The resignation of the Israel Air Force's chief rabbi, Lt. Col. Moshe Ravad, from the Shahar program integrating ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army is a troubling action whose consequences could be dire. In citing his reasons for leaving Shahar, Rabbi Ravad cited possible changes to the program and the Israel Defense Forces' clarifications this week of policies surrounding the controversial issue of women singing at military events.
The Shahar project is the result of a careful, considered effort. Despite criticism from extremist Haredi quarters as well as secular politicians and public figures, it created a precedent that can serve as a template for integrating Haredim into the army and economy.
Haredi society has been in flux for years. The number of men who study full-time has ballooned to destructive proportions: The yeshivas have multiplied far beyond their actual need; their rolls include many fictitious students who can't go on to learn a profession and find a job. This distorted situation has driven Haredi society into poverty, ignorance and even crime.
The cuts to child-support benefits in 2003 and the Tal Committee's recommendations on drafting Haredim into the army, which were made law in 2002, heralded a change. And despite the failure of the Tal Law and the fact that the Netanyahu government, like its predecessors, continues to shower largesse on the yeshivas and the married men who study there, change is coming from the ground up. About 6,000 Haredim are in college and a few hundred study at universities; young Haredi men and women are increasingly entering the workforce and the Shahar program is gathering momentum.
Rabbis in extremist Haredi circles, fearing a loss of control over their followers, are angered by the change. The resignation from Shahar of Ravad, who as IAF chief rabbi ostensibly represents officialdom, adds to a series of extreme separatist declarations, most notably the one last week by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv against Haredi participation in the military and higher (nonreligious ) education.
It's hard not to think that with his announcement Ravad, who will retire from the IDF this summer and is presumably planning his future, was sending a message to the most extreme Haredim, who are waging a political battle. If Ravad is unwilling to accept the new IDF directives, including those requiring religiously observant soldiers to attend ceremonies where women sing, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz must relieve him of his position as IAF chief rabbi as well.
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