IDF rabbi's loyalties are, first and foremost, with the ultra-Orthodox community
Rabbi Moshe Ravad, Chief Rabbi of the Israel Air Force who heads a program which drafts Haredim, resigned Tuesday, partially due to new IDF instructions that religious cadets must attend ceremonies that feature women singing.
A year and a half ago, on Passover 2010, I took part in the largest Seder organized by the IDF with over 500 participants in Givat Olga. The annual event for "lone soldiers" - mainly immigrants without families in Israel - was attended by an assortment of top brass, but the religious part of the evening was presided over by Lieutenant Colonel Rabbi Ram Moshe Ravad, a veteran chaplain. I remember being favorably impressed with the open atmosphere that Ravad created, transforming a ceremony that is often daunting and protracted, especially for those with little religious background, into an abbreviated, painless and user-friendly experience for the young secular soldiers. For some, this was the first Seder of their lives. Men and women sat together at the tables and yes, Rabbi Ravad also encouraged them to sing, all together, and there was no "female exclusion."
This is the same Rabbi Ravad who announced on Tuesday that he was resigning from his position as rabbinical adviser to the Shahar project that inducts hundreds of ultra-Orthodox annually into IDF service. Ravad's letter to General Orna Barbivai, commander of the Personnel Directorate, leaked to a Haredi website, cited proposed changes to the regulations regarding the service of Orthodox soldiers that were designed to maintain the piety of the soldiers. In addition, a provision was added allowing activity that could do harm to that piety."
Ravad, however, is not resigning from the IDF, as was initially reported. He will continue to serve as the Israel Air Force's chief rabbi for six more months until the scheduled end of his contract with the army. He is simply severing his contacts with the Shahar project. And there is no contradiction between the tolerant and open rabbi who conducted the Seder in 2010 and the hardliner of 2012. Unattributed army sources have accused him of trying to "line up" a rabbinical job after his discharge, but his motives are more deeply based. He may have served as an officer and rabbi in the IDF for nearly thirty years, but he is part of the ultra-Orthodox community, that is where he returns home every night and where his children and grandchildren are educated and find their shidduch.
Like other Haredi men who have spent their working lives in secular environments, he has learnt how to assimilate the contradicting poles of home and work life, but this is possible only as long as the contradiction remains his own personal challenge, once it is thrust out into the open, the dilemma becomes unbearable and a choice has to be made. The recent flurry of controversy over the "exclusion of women" both in civil society and the military has put the service of religious and ultra-Orthodox men alongside women in the IDF under a spotlight. Discreet arrangements and compromises that allowed the induction of a few thousand Haredi men in to specialized roles in the air force and intelligence corps become difficult to maintain when objected to an often over-populist scrutiny by the general and religious media. The edict by senior Haredi leader Rabbi Yossef Shalom Elyashiv against ultra-Orthodox men and women participating in academic and military courses made Ravad's position even more untenable. A military career comes to an end, but he will be a part of the Haredi community until his last day.
This is certainly a setback for the IDF's attempt to boost the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers within its ranks, but it is far from its end. The number of young Haredi fathers leaving yeshiva with no employment qualifications will continue to grow. For many, military service as software programmers and electronic technicians will be the best and only opportunity to gain the necessary skills, experience and status to succeed in the job market. But Rabbi Ravad's personal dilemma will be a constant reminder of how far the army, the Haredi leadership and Israeli society still have to go build frameworks in which these tensions can be resolved.