably are) homosexual.
- That these people, as long as they are in the closet and/or as long as they are Orthodox, are in a very vulnerable position. To reject them could too easily push someone to murder homosexuals or to commit suicide, Heaven forbid. Apparently, these rabbis have no idea that when they say or endorse such rubbish they become like killers if not real killers. (If they would know, they would shut up.)
- That the high percentage of rejection of the kosher life-style by homosexuals is caused by the rabbis whose ignorance and hostility make it impossible for homosexuals to live a sane kosher Jewish life. First the rabbis reject them and then they blame them for walking out? The most pious homosexuals live the most psychologically unhealthy lives, but arrogant insensitive rabbis will not suspect that their Halachah must be adjusted. (They would never create the same Halachah for women as for men, but they have no trouble to maintain the same Halachah for heterosexuals should fit homosexuals too.)
- That most of the secular and many of the religious public have figured out that these people deserve a life with security, dignity and intimacy, so that such rabbis degrade not homosexuals but rather Judaism. The historical enormous 2016 pride parade in Jerusalem reportedly had more allies than homosexuals marching, many of them unmistakably dressed as Orthodox Jews — indignant about what rabbis had just said in their name.
- That rather than homosexuals threatening Judaism, their uninformed stand does. How could brilliant otherwise moral leaders have the chutzpah to degrade people without even investigation and talking with people in the know? The only explanation that I can come up with is anger. Rather than feeling uncomfortable about the subject, they throw themselves in a rage, and we know that anger is like idol worship. When the wrath is in, the wit is out.
- That homosexuals on average are much wiser and more empathic than heterosexuals and could help the latter with their enormous modern relationships problems. But not when they are trashed, of course.
- That openly homosexual Jews would be a tremendous enrichment of any Jewish community. One rabbi recently equated homosexuals with Nazis (I’m sorry to say): both groups would be out to destruct the Jewish religion. It’s as ridiculous linking rabbis and Nazis because both cannot stop talking about Jews. (This besides the chutzpah to equate victims of fascism with the perpetrators.)
- That there are many rabbis who know better, but that they are often too afraid to speak up. As one sees how homosexuals are demonized and ostracized, who wants to stand with them?
Homosexuals and the Israeli Army
The Israeli Army is possibly the most supportive and the safest mixed community for LGBTQ in the world. While Jews have been discriminated against for thousands of years almost everywhere, the motto in the IDF is: everyone who is serving must be secure and able to give their best without being discriminated against.
It’s easy to see how the rabbis, who seldom talked with anyone who is a homosexual, go up the wall from this humanistic attitude.
As an Orthodox Jew I feel free to say to the rabbis: for 50 years we have listened to your nonsense about homosexuals; it’s high time that you start listening to them. You are not under attack; you are the attacker. Ask your wife; she might understand faster.
Religious Jews and the Israeli Army
However, imperfection is not only on the religious side of the divide. Many of the present superiors in the army are secular and simple have no religious friends. They are totally unfamiliar with the moral level that some religious soldiers have maintained or mastered. The honesty and humility that are reinforced by a proper Jewish life-style and learning are unimaginable to them. They simply have no idea with whom they are dealing.
However, that works too in the other direction. What’s the most self-evident for the religious soldier is often not even an option for the secular ones. Religious Jews are trained all their lives to strive for closeness and unity of all Jews and to be concerned with all people.
How different the situation of secular Israeli Jews towards the religious ones. They feel any reference to Orthodoxy as a foreign yoke to be thrown off as quickly as possible. They are often unaware that their unashamed hatred for their religious fellows is word for word anti-Semitic. While a religious Jew might say: let’s order some kosher food so that we can all eat together, a secular Israeli Jew can easily respond: I don’t like to be forced to eat kosher. Just like the rabbis are on the defense about homosexuals (see above) and about women (see below), seculars are often on the defense against the religious — for no good reason at all.
That is exactly the biggest struggle going on between Israeli nationalistic rabbis and the IDF. The army tries to stop the religious from taking over secular IDF culture, and the religious who now enter the army in greater numbers than ever, try to make place for themselves amidst pure hatred for Jews and paranoia about coercion. In short: all this animosity is one big misunderstanding.
