Ten years ago, fewer than 15 percent of eligible women from the observant Orthodox community joined the Israeli military each year. Most such young women—in Israeli terms, Zionist-Orthodox, or “religious” but not haredi—took advantage of the exemption from military service that the government grants all religious youths. Many joined the civil national service and served as teachers or nurses or else moved on to academic studies, marriage or work.
One may well object to the religious exemption, and many do, but what’s interesting is that more and more of the young women eligible for exemption are choosing the draft instead. They follow in the footsteps of non-haredi Orthodox men, of whom the vast majority serve in the military. From barely 1,000 female religious soldiers in 2011, the number rose to 1,500 in 2012, 1,800 in 2014 and 2,500 in 2016. Today, the total is approaching 3,000—from a total number of about 8,000 young Zionist-Orthodox females eligible each year.
To understand this development, one must follow three different stories: of the soldiers themselves, of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and of the rabbis who are the main opposition to this growing trend. The female soldiers come from Zionist-Orthodox, not ultra-Orthodox, families (the ultra-Orthodox still overwhelmingly use the exemption)—but by joining the IDF they still defy the ideology of most of the educational institutions from which they come, as well as that of most of the Zionist-Orthodox rabbis.
For the IDF, the situation is simple: It needs high-quality soldiers, and these women provide a pool of well-educated, idealistic, dedicated, disciplined young people. Once the IDF realized the potential of this group, it quickly took steps to make joining the IDF a less frightening choice for them. It monitors their environment more closely so they can serve without compromising their religious practices, providing times for prayer and rooms to which no male soldier or officer has access. To do this, the IDF consults with religious bodies and leaders supportive of the new trend. In a few years, the military expects to draft as many as half of all eligible religious females from Zionist-Orthodox backgrounds, which would put the overall number in the military at around 8,000 at any one time.
What is the rabbis’ role in all this? The rabbis go nuts. Some of them, anyway. One rabbi argued that these women will “destroy the military.” A couple dozen rabbis signed a petition calling on the minister of education (Zionist-Orthodox himself) to refrain from funding any organization that promotes the female draft. An Orthodox NGO made a short video clip arguing that being both religious and a soldier is practically impossible for women: It is impossible to keep their modesty, impossible to keep their femininity, impossible to observe the full range of commandments, impossible to remain firm in their beliefs and practices.
Of course, there is some truth to this. It is more challenging to be observant in the IDF, serving with men and non-religious colleagues in a rough environment, than it would be in a shell. Hence the traditional position of Zionist-Orthodox rabbis has been that women should serve their country as civilians, not in uniform under the command of military men. And although there were exceptions, the norm in these Zionist-Orthodox circles was clear: for men, the IDF, preferably combat units. For women, civil service.
That this norm is crumbling is a result of many factors. Female soldiers in general, religious or not, are better protected from male harassment than before, and they have better opportunities in many roles formerly reserved for men. In fact, one of the most visible symbols of the religious-female revolution in the IDF was an Air Force pilot captain, Tamar Ariel, known as Israel’s “first female Orthodox pilot.” Ariel was tragically killed on a trek four years ago. A prominent pre-military academy for Orthodox women is named after her.
But the improvement in IDF accommodation is hardly the main story. This spot should be reserved for either the growing voice of Orthodox women or the declining influence of Orthodox rabbis. These women are demanding more: They want a role in the synagogue and in communal life, and they want their input taken into account in decision-making. The Orthodox world—in Israel and no less in the United States—has been facing this challenge from within for quite some time now. That it now is manifest in young Orthodox females deciding to break yet another outdated taboo dictated by men is a mere detail. The overarching point is that when Orthodox women take matters into their hands, they are likely to make somewhat different choices from the ones preferred by traditional Orthodox men.
The erosion of rabbinical influence is also part of the story, a trend that is having an impact on many corners of Orthodox life. Outsiders don’t often see it. What they see is rabbis raging against female soldiers, rabbis threatening the IDF with retribution, rabbis using foul language and caught on tape doing so, rabbis warning of grave consequences for those who don’t follow the old rules.
Outsiders see these rabbis and assume that this is a show of power, a sign of growing influence. But it is not. It is a sign of frustration and desperation, of helplessness and impotence. Not even their own young women listen to them anymore. Not even their own young women are scared of their grave warnings. Hell, no. They are soldiers now, and, as is well known, Israeli soldiers don’t scare easily.
Shmuel Rosner is a writer, editor and researcher based in Tel Aviv.