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Women have been serving in the IDF since its formation. For many Jews, the site of a woman in uniform is a source of pride. Many are unaware, though, that women serving in the army is halachically problematic according to all mainstream poskim ­– both charedi and passionate Religious Zionist.

In light of recent reports of an increase in assaults against women in the IDF, as well as reports that some religious women are being persuaded to join the army against their better judgment, The Jewish Press decided to interview Avner Porat, policy director of Chotam, a Religious Zionist organization that aims to place Judaism at the center of public life in Israel.

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The Jewish Press: Chotam insists that a young religious woman “doesn’t belong in the army, not because of a lack of capability, but because of her obligation to protect her future spiritual standing.” What do you mean?

Porat: While women can successfully perform a wide range of activities, the army is no place for a woman – especially if she’s religious. The mission of an army is to conduct warfare and kill the enemy. This requires attributes opposite to the female character, which is noted for nurturing and giving.

Military service is characterized by callousness and abrasiveness, which can cause lasting emotional damage. Furthermore, the environment in the army is largely non-religious in nature with men and women together day and night, week after week. This immodest situation can adversely affect a person’s religious devotion.

Regarding male soldiers, the situation cannot be avoided because necessity demands that our country have a powerful army. Today, however, with Israel’s increasing population, Tzahal could get by without female soldiers.

Ever since Israel’s pre-statehood battle for Jewish independence, women have fought in the army. What’s changed?

In Israel’s War of Independence, we didn’t have a choice. We were very few in number. We were vastly outnumbered by Arab forces, and everyone who could hold a rifle was needed.

Today, that isn’t the situation. We have far greater manpower, and very often soldiers complain about having nothing to do. Many countries get by without a law requiring women to enlist in the military. We could, too.

What’s the halachic basis for Chotam’s assertion that women don’t belong in the army?

The Gemara states, “It’s a man’s nature to make war, and it’s not a woman’s nature to make war” (Ketubot, 2:2; see also Chinuch, 520, 5-7).

Don’t our Sages also teach, “Everyone goes forth to battle in a milchemet mitzvah, even a groom from his room and a bride from her chuppah” (Sotah 8:7)?

Gedolei Yisrael explain that this means that women support their husbands who go to war and help in the community during wartime – not that they actually serve in the army (Radbaz, Laws of Kings 7:4). The only exception is [if lives depend on them serving] like during Israel’s War of Independence.

Furthermore, all leading poskim today – in both the charedi and Religious Zionist community, emphatically emphasize the conflict between army service and the laws of modesty – which is one of the foundations of Torah.

Many assume that leading rabbis in the Religious Zionist camp support women enlisting in the IDF.

They are mistaken. Every leading Religious Zionist Torah authority forbids young religious women from enlisting in the army. Rav Shlomo Aviner has stated that women are not permitted to serve in the army just like they are not permitted to violate Shabbat.

Some people claim that Rabbi Shlomo Goren, of blessed memory, the first chief rabbi of Tzahal, permitted the enlistment of female soldiers, but he did so only in specific individual cases. Every other chief rabbi of Israel prohibited women from enlisting in the military. Outside of rabbis in the liberal camp of Religious Zionism – who are famous for expressing opinions contrary to the accepted halacha – the rabbinic opposition to women in the military is almost unanimous.

In the past, we publicized a statement signed by dozens of Religious Zionist rabbis who agreed with the Chief Rabbinate’s opposition to religious women enlisting in the IDF, and called upon women to volunteer for Sherut Leumi National Service instead. Among the signers were:

Rav Yaakov Ariel, rabbi of Ramat Gan; Rav Aryeh Stern, chief rabbi of Jerusalem; Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, rosh yeshivat Maale Adumin; Rav Elykym Levanon, rosh yeshivat Elon Moreh; Rav Menachem Bornstein, director of the Puah Institute; Rav David Chai HaKohen, rosh yeshivat Bat Yam; Rav Yehoshua Shapira, rosh yeshivat Ramat Gan; Rav David Avichiel, rosh yeshivat Ramot; and Rav Menachem Perl, director of the Tzomet Institute.

By law, religious girls graduating high school in Israel have to choose between two years of Sherut Leumi and IDF service. How does Chotam attempt to influence their decision?

We send lecturers to schools and ulpanot, and we distribute a variety of pamphlets and literature on the subject. An animated film we made to dramatize the issue went viral on the web.

We also strive to expose organizations that attempt to infiltrate the Department of Education and schools with propaganda programs promoting army enlistment for women.

Which organizations?

There are many pluralistic groups who want to turn Israel into an “enlightened,” Western liberal country. One of their strategies is to encourage religious girls to enlist in the army.

There are rabbis with liberal orientations who lend credence to this campaign. To our chagrin, there also are policy makers in the IDF who, instead of focusing on military matters, engage themselves with widening the enlistment of religious girls by using pressure to carry out their machinations.

Bluntly stated, they take advantage of the idealism and goodwill of these girls, and brainwash them into believing that service in the IDF is far more worthwhile and exciting than national volunteer service in hospitals and kindergartens.

Is it true that religious girls are sometimes inducted against their will.

Indeed, that occurs. According to the law, a girl who testifies before a beit din that she keeps Shabbat and kashrut, and that her religious feelings and beliefs are in conflict with the atmosphere of the army, is supposed to receive an automatic exemption.

However, for the past several years, the military powers-that-be have decided that in every instance where there is a doubt about a girl’s commitment to Judaism, the girl must be summoned to a hearing where she is subjected to an investigation before a final decision is made.

What kind of investigation?

Girls report that the means employed can be offensive and emotionally humiliating. Seventeen-year-old girls are often called to appear at an enlistment center without pre-notice where they are related to with suspicion and doubt and questioned in a harsh manner as if they committed a crime.

If a young girl doesn’t know what the blessing is for lighting candles on Yom Tov which falls on Shabbat, does that mean she isn’t religious? Who has the chutzpah to decide if a girl is truly modest in her ways? In some enlistment centers, cellphones are taken away and checked for “evidence” to prove that the girl is not religious – Facebook photos and the like – which is forbidden by law.

What gives an investigator the right to tell a girl in high school that because she worked as a waitress in a restaurant frequented by men and women, she can serve in the army just as well alongside men? They have also claimed that if the girl is a baalas teshuvah and gets along with her secular mother, she can get along with non-religious soldiers just as well. What’s the connection?

The IDF reports that a greater percentage of Religious Zionist girls are choosing to enlist in the army today than in the past. What are the numbers and why the increase?

Notwithstanding the erroneous and misleading claims of the IDF, which are geared to draw more female enlistment from the religious community, the percentage hasn’t risen in any drastic way. Approximately 2,400-2,700 religious girls enlist each year, which represents 30 percent of the religious high-school graduates.

Some religious girls report that serving in the army didn’t affect their level of religious observance at all. Some even say that their army experience strengthened their characters. Is it possible that Chotam’s fears are exaggerated?

Any girl who enlists in the army does so in defiance of leading Torah authorities – and that in itself is a religious problem. Furthermore, parents, teachers, and many girls themselves relate that army service affected their level of religious commitment in a decisively negative manner.

Doesn’t Sherut Leumi pose its own set of problems – having to work in mixed secular environments like hospitals, for example.

Girls who want to contribute to the nation via Sherut Leumi must surely check out where they will be stationed. But there is a big difference between Sherut Leumi, where girls can’t be forced to do things against their will, and the army, where a soldier has almost no freedom of choice. Either you do what you are commanded or you face punishment.

When a girl in the army encounters a problem, it is very hard to help her from outside. The military system doesn’t allow it.

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