Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sherut Leumi? Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor!

Sherut Leumi girls working with children in Bet Shemesh (OU Israel)
I don’t get it. Really. I don’t. In his weekly column in Mishpacha Magazine, Jonathan Rosenblum has lauded the opposition to Sherut Leumi... justifying that opposition by virtue of the recent scandals in the Israeli Police Department. Some of which involved sexual harassment.That, he says, shows that the Gedolim were right in opposing it. 

Sherut Leumi is the national service many women choose in lieu of military service as an option when they are drafted.  They are in fact not under any male military domination. Sherut Leumi is basically mandatory Chesed - doing acts of kindness for the less fortunate. These young women are not under any military commander. They are assigned to serve the underclass, the poor, and the sick. People that are in great need of kindness and compassion.

Under ordinary circumstances this would be considered a great Mitzvah. But the long held position by the Charedi leadership on Sheurt Leumi is Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. One should give up their lives rather than be a part of this Chesed project.

First let me restate my position on military service for women. I am opposed. The military command structure makes it all to easy for women to be taken advantage of by their superior officers. That is why there have been so many cases of sex abuse in the United States military. 

While ardent feminists militate for equal opportunity with men for  women to serve and argue instead for better enforcement of military rules, more effective prosecution of offenders, and more self control in general by men, you can’t fight human nature. The Gemarah  tells us Ayn Apitropus L’Arayos.  Given these circumstances sex abuse is more likely to happen with impunity in the military than anywhere else. It is therefore best to eliminate or at least minimize circumstances that are conducive to such abuse. 

It is true that men and women can and do work together in civilian life. Although sexual harassment is fairly common there too, the conditions are still not the same as they are in the military. This is why the Chazon Ish and other Charedi Gedolim of the past opposed women serving in the military calling it Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. A woman is supposed to give her life first! But they extended that prohibition to Sherut Leumi with the same urgency as military service – Yehorg V’Al Ya’avor.

How anyone can say that Sherut Leumi is the same as military service is beyond my understanding. This is in fact what virtually all Religious Zionist young women do – with the blessing of most (if not all)  Religious Zionist rabbis. Pointing to the police scandal as proof of the wisdom of opposing this service makes no sense. If they are going to use a military type hierarchy where men can order women to do anything they choose that would explain why they would oppose women serving in the police department . 

One can even make an argument forbidding women working with men in the private sector.  In fact many Charedi leaders do make that argument. And yet I do not hear it expressed as Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. And Charedi opposition to that is not universal. Which it is with Sherut Leumi. Many Charedi women do in fact work in the same work space with men. But in Sheurt Leumi, where women are separated from men... that is where they draw the line?! Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor?!

I don’t understand it.  If there is going to be a draft of everyone in Israel with an option for national service then it ought to be apply equally to  every citizen. Sherut Leumi should be an opportunity for all women, including secular women. But that it is at least an option made available to religious women ought to be something the religious community should be grateful for. Not condemn. 

The funny thing is, the Charedi leadership got their way. The government has legislated a complete exemption from doing national service of any kind  for religious women. As long as a woman can show that she is religious, she can apply and receive an exemption. Thankfully most Religious Zionist women do not use that option and serve.

I would ask Jonathan and anyone else in the Charedi world to explain why Sherut Leumi is so vigorously opposed by the Charedi leadership. Some have said that Sherut Leumi’s  mere association with the draft nakes it subject to the same degree of opposition. But if the concern is really one of Arayos (prevention of illicit sex) - then in my view that is an insufficient explanation.

I have heard it said that when the Chazon Ish was asked to explain what the Halachic basis was for his opposition. He answered by was pointing to his heart and saying something like,  ‘I know it in here’. He did not offer a Halachic explanation and indicated knowing it intuitively.

This is where the Charedi version of  Daas Torah come in. It is pronouncements like this where no Halachic basis is offered but is instead based on the intuition of a Gadol that perplexes many of us. 

The Charedi reasoning is as follows. A Gadol’s intuition is based on his superior knowledge of Torah. His vision about what God wants is therefore clearly superior by far than anyone else’s. No matter how learned one is in Torah, their opinions are nullified in comparison to someone like the Chazaon Ish. So that when his decision about Sherut Leumi is made, it is iron clad Daas Torah. Puzzling and counter-intuitive though it may be to the rest of us.

I side with the Religious Zionist rabbis who support Sherut Leumi. True their knowledge of Torah is subordinate to the Chazaon Ish. But when it is so obvious that the reasons for his opposition do not exist, I cannot help but question it. The Chazaon Ish is fallible.

I don’t know how many women who have participated in Sherut Leumi have been sexually harassed or abused. But I would be willing to bet that it is a lot fewer than religious women who opted out of it and chose instead to go to work in the private sector.

If the Charedi leadership is going to continue to have this attitude of Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor, they must provide a Halachic basis for it. Relying on the intuition of a Gadol (or Gedolim) of the past before the system was ever implemented no longer suffices. We now have evidence of its success. The Chesed it provides would probably not exist without it. If they cannot provide a Halachic basis for it, they ought to end their opposition and instead encourage their young women to participate.