Leaders from the liberal wing of Israeli Orthodoxy banned their followers from serving in certain mixed-gender army units in a letter published Wednesday, also calling on IDF heads to show sensitivity to religious soldiers and not push them into a “ghetto” within the army.
Their ruling came amid harsh criticism of a more hardline rabbi, Yigal Levinstein, who heads a religious Zionist yeshiva and pre-military academy, who recently described female religious soldiers as “not Jewish.”
The letter, signed by 13 rabbis and a female head of a women’s pre-military academy, banned religious soldiers from serving in combat units such as Caracal, a mixed-gender infantry battalion. The signatories included rabbis Shlomo Riskin and David Stav and Rabbanit Michal Nagen, as well as the Beit Hillel organization, a modern Orthodox rabbinic group that promotes inclusiveness.
They wrote that although serving the country, whether in the army or through national service, is a religious obligation, there are limits as to what Jewish law permits. They wrote that integration of men and women within the IDF is important and necessary and in most units male and female soldiers are able to serve together within the parameters of Jewish law. However, they raised a red flag when it came to service in mixed-gender combat units.
The IDF has in recent years been increasing the integration of female soldiers in combat units, most recently launching a pilot program to train women as infantry soldiers and eventually assign them to tank units guarding Israel’s borders. The move has raises hackles in the religious community, many of whose male members serve in combat units and consider serving in close proximity to women immodest.
The rabbis stressed that they were not calling for men and women to serve separately and did not want the army to force religious soldiers into a “ghetto” within the IDF. However, they said, units where males and females share the same barracks and where there is close physical contact between the sexes are forbidden by Jewish law.
“In most units joint service of boys and girls does not require shared physical activities and does not require them to live in the same barracks,” they wrote. “Therefore we see no halakhic issue with the vast majority of such frameworks. However, there are some combat units in the army, for example Caracal… for which we have not yet found solutions to ensure the required level of separation. Therefore as things stand it is forbidden to serve in those units.”
They called on the heads of the IDF to “show sensitivity to the religious community and to allow it to observe its values and beliefs without requiring it to withdraw into its own ghetto within the army.”
Rabbi Yaakov Medan, one of the heads of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in the West Bank town of Alon Shvut and a signatory to the letter, wrote of changes in the army’s ideology, which he said sometimes put it at odds with the values of religious Zionism.
“We love the army and value it tremendously,” he said, according to the religious news site Srugim. “We want to integrate as equals in all units. However, the IDF, led by the chief of staff’s adviser on gender issues, is trying to re-educate us and to force us into a culture we are not accustomed to. And this we cannot accept.”
He said the new direction the army was taking would lead to a drop in the number of religious soldiers enlisting.
“I believe in the army. I served in the army, including in the reserves, until the age of 59,” he wrote. “All my children served in the IDF — all my boys in elite units. I believe in the army. And I tell you that in the past two years something terrible has occurred which is taking us backwards.”
Medan accused the chief of staff of having gradually broken all of his promises to the religious community, making it difficult for religious soldiers.
“We sat for many months… and came up with a resolution called ‘proper integration. This was our final position… Now everything has been undone and we have ‘mixed service,'” he said.
Medan claimed that some within the military have been trying intentionally to push religious soldiers to the fringes of the IDF.
“The danger is also for boys, but primarily for girls. I am not saying they should not enlist, but we must all fight vocally against this.”
The debate about female service in combat units has been raging for years, but was reignited last week when video emerged of Levinstein, who heads a religious pre-army academy and hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Eli, saying female soldiers were not Jews and that military service drives them “crazy.”
The footage, broadcast on Channel 2 news, generated a harsh backlash, and on Wednesday Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to withdraw accreditation from the Eli academy if Levinstein didn’t resign.