Orthodox Women in Israel Are Facing a Difficult Choice

Orthodox women in the israel army marching in combat gear

Under Jewish law, Orthodox women are barred from doing many things: Singing in front of men, wearing clothes that show their knees and collarbones, and in Israel, according to the Chief Rabbinate, banned from serving in the military.

In January, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, the nation’s chief rabbis who decide Jewish law, ruled that Orthodox women should not be in the military, claiming they were merely continuing “the tradition of previous Chief Rabbis.” This comes, however, despite the fact that some Orthodox women are excelling in the ranks and Israel wants more members of the Orthodox community in the military.

The ban doesn't come as such a shock, if you look at the conservative gender-segregation laws that surround the Orthodox community. The foundation of Jewish Orthodoxy urges segregation of the sexes. It also expects women’s’ roles to be largely domestic. Even today women mostly tend to their children and work as teachers or caregivers. Similarly, the “Sexy women of the IDF” scandal last year, where female solders posted racy photos wearing nothing but their machine guns, didn’t help promote an image of modesty to the Orthodox community.

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Yet despite the issues religious Jews might have to joining the military, the Rabbis’ decision to ban women from enlisting came shortly after recently published statistics that showed a rise in religious female recruits. They also seem to be thriving in high-pressure, mixed-gender units. Last year, a Female Orthodox combat pilot-navigator became the first of her religious background to graduate and an Orthodox women in the mixed-gendered combat unit “Caracal,” was awarded a medal of bravery for helping thwart a terrorist attack on the Egyptian border.

The Israeli government seems to be behind them, too. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded the Orthodox female pilot after her graduation, releasing a statement that said she is “an example of the equality between the sexes in Israel and proof that in the IDF there is place for all parts of Israeli society.”

Other Israeli political figures shared Netanyahu’s views. When news of the Chief Rabbis’ decree broke, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni took to her Facebook page condemning Rabbis Lau and Yosef, saying their decision, “harms the female citizens of Israel, depriving them of acting of their own free will and contributing to their country.”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, known for his political rants on Facebook, also spoke out against the Rabbis and called for their removal. He wrote, “We are talking about civil servants who receive a very handsome salary from the State of Israel, sit in their comfortable offices with their vehicles nearby, and announce their disapproval of girls serving in the mud and the cold.” 

With the government being behind Orthodox women serving, and the fact that more and more religious women seem to want to enlist, why is there still the need religious body of law determining what a society can and cannot do?

The reason Chief Rabbis and religious laws exist and are tolerated in Israel today, is because despite being a nation built on the premise of democracy and equality, it is still a nation founded on religion and it will constantly be weighed down by it. Orthodox women who choose to serve despite the Chief Rabbis’ ruling will most likely be privy to harassment by the Ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel who have been known to assault religious solders, especially as they have seen a recent legislation that would see them included in the Israel Defense Forces’ mandatory draft.

Let’s face it, Orthodox women who strive to break the glass ceiling will always have to make a religious sacrifice in the name of feminism and equality.