Former IDF Education and Personnel head Elazar Stern, known for his shapr criticism of Religious Zionists, called for an end to what he said was “a move to the far religious right” on the part of rabbis of the National Religious community.
In an interview with the Hebrew newspaper, Makor Rishon, Stern said that there was a hyper-sensitivity to issues of modesty among many IDF soldiers who have studied at yeshivot associated with the National Religious movement, with what he termed "many innovations" that were harming the morale and performance of religious soldiers.
Stern, a controversial figure who wanted to eliminate the hesder yeshiva program and denigrated its service when he was head of IDF Education, this despite the overwhelming number of heroes and officers it has spawned, made the comment on the backdrop of an incident last week, in which nine religious IDF soldiers left a performance where female soldiers sang. Four of them were later sent to the brig.
The group had been refused permission to leave even though they said that they had been instructed by their rabbi to leave in order to avoid violating the halakhic law against hearing live singing performances by women.
“We know how there is always a greater need for lawyers, since the government is always passing new laws,” said Stern, arrogantly, ignoring the fact that women's singing, often purposefully sensuous, is a clear halakhic prohibition. There are rabbis who feel that recorded singing, group singing, and performances through microphones may be heard, but that is not the case for all rabbis. The law is based on the many safeguards in Jewish law for preserving modesty between the sexes and the unique relationship between husband and wife.
“It's the same way with rabbis, who are always coming up with new religious regulations that get more absurd", he was quoted as saying. "Questions that come up, for example, include whether it is permitted for a father to attend a party for his third grade daughter, and some rabbis are opposed to that.”
Stern, who is observant himself, said that he was a product of some fine yeshivot, but said surprisingly that he had not been taught many of the laws that seem to be "in vogue" today, including bans on being present during a female singing performance.
He has, however, succeeded in turning much of the religious Zionist community against him. “So much of religious life is to be able to overcome your own feelings and desires in the face of a challenge to your beliefs,” he said. “It's an individual matter, and religious soldiers who wish to observe these laws should be doing it on an individual basis, without dragging the entire IDF behind them. In the end, secular Israelis who see this behavior end up hating not only the religious, but religion itself."
However, the soldiers did not attempt to "drag the IDF behind them" or foist their beliefs on the army, only asking, as is done in the United States, for example, to act in accordance with their religious beliefs in a non-combat situation.
Stern directly criticized the soldiers who walked out on the performance, rather than criticizing the officer who did not respect their right to choose their level of religious observance as long as it does not interfere with fighting ability. “They need to be smarter about these things,” he said. “One of the biggest issues today in the IDF is Jewish identityf" In his opinion, "concentrating on the minutiae of laws on modesty in the context of the IDF hurts that effort, and hurts religious Zionism itself.”