Why modesty is critical in the IDF

In contrast to the insulting remarks about religious soldiers claiming  that they are afraid to be in the company of women, the Torah teaches a much broader goal meant to protect family and society.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 00:00

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Issue of Modesty in the Army

The issue of modesty is one of the troubling issues in the army. So it is today, and so it was in the past. As the Torah states in this week’s parsha: “When you go out as a camp against your enemies, you must avoid everything evil… This is because God your Lord makes His presence known in your camp, so as to deliver you and grant you victory over your enemy. Your camp must therefore be holy. Let Him not see anything lascivious among you, and turn away from you” (Deuteronomy 23:10-15).

In general, the meaning of the Torah’s instruction to the camp to guard against “everything evil” refers to all the transgressions of the Torah, but a special emphasis is placed on prudence in matters of modesty, as it is written: “Let Him not see anything lascivious among you” (see, Avodah Zarah 20b).

Claims of the Secular

Occasionally we hear insulting claims from secular people: Why are the religious so afraid of women? Is it impossible for them to be in the company of women without sinning?! Are they unable to hear them sing without thinking about transgressions?

Just recently, a parachutist female soldier was sent to demonstrate the process of parachuting to paratroopers, and the religious soldiers claimed that the incident was immodest. She could not understand what was immodest about it, and was insulted. Her mother, a senior left-wing media personality, publicized her daughter’s being insulted, and the secular media began attacking religious soldiers.

It is worth noting that her father, Aharon Haliva, as a colonel and commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, once said of the Hesder yeshiva soldiers that served under him: “I hate and cannot suffer the Hesder program. I think it carries no value”. He never apologized. Due to the ineffectiveness of the representatives of the religious public, both the haredi and the national religious – in the Knesset, and in the government – he is now a general.

Incidentally, a reservist army rabbi who had undergone a parachute training course told me that indeed, training a parachutist by a woman instructor is very immodest, and the fact that the army assigns a female guide to religious soldiers is a gross lack of consideration.

The Goal of Modesty

The goal of modesty is to safeguard family and social life, to protect the covenant between husband and wife, and to protect society from the prevalence of adultery, betrayal, and feelings of profound disloyalty, which are among the worst problems that can overwhelm a person. Preventing these terrible troubles is not the only reason, modesty is meant to create a more pure social atmosphere that allows for a pleasant and polite relationship between people. For this purpose, the Torah ordered the restriction of relations between the sexes and the maintenance of modest attire, clean speech, and modest social behavior, with respect, politeness, and a certain distance between men and women.

In practice, the boundaries of modesty are rooted in the Torah and the words of the Sages, and their offshoots are found in the customs Jewish communities. Sometimes certain customs change and other practices arise, and when the Sages see that no breach is caused, they become accepted in Judaism. The general trend is to protect the values ​​of family and society.

In other words, the basis is not fear that any breach of the norms of modesty will immediately lead to an offense, but that the preservation of norms builds the proper framework for a suitable family and social life.

It is worth noting that the sense of modesty is an acquired one. A person who is accustomed to certain norms of modesty feels a jarring shudder in his heart when they are violated, while anyone who is not used to them will feel nothing. The halakha’s goal is for Jews to acquire this trait, so that when the sense of modesty is improved, they feel a shudder when it is violated, and return to proper behavior.

The Secular Have No Right to Preach

If the secular society in civilian life and in the army proved that it is possible to safeguard the family and society even when one does not observe all the norms of modesty as accepted in Jewish tradition, their claims would have to be considered. Some of the norms of modesty depend on what is customary in a specific time and place, and when reality changes, indicating there is no need to observe a certain custom and its continued reality damages other values, with the consent of the Sages it is gradually abolished.

However, in practice, when the reality is that the cases of infidelity, adultery and sexual harassment of all kinds are much more prevalent in secular society than in religious society, and consequently family values ​​are harmed – by the multiplicity of divorces and children growing up where one of the parents is not significantly present in their lives – the secular public is not morally entitled to demand a change in religious society. On the contrary, the secular public should return to its roots and learn from the Torah and the Sages of Israel how to safeguard the values ​​of the family.

True, even after placing the barriers of modesty, not all members of the religious public are able to maintain family values ​​and proper behavior at all times. And on the other hand, even without the rules of modesty, not all members of the secular public breach them. But the rules of modesty are those that allow the religious public, in general, to be found in a much better place.

A Personal Story of a Soldier

In this context, a man wrote to me about his experiences in his regular army service: “In our armored company, about a third of the soldiers were religious, mostly yeshiva students. From time to time a female soldier or several female soldiers would come to ask for help or to be accompanied on a certain mission. They almost always asked religious soldiers to come with them."

