There is nothing strange or radical about a Jewish woman saying a blessing over her religion’s holiest book - the Torah - in many parts of the world.
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But in the Israeli army - as in all official Israeli government environments - where the Orthodox rabbinate is firmly in control, and the slightest shift in the religious status quo is a political hot potato, it make headlines.
The story was broken, appropriately enough, by the Orthodox Hebrew-language website Kipa. According to the website, a ‘precedent was set’ when a female IDF soldier was formally invited to bless the Torah before it was read, performing the ritual at a synagogue at the Bat Galim Naval training facility in Haifa on the recent holiday of Simchat Torah. Traditionally, in mainstream Orthodox worship, only men are allowed to bless the Torah and read from it.
The synagogue’s prayer community, which meets daily and on Shabbat and holidays, according to the report, includes both Orthodox male soldiers participating in ‘Hesder’ programs combining religious studies in yeshiva with military training - in this case, naval training, as well as civilian workers at the base, along with other soldiers, Orthodox or not, who wish to join in prayers.
On Simchat Torah, the service was being led by one of the civilian members of the group, and the female soldier called to the Torah was an Orthodox cadet training to be an intelligence officer, a ‘graduate of one of the largest and most recognized’ national religious schools.
Kipa reported that the decision to invite her to the Torah ignited controversy in the room, describing a ‘stormy’ reaction among some of the soldiers and officers present, and an argument among the worshipers with some of them objecting on the grounds that mainstream Orthodox rabbis forbid permitting a woman to read from the Torah under any circumstances, while others said that the Simchat Torah celebration had special rules that would allow it. Ultimately, since she had already been officially called to the Torah even those who disliked her participation chose not to interrupt the prayers and embarrass the woman by trying to stop her.
The official reaction from the IDF, as reported: ‘Following the incident, an inquiry was initiated to clear the air and to clarify policies regarding such occurrences in the future.’
The statement was deliberately neutral - with no indication as to whether or not allowing the woman to participate in prayer was viewed by the army authorities as an infraction.
The big question is what the ‘policy clarification’ will ultimately be - whether it is ‘kosher’ in army worship spaces to read from the Torah as is customary in Reform or Conservative congregations, and increasingly in some liberal Modern Orthodox communities - or whether the practice is deemed off-limits by the army rabbinate that a blanket decision is made to forbid it. At a time when the Women of the Wall has put the issue of female public worship in the spotlight and the military is trying to send the message to the ultra-Orthodox community that they can serve without compromising their religious values - whichever decision they take is bound to make someone unhappy.
The incident comes on the heels of an article published in the IDF newspaper over the summer, dealing with the difficulties faced by female soldiers from Conservative and Reform backgrounds who wish to worship. Following that article, the spiritual leader of the youth movement of the Conservative movement wrote in Haaretzthat ‘by promoting Orthodox Judaism as the only legitimate stream of Judaism, the (military) Rabbinate not only fails to attend to some of the needs of the non-Orthodox population, it also plays an active role in defining identities. Outside the military, Jews can choose to identify as religious, traditional, secular, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform or any other label they choose, should they choose one at all. Within the military, they are offered an immediate binary: religious (read: Orthodox) or secular.’
What is interesting about this recent incident in Haifa is that the woman in question appears to have been Orthodox - and shows that the challenge to the religious status quo in the army is also coming from within Orthodox Judaism itself.