This past week an organization called “Forum of Reserve Rabbis,” a group of rabbis who serve as reserve soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, released a new 50-page booklet roughly titled in English, “And he was a holy apprentice: Modesty laws for soldiers.” The book is intended to provide male soldiers with guidelines to maintain strict religious principles in a primarily secular and co-educational army.

The booklet set off a firestorm with former defense minister and current Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who slammed the publication.

According to a report by Israel Hayom, Lieberman posted on social media that the booklet represents an “attempt to turn the IDF into the ‘army of Hashem,’ with conduct resembling that of a haredi kollel [ultra-Orthodox learning institution] and part of the same messianic worldview that has penetrated Israeli society, and which seeks to damage the fabric of life and the status quo on religion and state issues.”

The booklet and accompanying reaction go to the core of a major internal socio-religious debate in Israel, whereby ultra-Orthodox males receive government-mandated exemptions from mandatory army service, while other Jewish males and females are required to serve in the IDF or perform national service, creating inequalities in the burden of defending the country.

Lieberman, in particular, who has sat for the better part of the past 20 years in government with right-wing and religious parties, is refusing to bring his eight-member Yisrael Beiteinu Party into a new right-wing and religious party-backed government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

He claims that his refusal stems primarily from the government’s unwillingness to pass a defense ministry-drafted IDF conscription bill that sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox (haredi) enlistment, which if not met would result in financial sanctions on the student’s learning institutions.

Lieberman called for the booklet to be banned and for the rabbis that endorsed it to be barred from IDF service.

Then-Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman observes an army drill in northern Israel, Aug. 7, 2018. Photo by Basel Awidat/Flash90.

‘Good for soldiers to have something in writing’

Itamar Segal, an IDF officer (res.) in the paratroopers brigade and the head the Forum of Reserve Rabbis, says the booklet was written in response to the large number of religious soldiers contacting his organization with halachic questions on how to appropriately interact with the female soldiers serving with them.

He adds that the booklet is appropriate for all soldiers, whether ultra-Orthodox, part of the national religious camp or even secular, explaining that “it is important for all soldiers to be part of an army which is modest,” referring to Torah-based guidelines for Jewish army described in the book of Deuteronomy.

Segal says that while the soldiers can turn to the IDF rabbinate for guidance, “they are not always available. It is good for the soldiers to have something in writing.”

A copy of the booklet obtained by JNS shows a listing of various questions broken down by categories religious soldiers might need answered in order to navigate a co-ed environment.

For example, the booklet forbids religious men from serving in a co-ed combat unit and addresses questions of yichud (situations in which a man and a woman may be together in a non-public environment), and even calls for male soldiers to walk out of an official ceremony with female singers.

Israeli soldiers in the Neztah Yehuda Battalion (“Nahal Haredi”) complete the final stages of a 40-kilometer journey during the night on Feb. 16, 2010. Other military practices are being debated by a group of rabbis in Israel. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90.

Idit Shafran Gittleman, researcher in the Center for Security and Democracy at the Israel Democracy Institute who has written extensively on women’s service and gender equality in the IDF, sees the issues and substance of the booklet as problematic.

She tells JNS that “the main danger in the booklet is for a religious soldier who might stand in conflict between what the rabbis say and what the army says.” In other words, Shafran Gittleman feels the booklet almost encourages soldiers to disobey orders.

The disagreements demonstrate the difficulties in integrating religious men into a secular army, and what happens when religious issues become partisan political issues infused with harsh rhetoric on all sides.

Shafran Gittleman says that “instead of listening to Lieberman, a religious soldier should see how the IDF acts. Today it is possible to be a religious soldier. The army provides you with the ability to be a strictly religious person and serve. The haredi soldiers already don’t have to see women—I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but that’s a fact.”

Idit Shafran Gittleman, researcher in the Center for Security and Democracy at the Israel Democracy Institute. Credit: Courtesy.

She also points out that “the army is even more accommodating for religious soldiers today. Lieberman can say whatever he wants. I’m not getting involved in politics, but there are challenges for women, too, and women aren’t exempt even with challenges. You have to serve, and the IDF puts a lot of effort into helping you get over those challenges, perhaps more than any other organization in Israel.”

In particular, religious brigades within the army, such as “Nahal Haredi” (Netzah Yehuda Battalion), have been designed specifically to cater to the needs of religious soldiers. While still small, these brigades are steadily growing in popularity and provide greater incentive for religious males to join the military.

Meeting religious needs in the military

IDF Sgt. (res.) Avichai Wachsberg, who recently finished serving in the Nahal Haredi unit, tells JNS that “the army guaranteed from the get-go that my religious needs would be met.” He believes that the IDF kept its word.

Wachsberg says Lieberman’s comments were inappropriate and understood how the booklet could be helpful for religious soldiers in the other branches of the army, though he felt it would be unnecessary for his unit as interactions with women in the army for Nahal Haredi soldiers were basically non-existent.

“Our unit didn’t encounter many of the issues discussed in the booklet, as we had no interaction with female soldiers.” He adds that “we were also given the highest level of kashrut standards and a set time for tefillah [prayers] each day.”

Wachsberg explains that despite the efforts made to facilitate a religious lifestyle in the army, most ultra-Orthodox rabbis still prefer their disciples not to serve. Meanwhile, members of the national-religious camp encourage their sons to join the army and even to serve as officers.

Israel Beiteinu Party leader Avigdor Lieberman outside his home in Nokdim, in the West Bank, the day after the second Israeli elections on Sept. 18, 2019. Photo by Flash90.

For his part, Lieberman has previously served in Knesset as a member of the National Union, one of the country’s national-religious parties.

Forum of Reserve Rabbis’s Segal tells JNS that by slamming the publication of the booklet, Lieberman is just pandering to his political base.

“Lieberman didn’t even read the booklet,” claims Segal, “maybe because of the possibility of a third election, he came out against it.”

In regard to whether or not Lieberman’s comments might cause a religious soldier to try to avoid the army, Segal doesn’t think it will have any affect.

“We love the army, and we love to serve. We won’t be influenced by someone who might once again become the defense minister,” he says. “What I’m doing [through the booklet] is saying to a soldier who wants to do his job: ‘You can keep halachah the best way you can.’ ”

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