Modesty in the army is problematic. So it is today, and so it was in the past. As the Torah states in last week’s parshah: “When you go out as a camp against your enemies, you must avoid everything evil…because God, your Lord, makes His presence known in your camp, so as to deliver you and grant you victory over your enemy. Your camp must therefore be holy. Let Him not see anything lascivious among you, and turn away from you” (Deuteronomy 23:10-15).
“Everything evil” refers to all Torah transgressions, but a special emphasis is placed on prudence in matters of modesty, as the Torah states: “Let Him not see anything lascivious among you” (see Avodah Zarah 20b).
Claims from the Secular Public
Occasionally we hear tough and insulting claims from secular people: Why are the religious so afraid of women? Is it impossible for them to be in the company of women without sinning?! Are they unable to hear them sing without thinking about transgressions?
Just recently, a female soldier was sent to demonstrate to paratroopers how to parachute. Religious soldiers claimed the demonstration was immodest, but she could not understand what was immodest about it and was insulted. Her mother, a senior left-wing media personality, publicized the incident, and the secular media began attacking religious soldiers.
It is worth noting that her father, Aharon Haliva, as a colonel and commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, once said in relation to the Hesder yeshiva soldiers who served under him: “I hate and cannot suffer the Hesder program. I think it carries no value.” He did not apologize. Due to the helplessness of representatives of the religious public – both the ultra-Orthodox and the national religious – he is now a general.
Incidentally, a reservist army rabbi who underwent parachute training course told me that, indeed, training with a woman instructor is very immodest, and the fact that the army assigns a female guide to religious soldiers constitutes a gross lack of consideration.
The Goal of Modesty
The goal of modesty is to safeguard family and social life, to protect the covenant between husband and wife, and to protect society from the multiplicity of adultery, betrayal, and feelings of profound disloyalty, which are among the worst problems that can overwhelm a person.
Modesty also creates a purer social atmosphere that allows for pleasant and polite relationships between people. For this purpose, the Torah ordered the restriction of relations between the genders and the maintenance of modest attire, clean speech, and modest social behavior, with respect, politeness, and a certain distance between men and women.
In practice, the boundaries of modesty are rooted in the Torah and the words of the Sages, and their offshoots are found in the customs of Jewish communities. Sometimes certain customs change and other practices arise, and when the Sages see that no breach is caused, they become accepted in Judaism. The goal is always to protect the values of family and society.
In other words, it’s not that the Torah fears that every breach of modesty will immediately lead to an offense; rather, the preservation of norms builds the proper framework for a suitable family and social life.
It is worth noting that the sense of modesty is an acquired one. A person who is accustomed to certain norms of modesty feels a jarring shudder in his heart when they are violated, while anyone who is not used to them will feel nothing. The halacha’s goal is for Jews to acquire this sensitivity so that they will feel a shudder when it is violated and return to proper behavior.
The Secular Have No Right to Preach
If secular society proved that it could safeguard the family and society even when one does not observe all the norms of modesty accepted in Jewish tradition, its claims would have to be considered since some of the norms of modesty depend on customs that are contingent on a specific time and place, and when reality changes – indicating there is no need to observe a certain custom and adherence to it damages other values – it is gradually abolished with the consent of the Sages.
However, in practice, when the reality is that cases of infidelity, adultery, and sexual harassment are far more prevalent in secular society than religious society, and consequently family values are harmed – by the multiplicity of divorces and children growing up with one of their parents not significantly present in their lives – the secular public is not morally entitled to demand a change in religious society. On the contrary, the secular public should return to its roots and learn from the Torah and the Sages of Israel how to safeguard the values of the family.
To be sure, even with modesty barriers, not all members of the religious public are able to maintain family values and proper behavior at all times. And, even without the rules of modesty, not all members of the secular public breach them. But the rules of modesty place the religious public in a much better place.
