These are tough times for religious Zionism. The hesder yeshiva students who petitioned Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz over the issue of sexually integrated combat units could not possibly have anticipated the response they received. Mofaz made no effort to allay their concerns, and offered no soothing assurances that the army would accommodate their halachic requirements.
Many in the national-religious world have long felt that the IDF maintains a glass ceiling with regard to the promotion of officers wearing knitted yarmulkes. And the IDF's lackadaisical response to the hesder students seemed to confirm the impression that its top brass views with indifference whether they continue to serve, and that there are even those who would be happy to be rid of them.
The editorial comment was, if anything, even more discouraging. Columnists questioned the students' "real" motivation, and attributed their petition to internal power struggles within the national religious world. Some warned darkly that if the IDF gave in to the demands of the hesder students and yeshiva heads, soon all Israeli women soldiers would find themselves wearing the Islamic chador.
Few indeed were op-eds noting that hesder students are disproportionately represented in the junior officer corps and are the most highly motivated soldiers. Op-ed writers noted instead that the total army service of hesder yeshiva students is shorter than that of regular draftees, and labelled them an indulged and spoiled group.
Tommy Lapid of the anti-religious Shinui Party called for the hesder yeshiva units to be disbanded. Others quickly joined the chorus, and chimed in that if hesder students wished to become haredim, the IDF could, and should do without them.
All in all, the response created one of the bleakest moments for the national religious movement since the aftermath of the Rabin assassination. At that time, Deputy Defense Minister Ori Orr proposed abolishing hesder yeshiva units. Orr pointed out that soldiers in hesder units spend less time in active service. He charged then, as Tommy Lapid does today, that ideologically motivated units and, by extension, a large officer corps coming from these units, pose a threat to the IDF because the defense establishment cannot be sure of their ultimate loyalties.
For decades many in the national religious world have imagined themselves the much admired vanguard of Israeli Zionism. They believed that hatred of haredim is fully explained by their lack of army service, and has nothing to do with a deep alienation on the part of significant segments of Israeli society from the Torah itself.
The outpouring of vitriol directed at the national camp after the Rabin assassination was a partial curative for such delusions. And the mockery directed at the hesder students and the heads of the hesder yeshivas over the past six weeks was a second dose.
Wags have had a field day with discussions of the overactive libidos of yeshiva students and their sexual obsessions. Yossi Sarid advised them to take "tranquilizers." Though hesder students were mocked for not being able to control themselves, the mockers were not exactly avatars of sexual restraint. They know that the IDF has traditionally resembled a college dorm, with no adult supervision, more than a monastery. Enough senior officers, including a former chief of staff, have already informed us of the real purpose of army women.
Underlying the scorn for yeshiva students is not so much their lack of self-control as their explicit rejection of our current societal norms that view restraints on sexual appetites as repressive and chastity as laughable.
This is just one instance where Torah and modernity part company. Rashi, the greatest of the biblical exegetes, notes that kedusha, holiness, in the Torah is almost always associated with separation from forbidden sexual relations. Such relations are one of only three prohibitions in the Torah for which a Jew must give up his life rather than transgress. Why? Because engaging in them destroys what is uniquely human, as opposed to merely animal, about a person.
Our rabbis were great realists when it comes to the power of sexual desires. "There is no foolproof watchman against sexual impropriety," they said. They would not have been surprised that on the first sexually integrated ship in the US Navy, a full 10% of the women were non-deployable due to pregnancy at the outset of or during the Gulf War, or that on another ship, dubbed "Love Boat," 36 out of 360 women had to be evacuated during the Gulf War because they were pregnant.
The rabbis' motto was: "Anticipate the consequence." They did not see the purpose of life as courting tests to one's self-control. Rather they counseled avoiding unnecessary tests and established halachic restrictions to make them less likely.
The issue for a religious soldier, then, is not just what a particular situation or level of contact will lead to. Nor is it of his individual ability to control himself. Certain contact and certain situations of men and women being isolated with one another are prohibited in and of themselves.
Though the reaction of the IDF and op-ed writers to the hesder students' petition brought little joy to the national religious world, the crisis could turn out to be a crucial moment of self-definition for that world. Leading elements there have now stated unequivocally that Halacha is not infinitely malleable, even when such important values as army service are involved.
A fair number of the scoffers at the hesder students assumed that they could find a heter (permission), for serving in combat with women, just as they have traditionally done whenever the IDF was concerned. But the students and their rabbis insist otherwise. The category of pikuah nefesh (saving a life) cannot be infinitely expanded, especially where the IDF's needs are not dictated by the exigencies of warfare but by the desire to promote certain social values.
Torah, they have declared, is not confined to "ritual" issues such as mixtures of milk and meat, with everything else just a matter of personal opinion.