The problem is not with the IDF manuals. The army guidelines give space and safety no less to women, homosexuals, Christians, vegans, Orthodox Jews, etc. The problem starts when people meet and suspect maliciousness from the other side. If will take time and friendships to bridge the gaps.
Women and the Israeli Army
What’s true in all of secular Western society is also true in the IDF. A woman, theoretically, can become anything a man can (except for army rabbi). Since the secular and religious in Israel live in separate quarters and have little to say to each other, the humanistic equality in the army is much into the face of those who think differently.
There is still much inarticulated and articulated sexism in the IDF, but the army is working on getting it uprooted. That battle has not been won by far, but movement towards equality is there and will not be stopped.
That does not mean that differences between women and men are completely rationalized away. No male solider, of any rank, is allowed to enter the female quarters under any circumstance. (The reporter who said that the IDF is considering mix shower places is just lying.)
Women and the Israeli Rabbis
Orthodox rabbis are in an impossible position regarding women. In the distant and recent past, Judaism has done a tremendous amount of work to protect women against violence and degradation, and entitled them to lives that were good for them. They were the boss at home, the husband had to provide, they were entitled to pleasant sex — the list is too long to even start.
Yet, recently, modernity and feminism have caught up with traditional Judaism. A woman may be a brain surgeon. If the rabbis needs a brain surgeon, Heaven forbid, and the best one is a woman, he should try to get her to do the job. But that same woman is not allowed to study Judaism as the rabbi did and become a rabbi — according to the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis.
However, more than a few women are banging the castle doors with battering-rams and no one knows where this is going. The freight of many rabbis is tangible. This tension will not go away by itself — it needs to be solved and I wish the rabbis the best of British luck. One of their problems is that they are onto something (different from when they stumble over the homosexual issue where they are totally in the dark).
We don’t want to hear the rabbis speak about the difficulty of women commanding men. It is similar to Jews and Muslim patients lying in one hospital room, being treated by Muslim and Jewish nurses and doctors alike and if you don’t appreciate that, you can move to another country. In the IDF, many trainers are women. (There are rules to respect the religious male soldiers. When running, they are not obligated to run right behind (pun not intended) their female trainers.) If your wife can run your home, a woman can run your military unit.
There might be a problem with men and women jointly in tanks, but I’m sure that’s easy to solve, with a little goodwill from the rabbis. We also don’t flee an elevator when we find ourselves alone with a woman. I don’t think that this is a serious difficulty. But about the following two issues maybe the rabbis have something sensible to say.
IDF culture is one of equality. It doesn’t matter if someone is a man or a woman. Judaism is not like that. Jewish Law has different rules for men and women and the Jewish outlook has different expectations for the sexes. Now, THAT is a clash. NB: Judaism should not force people to keep the Commandments (G-d wants us to obey voluntarily) and neither should sex differences lead to coercion.
Having said that, Orthodox Judaism is not gender blind. The rabbis are right that this part of IDF society threatens what they teach Jewish boys and girls. I don’t know how to solve this; let’s first agree that that is a sensible problem. (My hunch is that that the boys more than the girls need to have extra training in not equating the genders too much. Women tend to be more grounded in reality, anyway.)
Last but not least, the greatest problem raised by the rabbis that we should not just brush aside. Battlefield training, and even more so battle experience, might be too hard on the female psyche — bear with me for a moment.
We know that learning to kill takes already a toll on the mind of the Jewish male soldier. The rabbis say that women, who should nurture children more than men should, must not go there. Not because women couldn’t be excellent fighters. Rather, like it or not, men and women are not the same (as almost all people agree because they would only have a permanent sexual relationship with one of the sexes).
No woman should be blocked from becoming a fighter pilot or combat soldier, if that is where her talents and dreams lie, but neither should the rabbis be silenced or ridiculed when they feel obliged to warn in good taste Jewish daughters rather not to learn combat.
There are a number of different issues and viewpoints that should not be overlooked or lumped together. If all is neatly separated out, things are not that complex, and might be solvable.