A Personal Story of a Soldier
A man wrote to me about his experiences in the army: “In our armored company, about a third of the soldiers were religious, mostly yeshiva students. From time to time a female soldier or several female soldiers would come to ask for help or to be accompanied on a certain mission. They almost always asked religious soldiers to come with them.
“Later, when we were talking to the platoon commander, one of the yeshiva students asked why the female soldiers always asked for help from the religious…. When the platoon commander began to answer, ‘They prefer the religious because…,’ one of the religious soldiers shouted, ‘Why? I’ll tell you why. They just want to cause us to sin! It’s just not right!’
“The officer looked at him in amazement and said, ‘To cause you to sin? They say explicitly that they cannot stand the attitude of the regular soldiers, and they always claim that only the religious soldiers respect them, or at least are ashamed to be so rude to them.’”
In other words, despite the fact that some religious soldiers behave improperly and some secular soldiers behave properly, the norms of modesty shape men who are more polite and respectful.
Why the Challenge is Greater in the Army
The challenge of modesty in the army is particularly difficult, which is why the Torah commands Israel to preserve the holiness of the camp with greater rigor, stating: “Your camp must therefore be holy.” Apparently, soldiers, who are under the stress of hard training and danger, seek to release themselves from the pressure, and the easiest way to do is through lightheadedness, profanity, and lewdness.
In addition, the need to fight breaches normal frameworks – suddenly a terrible thing such as killing people becomes permissible. All of a sudden, the soldier finds within himself emotional and potent powers that he was not aware of, and if he does not take care to fence himself in, these life forces can deviate in negative directions. Therefore, the Torah warns soldiers to guard themselves from everything evil.
In addition, when a person is with his family, he safeguards himself from licentiousness, but when he goes into the army, all the usual arrangements are infringed, and the fear of violating frameworks grows. After they return home, soldiers must build their families, and if they violate the laws of modesty and sanctity, they will inflict psychological harm on themselves and will not be able to fully love their partner since modesty and holiness are the basis for building love in a family.
Breaches in modesty in the army do not only bother religious soldiers and the wives of army officers. Quite a few secular soldiers also dislike the crude talk and promiscuous relations between male and female soldiers. At times they participate in immodest behavior, but they admit that it is inappropriate.
Responsibility of the Leaders
In light of all the above, it would be appropriate and desirable for society as a whole not to have compulsory recruitment for women. If women wish to join the army, they should serve in all-female units. If the secular public insists on conscription for women and mixed combat units, at the very least, the leaders of the defense establishment must be asked to grant members of the religious public the right to serve according to their values and beliefs.
Currently, the religious public does not receive this right, and the responsibility to insist on it rests with the leaders of the religious and ultra-Orthodox public and their rabbis. Even if the heads of the defense establishment are not convinced of the justness of halachic modesty values, their fulfillment must be demanded at least within the framework in which religious soldiers serve.
The Social Danger
I recently participated in the inauguration ceremony of my son who enlisted in the Hesder yeshiva program. The event as a whole was exciting, but I also saw how much the army mixes men and women, creating frustration among members of the religious-Torah public for whom halacha is a formative value, and that the mixed framework is not suitable for their way of life.
On the bench behind me sat the father of one of the yeshiva students, and as the female soldiers and officers entered the grounds, he whispered in my ear: “Rabbi Melamed, we lost the battle, the situation in the army is lost.”
I know that if that’s what he had to say, not only will the ultra-Orthodox public not enlist in meaningful army service, but members of the chardal public will move over to the ultra-Orthodox camp if the situation does not improve, and members of the Torani public will stop sending their sons for meaningful army service despite the enormity of the mitzvah to do so.
In other words, at stake is not just a violation of the honor and faith of members of the Torah public; we are facing a national-social danger as current conditions are liable to cause a wide public to move – out of disappointment and despair – from devoted and idealistic cooperation with members of the secular public toward the ultra-Orthodox public. They will not only refrain from serving in the military; they will also sabotage the recruitment process of charedim into the army.
This article originally appeared in Israel’s Besheva newspaper. It was translated from Hebrew and slightly condensed. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Bracha.