A growing number of religious IDF soldiers have been forced to shave their beards or face jail sentences after military authorities deemed them “not religious enough,” raising debate within the army and in public discourse.
Generally, all soldiers must keep their faces clean-shaven throughout their military service. Exemptions are given only for medical reasons or for religious reasons, as many Orthodox Jews refrain from trimming their facial hair.
A soldier from a traditional family who became religious was recently jailed for 20 days for refusing an order to shave, Hebrew-language media reported Tuesday, drawing outrage at the army for not recognizing him as religious.
The mother of the soldier, who serves in the Golani infantry brigade, told Hadashot TV that her son had never shaven his beard, for religious reasons.
“He has consulted a rabbi since his bar mitzva and he fasts on all the fast days,” she said. “When he traveled abroad with friends his suitcase was full of food because he only eats kosher. It’s his belief.”
“Who can decide how religious he is and what is a religious person? This is a person with his own belief. If he is willing to be arrested I think that should be given significance,” she added.
On Monday, Israeli media reported that an observant soldier — also from the Golani brigade — was punished for refusing to shave after he didn’t know what section of the Torah was being read the following Shabbat at synagogues, when asked by the rabbi of his army base.
The soldier was reportedly asked no further questions about religion. Even so, he received a letter saying his request for a permit was rejected since he didn’t fit the criteria for a religious soldier entitled to grow a beard.
After refusing the order, he was demoted to cleaning bathrooms in his unit’s base.
“We are very concerned about the trend led by the IDF chief [Gadi Eisenkot], in which soldiers requesting to grow beards for religious reasons are required to take stupid tests,” said attorney Yael Tothani of the Tzav 1 advocacy group, which represents the soldier.
“It’s illegal. A ridiculous test can’t determine whether someone is religious or not,” she said.
The army responded to both cases by saying the soldiers had met several times with rabbis from their units, and that in light of their impression the authorized body decided not to issue permits.
“The IDF respects the feelings and ways of life of all its soldiers, religious and secular alike,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said.