Col. Amir Baram, commander of the Israel Defense Forces paratroopers brigade, has no doubts. "A soldier who says he doesn't feel like jumping because his parachuting instructor is a woman cannot be a combatant. The issue isn't open to discussion," an officer Baram's command said this week.

Last month a religious soldier refused to parachute because he had a female instructor. The physical contact between a parachuting instructor and a paratrooper jumping from a plane is minimal. Mostly it is merely a pat on the parachute on the soldier's back. But military regulations allow a religious soldier to ask for a male instructor instead of a female one.

On the face of it, the IDF's regulations are vague enough to leave commanders a wide margin of discretion. The General Staff relies on the field officers' judgment to solve problems that arise and avoid conflict. In reality it isn't that easy. In quite a few cases, commanders apparently are afraid of confronting soldiers - or rather their rabbis - on religious issues. When the regulations are not clear, the commanders give way to religion. Many commanders feel it is better to give in than to get into trouble.

The next confrontation is brewing over female instructors for religious soldiers. A document issued by the Chief of Staff's adviser on women's affairs, reported by Haaretz last year, cited several cases in which field-unit soldiers refused to receive instruction from women, claiming it could lead to forbidden physical contact.

The disobedient paratrooper is not alone - field-unit commanders say they detect a growing trend. Soldiers from hesder yeshivas, which combine military service with religious studies, protested when they had female instructors for shooting, artillery and other activities.

This kind of disobedience is relatively new and reflects a more extreme religious approach. Reserve officers who served with hesder soldiers in the 1970s and 1980s say thousands of religious students were trained by female instructors without a murmur.

The officers school where a scandal over women's singing broke out in September is now hammering out a lesson plan to teach future officers how to command soldiers from different religious and ideological backgrounds. The plan emphasizes the precedence of the military discipline and framework.

Four of the nine religious cadets who walked out of a ceremony in which female soldiers sang in September were ousted from the infantry officers course. Two of them were allowed to take the course again.

As in an argument over the wording of the Yizkor prayer, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz made an effort to clarify the regulations dealing with women's status in the army after the uproar in the officers school. But numerous similar incidents are giving the IDF a bad reputation, even among its well-wishers overseas.

In the middle of the month a delegation of retired, senior American officers, including generals with three and four stars, visited Israel. The visitors showed understanding toward internal Israeli conflict over fighting terror in civilian population centers. But they had no tolerance for the involvement of civilian rabbis in the army, or for women's exclusion.

"A chaplain, like a priest, has one duty only - to provide religious services," one of them said. "Nobody in Washington can understand or accept incidents of offending women or infringing on their dignity. If you continue this way, you will lose your friends in the world."