"Later, when we were talking to the platoon commander, one of the yeshiva students asked why the female soldiers were always asking for help from the religious… When the platoon commander began to answer 'They prefer the ‘doss’im’ (religious) because…' one of the religious soldiers shouted, 'Why? I’ll tell you why. They just want to cause us to sin! It’s just not right!’ The officer looked at him in amazement and said: 'To cause you to sin? They say explicitly that they cannot stand the attitude of the regular soldiers, and they always claim that only the religious soldiers respect them, or at least are ashamed to be so disrespectful to them.'

In other words, despite the fact that there are religious soldiers who behave improperly, and secular soldiers who behave properly, the norms of modesty shape men who act more politely and respectfully.

Why the Challenge is Specifically in the Army

The challenge of modesty in the army is particularly difficult, and therefore the Torah commands Israel to preserve the holiness of the camp with greater rigor, as it is stated: “Your camp must therefore be holy”. Apparently the soldiers, who are under the stress of hard training and danger, seek to release themselves from the pressure, and the easiest way is by light headedness, profanity and lewdness.

In addition, the need to fight while risking lives breaches normal frameworks – suddenly a terrible thing such as killing people becomes permissible. All of a sudden, the soldier finds within himself emotional and potent powers that he did not recognize, and if he does not take care to set limitations, these life forces can deviate in negative directions. Therefore the Torah comes to warn soldiers to guard themselves from everything evil.

Apart from that, when a person is with his family, he safeguards himself from matters of incest and licentiousness, but when he goes into the army all the usual arrangements are infringed, and the fear of breaching frameworks grows. In addition, there is a fear that soldiers, who are mostly engaged in military matters, training, guard duty, and actions for the people and the country, will come to disregard personal mitzvot, such as guarding their tongues, and thoughts of transgression. Therefore the Torah comes to tell us that the camp of Israel must be holy, and precisely because of its holiness, we will be successful in battle.

After war as well, soldiers must build their families, and if they violate their modesty and sanctity, they will inflict psychological harm on themselves and will not be able to fully love their partner. Modesty and holiness are the basis for building love in the family.

The problems of modesty in the army are not bothersome only for religious soldiers and the wives of army officers. There are quite a few secular soldiers who suffer from the crude talk and the reality of the promiscuous relations between male and female soldiers. At times they also are involved in this, but they admit that it is inappropriate behavior.

Responsibility of the Leaders

In light of all this, it would be appropriate and desirable for society as a whole not to have compulsory recruitment for women, and even if there are women who want to join the army, there should not be mixed field units of male and female soldiers. And if the secular public insists on conscription for women and to create mixed combat units, at the very least, the leaders of the defense establishment must be asked to grant members of the religious public an equal right to serve according to their values ​​and beliefs.

In the current situation, the religious public does not receive this consideration, and the responsibility rests with the leaders of the religious and haredi public and their rabbis. And even if the heads of the defense establishment are not convinced of the justness of halakhic values of modesty, their fulfillment must be demanded at least within the framework in which religious soldiers serve.

The Social Danger

I recently participated in the inauguration ceremony of my son who enlisted in the Hesder yeshiva program. It is important to note that the secular male and female commanders did not intend to do anything wrong; on the contrary, their intentions are good and they try very hard to respect, consider, and take into account the religious soldiers.

The event as a whole was also exciting – to see the ‘Ingathering of the Exiles’, and the Israel Defense Forces prepare cycle after cycle of soldiers to protect the people and the Land. But I also saw how much the army is involved in the mixing of men and women, thus creating frustration among members of the religious-Torah public, for whom halakha is a formative value, and for whom the mixed framework negates their way of life.

On the bench behind me sat the father of one of the yeshiva students, and as the female soldiers and officers entered the grounds, he whispered in my ear: “Rabbi Melamed, we lost the battle, the situation in the army is lost.” I knew that if that’s what he had to say, and his heart felt that way, with all the enormity of the mitzvah to serve in the army, if the situation does not change for the better, not only will the haredi public not enlist in meaningful service, but members of the Chardal (haredi Zionist) public will move over to the haredi public, and there will be members of the Torani public who will stop sending their sons for meaningful service in the army.In other words, this is not only a violation of the honor and faith of members of the Torah public, but a national-social danger, as this situation is liable to cause a wide sector of the public to move, out of disappointment and despair, from devoted and idealistic cooperation with the secular toward the haredi sector – including refraining from military service – not to mention sabotaging the recruitment process of haredi young men into the army.

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



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