It Ain't Over 'Til the IDF Soldier Sings

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Last week, Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, the head of the IDF's personnel directorate, filed the latest volley in the story of religious male soldiers and women singing in the IDF. Barbivai is expected to recommend that the Chief of Staff continue obliging soldiers to take part in formal ceremonies in which women sing, despite the objections of many rabbis. This comes after the extreme statement of Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh 'hesder yeshiva' warned that if the IDF were to adopt this approach, many rabbis would order their students to walk out of such events, "even if they are faced by a firing squad for doing so." As we watch the back and forth on this issue spiral to absurdity one has to wonder how we have arrived at this point.

Having served four years of active duty in the IDF I can share that women singing is the least of the challenges a religious Orthodox soldier faces. From Shabbat observance, through Kashrut, Chagim (holidays), and all the way to the attractive female guide or instructor demanding your full attention, I would certainly say the experience was beyond my religious comfort zone. While I never felt forced to transgression, any soldier who claims that army service does not demand compromise or flexibility is lying to you and perhaps to himself. I personally experience a similar challenge when coping with issues of modesty on modern billboards, streets, and even when dealing with certain supermarket cashiers. While some may choose to stay home, this is not my way.

Female soldiers at Simhat Torah celebration at the Eshkol Regional Council.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The hallmark of the modern and national-religious community has always been a commitment to the value of full participation in the broad national experience. This value has been most significant in the commitment to military service, where this community has carried at least its fair share, often more. This participation was possible because we always knew that a shared social and cultural space requires some level of flexibility. When those who are governed and guided by disparate value systems choose to unite around shared values, there are bound to be sticking points. The manner in which they are negotiated will testify to the level of care for maintaining the partnership and the sharing.

I would also like to express some disappointment at the declarations coming out of the army's high command. Compromise has to move two ways, and be driven by a desire to maintain a healthy relationship. I am sad that the conversation seems to be playing out through a confrontational dynamic in the public sphere, where intimate, private meetings between the heads of the Hesder Yeshivas and the military would better serve any constructive goal.

It is clear to me that the status quo has been the participation of religious soldiers in these events. I also imagine that many individual situations were resolved by sensitive non-observant commanders. This delicate balance must have been sustained due to the significant value both sides placed on the ability to work together, walking a common path. It is frightening to ask what has now changed that has caused this issue to become so explosive. Have the religious and non-religious communities drifted so far apart that we no longer care to invest in sustainable compromise? It is worrying to imagine what the answer to that question says about the shifting commitments and cares on both sides of the debate.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish educational entrepreneurship.