Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Women in the Israeli Defense Forces

Tamar Ariel, OBM (family photo via Ha'aretz)
Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. One must die and not violate. That is the Halacha about 3 particular Miztvos that are deemed so important, that one must give up their life  if necessary in order to observe them.  The 3 Mitzvos are Avodah Zara (idolatry), Shefichas Damaim (murder), and Giluy Arayos (biblical level adultery). So that if someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to murder someone, or worship an idol, or to have sexual intercourse with another man’s wife, Halacha requires one to give up his life and not violate any of those laws.

The term Yehorag V’Al Ya’avor has been used by various contemporary Gedolim for other purposes. Mostly in the context of Arayos (sexual matters). Which is understandable since idol worship today is rare among even the most secular of Jews, and murder is self understood. 

Most famously the Chazon Ish, Rav Avrohom Yeshayhu Karelitz ZTL, declared that a Jewish woman may not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) adding that it was a Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. He made that statement in response to the Israeli policy of drafting all able bodied citizens – male or female – into the army. The Chazon Ish fought for an exemption to the draft for all religious women and he got it. Any woman who declares that she is observant receives an exemption.

Religious Zionist rabbis encourage their women to do Sherut Leumi (national service) in lieu of direct army service – which they also oppose. Sherut Leumi (if I understand correctly) entails various types of social work and Chesed. As a separate all female entity they do not generally interact with male soldiers. Most religious Zionist women opt for that.

The Chazon Ish opposed Sherut Leumi too because he held that since it meant subservience to the military chain of command, women were therefore still subjected to rigid male military authority and they would have the same problems as direct army service would..

So how has all that worked out in our day? Charedi woman do not serve in any capacity. Most Religious Zionist women serve in Sherut Leumi. But this is not 100% the case. What happens when a religious woman joins the army directly? 

There was a story in Jewish Action Magazine a couple of years ago about a Charedi woman who did exactly that. She had always wanted to be a soldier. And she became one. The article described what it was like for her. And although there were challenges along the way, she was able to maintain her Charedi principles and not violate their stringencies and customs. I do not recall her being ostracized even by Charedim. But she was an anomaly.

There are however religious women now that do join the IDF. I assume they are mostly from the Religious Zionist community. What about Yehoreg V’Al  Ya’avor? Don’t Religious Zionist women understand the severity of that Halacha?

I believe that the truth about the  Charedi ‘Yehoreg V’Al  Ya’avor’ attitude here is that it is just a bit of an exaggeration. It is hyperbole to impress upon people just how strong the opposition.

To say that a woman should die before joining the IDF - it would seem to me - is counter to the actual Halacha. It is after all possible (as was demonstrated by that female Charedi IDF soldier) to maintain one’s religious standards - difficult though that may be. No one is putting a gun to a female recruit’s head and telling her that she must violate a Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor when she joins the IDF.

Although it is prohibited to put oneself into a situation that can lead to Aryaos, the severity of Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor is not attached.  Besides, I believe that most even secular women in the IDF are quite moral people and do not sleep around. Although I’m sure it happens. My guess is that the IDF reputation for that is exaggerated. To therefore consider it Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor for a woman to join the army makes absolutely no sense to me at all.

This is not to say that I advocate that all women serve. The fact is that I do not. I oppose army service for women in general for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done right in some cases. The fact is that more than a few religious women have joined  the IDF despite the severity that Charedi leaders have attached to it. And they have joined in a big way.

This was the case with Tamar Ariel. Unfortunately her story does not have a happy ending. She was killed by an avalanche while trekking in Nepal. It is in that context that I have learned that there are some religious women who do in fact join and are competitive with men in some of the most skilled areas of military service. From Ha’aretz:  
Ariel… was Israel’s first female Orthodox navigator. While that is an extraordinary title, held only by her, it is no longer alien to a culture of young Orthodox women who are filling the ranks of the army like never before. From one year to the next, more and more religious girls are choosing to don a uniform. In 2013, for example, their number was 1,616. And it’s not just a change in quantity, but also quality, as the best of them opt for the army. 
Women representing Aluma, which works together with the army and the Defense Ministry to advise and direct Orthodox girls considering joining the army, are barred from girls’ religious high schools, including state religious schools. But despite the opposition of spiritual and educational leaders in the community, this grassroots trend continues.
Once it was easy to label an Orthodox woman soldier as one who had strayed from the right path. But over the years this has become almost impossible. There is nothing more ordinary today than the many young Orthodox soldiers at Ariel’s funeral at Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak, wearing their long skirts, speaking the language of Torah they learned in a religious girls college(and) Commitment to halakha, Jewish religious law.
Times sure seem to have changed. 

While (as I said) I oppose women serving in the army, I can’t help but admire what Tamar Ariel had done. I am saddened by her sudden tragic death. She seems to have been a great role model for those religious women who might opt for real army service in spite of rabbinic opposition to it. She showed us in her own unassuming way that there is no limit to what anyone - male or female - can do and do right if they have the talent, will, commitment, and moral integrity of a Tamar Ariel. May her memory be for a blessing.