Judaism: The Best National Service for Women
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
Q: Rabbi, in your opinion, are women permitted to serve in the Israel Defense Forces?
The second reason is the fear that a young woman’s spiritual and religious level will decline being in a secular framework and under the command of non-religious officers. And although these two reasons relate primarily to service in combat units, in practice, such concerns also exist in other units.
Therefore, the rabbis who ruled categorically against women serving in the army were correct, with some of them vigorously encouraging National Service as a substitute for military service.
In the first decades of the State of Israel, the majority of national-religious girls served in the army. The prevailing attitude among most of the national-religious community was that the need to safeguard national security and integrating into the general public were supreme values worth endangering an individual’s religious level. In practice, during those years about half of the graduates of the religious educational system abandoned the tradition of Torah observance.
At the same time, the number of religious girls serving in the army greatly diminished. In the year 2000, only 1,700 religious girls out of a graduating class of 7,000 enlisted in the army. In 2008, their numbers dropped below 1,300, which was less than twenty percent of the graduates of the religious school system.
Changes in Recent Years
At the same time, the army is making a great effort to recruit above-standard religious girls. To do so, they offer the girls challenging courses, promising to provide a supportive religious environment, and some of the units are actually doing this successfully. Thus, within five years, the number of religious girls enlisting in the army has grown from under 1,300 a year, to over 1,500. Together with this, the religious situation of the girls serving in the army has improved, thanks both to the improving conditions in the army, and to the preparation and guidance the girls receive from the midrashot (seminaries) established for this purpose.
Another example was a religious female soldier who was not given a long, military skirt as required by halakha, and refused to continue serving until she received the promised skirt. Such girls are worthy of admiration.
Together with the praise due to all who assist the observant girls to maintain their religious level while serving in the army, and those girls themselves, the fundamental reasons for opposing serving in a military framework remain the same, and therefore, the rabbi’s position objecting to girls serving in the army is correct.
Indeed, there is room to propose that military representatives meet with the leading rabbis to examine the possibility of serving in home-front units, such as the Intelligence Corps, while attempting to establish programs similar to the hesder yeshivot that would be suitable for girls to serve in a halakhic framework. In such meetings, everything must be laid on the table, including the halakhic question of women carrying weapons, and the gender separation of units.
In the meantime, however, since even the service of religious men in the I.D.F. is not properly regulated, especially in the area of tzniyut – such a proposal cannot be raised.
There are rabbis, as well as male and female teachers, who, out of close acquaintance with the girls in their circle, claim that army service does not harm their religiosity. It seems they are also a bit mistaken, and in truth, some of the girls from their circles are weakened religiously in the army, as well. All the same, it turns out that, quite a few girls from their circles manage to maintain their level of religiosity – by virtue of their advanced religious awareness, but also because even before entering the army, some were not so careful about keeping some of the halakhot, and thus found it easier to maintain their religious level in a secular environment.
Also, it is important to add that even for girls who fail to listen to the rulings of the rabbis and enlist in the army, thanks to the rabbis’ position opposing their recruitment, the girls now benefit from improved religious conditions. Precisely because of the rabbis’ opposition and criticism, the military establishment is making great efforts to prove that army service does not harm them. However, had the rabbis’ position changed, the secular mind-set of most of the army officers probably would have prevailed, and the conditions for religious girls would have worsened, as is now the case with religious male soldiers.
Do Women Need to Serve?
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.
The second reason is that because the service is compulsory or quasi-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).
The one significant reason for serving is that it expresses the individual’s commitment to the nation. However, that reason alone does not provide 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, there are no such security needs that must involve women.
Serving in the army is also a factor in delaying the age of marriage by approximately two years, and thus inhibits the demographic growth of the remnants of the Jewish people who have gathered to the State of Israel. If the state were to absolve all girls from army service, thus probably lowering the age of marriage and parenthood by one year alone, within fifty years, over a million Jews would be added to the Israeli nation, 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.
True, there are many people shocked at the possibility of casting doubt on the obligation 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. Yet, nevertheless, we are obligated to consider what’s best for our nation.
Does the religious community have to wait until the non-religious realize this, or can it promote this change?
I will attempt to introduce a proposal which gives a reasonable opportunity for all the considerations mentioned. Programs can be created in which the girls first study for a Bachelors degree in a suitable profession, and afterwards, volunteer to work full-time for a year or two in the field they specialized in. All the money that the State of Israel invests in the girls doing National Service will be given to them while working, following their studies. This amount can add-up to more than NIS 2,500 per month.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.