Friday, July 10, 2009

The Controversy over the IDF Chief Rabbi: Should Girls Serve in the IDF

Last week, IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Avihai Ronsky raised an apparent ruckus in secular Israeli society when he said that "women should not have to serve in the military." This had secular lawmakers, pundits, journalists and the like in a tizzy for his apparently insensitive remarks. "How dare the head of the IDF - who's the head of the entire army, both men and women, express a sentiment that up to half of the army shouldn't really be serving!"
(1) Was Rav Ronsky right that women shouldn't serve in the army? (2) And should he have the right to express that opinion while serving as the head of the IDF?
(1) Of course and (2) Yes.
In the Religious Zionist world, it's very much taken for granted that serving in the IDF constitutes a breach of both tzniut, and the appropriate place for women in society. In general when you take a bunch of young people and put them in close quarters, you'll find that it's almost impossible for them to maintain any semblance of religious standards of modesty. (See Exhibit A: The American College Campus.) That's especially true in the IDF. Moreover, Judaism has always attributed different roles for men and women - and fighting in an army does not constitute a fulfillment of a role that Judaism attributes to its young ladies. This is not me talking - it's pretty much every rabbinic authority in our community, who universally discourages religious girls from serving. (The desire on the part of women to serve in the IDF is not insignificant and requires special attention - but I'll deal with that in another post.)
Should Rav Ronsky have expressed his opinion? I think so, for two reasons: first and foremost, as a rav he's obligated to tell the truth; to say it the way that he sees it. The fact that he's a member of the IDF does not negate the fact that he's first and foremost a Jew, and a rav with an allegiance to Torah and halachah. Moreover, he sees himself as obligated to infuse the army with classical Jewish values, and sometimes to do that you have to express uncomfortable truths.
But there's an important subtext to this entire brouhaha. Rav Ronsky has been at the forefront of returning a sense of Jewish identity and religious values to what has long been a very secular army. His efforts were particularly apparent in the recent Gaza war, where army rabbis were embedded in combat units, encouraging and supporting soldiers in the field. They gave them a strong sense of mission and purpose, and the results were clear and apparent.
Secular Israeli society sees Rav Ronsky and his successes. They also see a rising number of committed, passionate religious soldiers and especially officers, coinciding with a dwindling number of secular soldiers, many of whom are now avoiding service. (Combine that with what will soon be an entire Nachal Chareidi Brigade, and they're really worried.)
This is why they look for any and every opportunity to attack Rav Ronsky. They're afraid not only of what he's done, but how far he'll go. The army is a fundamental cultural value in Israel. It colors everything that happens in Israeli society. If the army grows more religious, so will the broader society.
And while that might make secular members of the Knesset worried, it makes me - and many people like me quite happy.