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Women ought not to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Ronski said at a conference two weeks ago.

The conference was attended by several dozen religious women soldiers, and the topic was supposed to be the special problems they face. Most religious women opt to do civilian national service instead of army service.

But Ronski told the women, "I personally think that a priori, women should not serve in the army," adding that no rabbinic rulings authorize women to do so. He has since denied making the comment.

Most Orthodox rabbis, his predecessors included, would agree with Ronski. But most of the others have been careful not to say so while in uniform.

And some of those present, including some Orthodox rabbis and educators, were furious at Ronski's statement.

"I'm not surprised that this is his opinion," said one woman. "But that he chose to say it in front of dozens of religious women soldiers, who have done something that is not easy for them - that is insensitivity."

Several women said they found his remarks particularly outrageous because he met his own wife while she was serving as a company clerk in his army unit.

Rabbi Ohad Tohar-Lev of Midreshet Lindenbaum, one of the few religious institutions for women that offers a program combining Torah study with army service, said he personally believes "there are some army positions that a woman should serve in a priori." He added that he has no objection to Ronski expressing the contrary opinion, "but one has to ask the leaders of the army whether there isn't a problem with the very appointment of someone who holds this view."

Yet Tohar-Lev, along with several others who criticized Ronski's remark, all praised him for the fact that despite his views, he tries to help religious women solve any problems they encounter in the army.

"The message is that it's better not to be drafted," said one religious woman soldier. "But from the moment we are in uniform, there's a great deal of assistance."

In this, Ronski differs sharply from his predecessors, many of whom refused to help religious women soldiers on the grounds that they should not have enlisted to begin with.

Several women at the conference complained that the religious education system does not support them in their decision to serve. "Do you want me to speak with your school principals?" Ronski responded.

Ronski also discussed the rabbinic prohibition against physical contact between unmarried men and women, noting that some religious women observed this prohibition while doing their army service, but others did not.

Ronski has spoken out in the past against integrating women into combat units, arguing that women cannot realize their full potential in combat units, that putting men and women together under such difficult conditions creates all kinds of sexual problems, and that having women in these units offends the sensibilities of male religious soldiers. But he has said he favors using women as instructors in the army, because they tend to have personality traits appropriate for this job, such as "delicacy, patience and persistence."

The IDF Spokesman said Wednesday night that Ronski denied making the comment, and said he merely had commented on the difficulties facing some women during their military service.

"The IDF chief rabbi told those attending the conference that during his visits to IDF units, he witnessed the difficulties that religious women had in integrating, due to the inability to permit them to serve in accordance with Jewish law," the office said.