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Judaism: The Best National Service for Women

The rabbis who ruled categorically against women serving in the army were correct.
Published: Monday, January 06, 2014 9:38 AM


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. for two main reasons. The first reason is 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 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.

The Public Course of Events

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.

As a result of the bitter consequences of this unmonitored integration, and thanks to the strengthening of Torah education, Torah values and mitzvoth became more predominant, and the percentage of those abandoning religion declined to about twenty percent.

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.

Although the percentage of girls who became non-religious is equivalent to the percentage of those enlisting in the army, they do not fully match. Some girls abandoned religion without serving in the army, while others who did serve became religiously stronger. But in general, the trends of enlisting in the army and a weakening of religious observance were compatible.

Changes in Recent Years

In recent years, significant changes took place. On the one hand, the number of girls wishing to do National Service continued to rise, whereas the number of challenging positions to serve in has not increased accordingly. Every prestigious position attracts competition, and as a result many girls receive repeated rejections and feel frustrated. In order to address the demand of girls wishing to serve, new paths were opened in which it is difficult to maintain a suitable religious atmosphere. 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 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.

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 got angry, shouted, and intimidated her, but she refused to open the gate, and he was forced to enter by foot.

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. 

The Ruling has not Changed

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.

And although it is understood that some girls serve in non-combat units and are not weakened religiously due to their military service, the ruling does not come because all the girls are weakened, but rather, because a significant percentages of them are weakened. This is similar to the closing of a road where the percentage of accidents is exceedingly high compared to the  norm, even though the majority of the drivers handle it safely.

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.

The Circle of People who do Enlist

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.

However, the ruling for girls not to enlist is not based on this circle of people, for with all its publicity and importance, it is quite small. The ruling has to be made out of a broad consideration, and the general ruling of the overwhelming majority of rabbis that girls should not serve even in home-front military units is justified.

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.

Therefore, the policy of the State-Religious schools opposing military service for women – in line with the rabbi’s ruling – is correct.  And they are right not to allow military representatives to present to the girls the various avenues of army service. 

Do Women Need to Serve?

After all this, I will present 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, lacking professional training – despite all the good will, their contribution is relatively insignificant. 

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). 

For the Good of the Country

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.

In addition, from an economic aspect, compulsory service causes the state huge losses – in 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 civilian 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 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.

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.

Conclusion

These are the reasons which have led me to the conclusion that for 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.

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.

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.

Does the religious community have to wait until the non-religious realize this, or can it promote this change?

A Proposed Solution: A Deferment Program for National Service

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.

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. Maybe we can suggest to the heads of National Service that they lead this move, which will only improve the quality of service. 

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.