Building a Torah Social Culture: Women in the IDF

Should observant women - or any women - serve in the army? A Religious Zionist perspective.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen,

Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

In this column I intend to discuss social dilemmas currently challenging the national religious community, such as the serving of religious women in the army, from the perspective of one single, overriding question: "Which resolution of the dilemma will best help us build a healthy, attractive Torah based social culture?"

A 'social culture' is a fancy sociological term for 'a collective way of life', and refers to the type of family, community, work/profession, cultural and educational institutions that we create in our daily lives. And the way we live our particular social culture very much affects the type of relationship that we will develop with G-d. We want to constantly ask ourselves the question, "How does our family, work, and cultural ways of life help us, or hinder us, dialogue with G-d, hear his voice, and   do his mitzvoth?"

And because we are religious Zionists we want to talk with G-d, and do his mitzvoth, not only at home, and in the study hall, beit midrash, but also when we serve in the army, work in agriculture and hi-tech, make a movie, write a novel, and learn and teach social work, psychology and history. We want to be active in all parts of our newly rebuilt Jewish state, and have our input guided by modern academic/scientific knowledge learnt according to the wisdom of two thousand years of rabbinic/Torah wisdom. In this way we can slowly build a rich, encompassing Torah social culture, and make G-d's voice a very present, real, sweet part of our daily life.

This brings us to now ask the question, "If religious women serve in the Israeli army, does this help, or hinder, our building of a Torah based social culture?" The answer is that it hinders it. I intend to explain how Religious female army service will make it more difficult for young men and women to build the type of family life, centered on the sweetness of Torah, which is the corner stone of Torah social culture.  Religious female army service should be culturally understood as improper and illegitimate, although permitted in a minority of cases. Educators should not present army service as a legitimate alternative.

Why is female army service likely to weaken a Torah based family life? The simplest, most blatant, hotly denied but demonstrably true reason is that army service erodes our observance of mitzvoth. Army social culture is not user friendly to a life of Torah study and mitzvah observance.

The demands of army life make the daily life of prayer, blessings, kashrut and Shabbat much more difficult to maintain.  These arguments are sociological facts. Sixty years of army service by religious men definitively show that the 30-40% most strongly observant successfully maintain a religious way of life, while the observance of the remaining 60-70% of religious soldiers noticeably declines. Because, as religious Zionists, we believe in the necessity and sanctity of army service, we fight the trend but continue to pay this price of eroded observance with regard to men, but it will be a tragic mistake to also do so with regard to religious women,( destined to be the cornerstone of religious family life), as long as Israel's security does not dramatically require such a sacrifice. Religious women in the army will be much more likely to have the type of non committed, pre-marital romantic relationships with men that sociology shows will delay marriage, and increase the likelihood of divorce.

However, the most significant reason that religious female army service will weaken a Torah based family life, is that it encourages the Torah-false, liberal belief that religious men and women should live/perform similar social cultural roles, as in the contention that 'If men perform combat duty, and command troops, so should women'. Equality of social roles is a dominant, liberal principle that has both benefited and harmed general society. However, Torah family social culture is a  social culture based on separate, but equally important, social roles between men and women. Simply, Torah social wisdom teaches us that battle combat and army life is a social role of men and not of women. Teaching that religious female army service is not  proper and not legitimate is a very meaningful  way to teach  the more important Torah principle that men and women should hold differing, yet complementary and equal, social roles in the religious family and in the religious community.

Religious men and women have different, but equal, social roles because G-d created us with differing spiritual personalities and abilities. Men and women contribute equally, but differently, to creating an everyday family life where G-d and Torah play an exciting, appealing and important role. National religious women have blessedly created a social revolution over the last generation with their secular and Torah, professional and educational, accomplishments. The national religious community is thus currently challenged to reunderstand the gender distribution of family and community social roles. To create and maintain a flourishing, meaningful Torah family social culture requires us now find a new balance between the learning, creativity and professionalism/careerism of both men and women, and the demands of religious family life, demands that require tremendous emotional and time investment. (This will be a major topic of the column). However legitimizing religious female army service will make this reunderstanding of religious family gender roles more difficult. It is a step backward, and not a step forward, as certain liberal religious educators would have us believe.

In brief, religious female army service is wrong because it contradicts the basic principle of Torah social culture that men and women have been given differing spiritual personalities, and have thus been assigned by the Torah differing, but equally significant, gender roles. Combat is for men and not for women. Religious women can continue to make blessed strides in learning, creativity and career without army service.  Religious female army service will   hinder our ability to meet the challenge of creating meaningful religious family life through the incorporation of the amazing accomplishments of this generation of religious women.