Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef on Saturday night said that it is forbidden for women and ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or perform national service.
In his weekly sermon, Yosef spoke about the upcoming Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenists. The chief rabbi claimed that yeshiva students did not fight in the religious war against the Greeks 2,000 years ago because those learning Torah were exempt from all army service.
Despite explaining that women played a crucial part in the battle against the Greeks, and that the turning point in the war was when Jewess Judith beheaded the Greek general Holofernes, Yosef told followers that women may neither serve in the Israeli army nor carry out national service.
Citing a minority opinion by the 15th century Jewish commentator Radbaz, Yosef claimed that even though women were commanded to go to war in certain cases in Jewish history, they were only permitted to clean and cook, but never took part in the fighting.
Yosef also said that “if we would follow the Torah, many [military] tragedies would be averted.”
All the chief rabbis of Israel have ruled that it is forbidden under Jewish law for women to serve in the army, starting with a 1950 decision by Israel’s Chief Rabbis Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, though several former chief rabbis have actively encouraged national service.
However, Yosef extended the prohibition for women to national service, which provides religious Jewish women, and others who receive exemptions from army service, with a year-long volunteer program instead of army service. His father, the late former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, also opined that it is forbidden for women to perform national service and enlist in the military.
Yosef has made the same assertion in a recently published book.
Even before the State of Israel was created in 1948, women played an important role in the Haganah, the forerunner to the country’s military, today the region’s most powerful. Currently men are required to serve two years and eight months after they turn 18, while women serve two years.
Women’s roles had historically been confined to such positions as nurses or radio operators — an arrangement undergoing rapid change. Moreover, over the past few years, the number of religious women foregoing an exemption from military service has more than doubled, from 935 in 2010 to 2,159 in 2015, according to the Israel Defense Forces’ Manpower Directorate.
For the third year in a row, the number of female combat soldiers serving in the IDF skyrocketted in 2015. After nearly a decade in which the number hovered at approximately 500, the figure has quadrupled in the past four years. In 2012, some 547 women served in combat roles, while in 2015 — after the creation of the Lions of the Jordan Valley and Cheetah Battalions — 2,104 female soldiers held combat positions, according to the IDF.
The chief rabbi maintained that just as the army has an Air Force, a tank division and an artillery division, there is also a Torah division, made up of the ultra-Orthodox students who are exempt from the IDF because they study full-time in yeshiva.
He also claimed that his father died because of the political battle over yeshiva students serving in the army. “Those wicked people, [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid and his friends, made a law [of ultra-Orthodox draft],” he said. “Maybe the reason that [my father] died is because of his heartache, that they wanted to take all the yeshiva students [to the army].”
Yosef’s father was also known for making controversial statements at his Saturday night sermons, including derogatory comments about Arabs, Muslims and Holocaust victims.
Earlier this month, the IDF finalized the nomination of Eyal Karim as their top rabbi, despite previous statements of his appearing to condone rape during wartime and despite his opposition to women serving in the military.
In the past month there has been a heated debate regarding women’s role within the military as more roles become available to women. A former general, Yiftach Ron-Tal, claimed the proposal to integrate women into tank brigades is a “scandal,” and part of a conspiracy by far-left organizations to harm the Israel Defense Forces.
Today, some 92 percent of army positions are available to women, according to the IDF. The remaining 8% include the tank and infantry brigades, which the IDF Medical Corps determined had physical requirements that female physiology could not handle.
AFP, Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.