The IDF and Its Rabbinate Should Foster Jewish Pluralism, Not Stifle It

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I have to applaud the Israeli military. For months now, with the hindsight of a few years since my own release combined with my new job working as a spiritual leader for soldiers affiliated with NOAM (the Masorti Movement's youth group), I have feared that the Israel Defense Forces was enforcing an Orthodox "all-or-nothing" worldview on its soldiers, but I could not pinpoint the problems. This week, I needed look no further than the military's own magazine "Bamachaneh" (On Base), which published an article describing the difficulties facing Conservative and Reform female soldiers.

Some of the problems described in the article were familiar to me. The article described the case of a young woman — affiliated with NOAM — who was asked to say Kaddish (mourner’s prayer) for a grandparent one day when her parents were unable to make a minyan. The rabbi of her base, while sympathetic to her request, ultimately forbade her from saying Kaddish — reserved for men in more strictly Orthodox circles — at the base's synagogue. She would be given the time to pray, she was told, but could only do so in a classroom.

The issue reflected in that story is that every synagogue on an army base is run in accordance with a strictly (and often particularly traditional) Orthodox worldview. A soldier quoted in the article (also affiliated with NOAM) described how uncomfortable she feels in the military synagogues because of the small space allotted for the women's section, and there are of course no mixed-seating prayers allowed. An officer, who identifies as Reform, describes her frustration at the women's section being behind the men's section, as opposed to alongside it. Neither soldier even expected the army would allow for a non-Orthodox service to take place.

The situations described in the article are particularly problematic because of the way that Orthodox Judaism views the difference in gender roles – a distinction that the army otherwise tries to eliminate – especially when it comes to communal expressions of Judaism. Only an Orthodox expression of Judaism is allowed, and women seeking a more egalitarian role are therefore pushed aside, or at best told to do so in their own space.

Yet, the Orthodox worldview practiced by the military — under the leadership of the military Rabbinate — spreads to areas beyond gender roles. Sometimes this uniformity is helpful, like in the case of kashrut. It would be a poor use of the military's resources for it to cater to both stricter and more lenient standards of kashrut, and therefore it makes sense to abide by the strictest standards. But in other areas, such as the Rabbinate's authority to grant religious exemptions to military protocol, like in the case of growing a beard, the military Rabbinate crosses the line from providing services to religious soldiers to attempting to determine the religious nature of the IDF.

At the moment, the IDF's Rabbinate offers religious services only to those Jews who practice Orthodox Judaism, while also maintaining military regulations that allow for the practice of other religions. This unfortunately leaves out the areas in which non-Orthodox Judaism differs from Orthodox Judaism. And this is indeed a serious problem, as evidenced by the young soldier who could not use the synagogue during non-standard prayer hours to say Kaddish. However, perhaps even more problematic is the confused role that the military Rabbinate plays. By promoting Orthodox Judaism as the only legitimate stream of Judaism, the 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.

In my military experience, my religiousness was never questioned because I wear a kippah. Without discussing ideology with me, one could easily assume I am Orthodox, a misconception that would be further bolstered by my observance of Shabbat and kashrut. I often felt alienated by the Orthodox services I attended regularly on base, but I was a man, and as long as I never led services with my alternative liturgy (and I never did), I fit in. But what if I had observed those Jewish laws without wearing a kippah? What if I had started to become more religious during my service? Would the military structure have allowed for that journey, or would I have been told that I can do it the Orthodox way or not do it at all?

Without a doubt, I believe there is a need for a military chaplaincy, a group of clergy (from various religions, not just Judaism) that see to their constituents' needs and help them navigate the spiritual and logistical difficulties of service. At the same time, the military Rabbinate as it currently operates needs to be scaled down. Let it focus on kashrut, let it check the mezuzahs on bases, and certainly, let it cater to the needs of the Orthodox soldiers. But it should not be involved in framing the Jewish nature of the military writ-large, and it should not dictate a singular way to practice communal Judaism in the army.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

A ceremony marking the end of an IDF ultra-Orthodox unit's basic training, Feb. 2012.Credit: Alex Levac

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