Thursday, July 02, 2009

Women in the Army and Free Speech

So much for democracy and tolerance.

It was reported today that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief Rabbi Avichai Ronski publicly stated - while in uniform - that women should not perform military service. He was addressing a group of religious female army personnel at the time. For exercising his democratic right to state his views in public, some members of the Israeli Knesset asked for his ouster. From Ha’aretz:

Angry lawmakers demanded on Thursday that Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi dismiss the army's top rabbi over his stated belief that women should not perform military service.

(MK Ophir Pines-Paz said,) "The chief rabbi crossed a red line in his statements and we mustn't allow this to pass. This is a chauvinistic and demeaning comment that encourages draft-dodging and I call on the chief of staff to remove the chief rabbi from his post. The IDF is deserving of a different chief rabbi." … He has since denied making the comment…

"[The rabbi's comments] are primitive and dark," Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz said on Thursday. "There is no place for them in an organization like the IDF, which serves as the army of the people and most of whose personnel is comprised of women."

First of all, he was foolish for stating his view in public. Denying it just compounds his error. In my view as Cheif Rabbi of the IDF he would have been wise to keep that view to himself.

But... he had every right to express his own personal view. Asking for his ouster is no way for a democracy to react. This is a way that a dictatorship would react.

True – there is no constitution in Israel, but a fundamental tenet of any democracy should be freedom of speech. Punishing free speech is a totalitarian act. But then again I sometimes wonder just how much of a democracy Israel is. Most MKs - given the clout will – will often insist on very undemocratic agendas. And sometimes they get them!

But that doesn’t make Pines-Paz any less culpable. I understand the outrage. I don’t even entirely disagree with him. But to call for the ouster of a Chief Rabbi for expressing a personal opinion is just plain wrong. That Rabbi Ronski expressed a religious view – even if he was in uniform at the time– should be his complete and unfettered right. He should not be punished for it.

That said I do not entirely understand Rabbi Ronski’s position. It is the very Charedi one of no army service of any kind for women. Lo Plug. The Charedi point of view is that women should not serve in the army because – as I understand it - it often leads to immoral behavior between its members. In fact the army has a reputation for such behavior between the sexes – deserved or not.

It is certainly true that it would be best for the sexes to remain apart at the late adolescent age when most young people are drafted. But how far do we need to take that? Charedi Poskim even forbid participation in Sherut Leumi. This is an army community service program designed for religious women. They are involved in things like social work for the underprivileged. I am not exactly sure why the Charedi Poskim forbid it. But forbid it they do - to the tune of giving up one’s life rather than serving!

I personally do think there is a place for women - even in the regular army. Not in combat. I am opposed to that. But definitely in the ancillary services. Why shouldn't women be asked to serve their country – same as men – but in non combat services? The army needs those services and could not survive without them. Men are needed for combat and that is how they should be trained. It is very likely that there are not enough men to fill both combat and non combat positions.

Now I do realize that that women undergo basic training and some of them become instructors for men. That could be a problem I suppose and perhaps should be avoided – if possible. Perhaps there are other areas where interaction between male and female army personnel should be avoided too. And perhaps there are some gray areas. These are legitimate areas of concern and discussion.

I believe that these issues can be worked out to satisfy both Halacha and army need. Army rules should certainly be designed to preclude circumstances conducive to immoral behavior. The truth is that the army has a long way to go in that department. Hence its reputation about the immoral behavior. But that can be worked out between Poskim and army personnel to the satisfaction of both. The demands of Halacha and the needs of the army can both be met in my view.

One might object and say that putting men and women in the same working environment in any circumstance will lead to immorality. And that it should be forbidden. But that would mean that even civilian religious women would never be able to work at a job that had men on the premises. This is not the Halacha. If it were - just about every Charedi Yeshiva and Kollel (at least in America) would have to fire their female personnel. A lot of Kollel wives would be out of a job – a job that is often their family’s sole source of income.

That reminds me of a Psak issued by Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg during a question and answer portion of an address given many years ago at the Chicago Community Kollel. He was asked whether it is permitted for women to serve as secretaries for men. He gave an unequivocal answer. He said, No! It was not permitted. Even after repeated attempts by members of an almost entirely Charedi audience to get him to qualify his answer – he remained firm. Men and women should never work together. Period.

That caused quite a stir at the time since the Kollel has several women working in their office. But nothing changed since then. Women still work in their office. Many Charedi women in Chicago work for men. It is obviously not forbidden despite Rav Scheinberg’s Psak.

If it is permitted in the private sector - it should be permitted in the military.

One might ask, why must those women be members of the military? Why not hire civilians? Well for one thing what Halachic difference would that make? For another, why deny the military benefits – which are often much better than civilian benefits to these women? And why not give them the pride of service to God and country?

I have never heard satisfactory answers to these questions. Nor have I heard a satisfactory explanation for the strident opposition to Sheurut Leumi. All I ever hear is ‘The Chazon Ish opposed it!’ ‘All the other Gedolim followed suit.’ ‘That is enough for me.’ That is usually followed up with: ‘How dare you argue with the Gedolim – you ignorant peon!’

To which I now answer: Sticks and stones…