Believers in the Army

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Believers in the Army: The Recruiting Rabbi

by David Twersky, Davar Rishon – November 2, 2018 (Translated from Hebrew)

Rabbi Ohad Teharlev directs the Israeli programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum, and 95% of this institute’s post-high school students enlist in the IDF. He is unperturbed by what some senior figures in the National Religious community have said against women enlisting: “These girls aren’t foolish. They want to be in the IDF, and we need to make sure that’s possible. Any halakhic crisis that arises can be solved.”

A little over 20 years ago, Midreshet Lindenbaum, a religious seminary for girls in Jerusalem, opened a new track for high school graduates who wish to enlist in the IDF’s Education Corps. The first group in this track, with its 14 students, went on to serve in the Education Corps after a year of study in the beit midrash– causing quite a stir in the National Religious community. “We got a lot of flak from the National Ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment because of what we are doing here. They didn’t mince words. They said we are a threat to National Zionism, and that we’re leading these girls off the path,” explains Rabbi Ohad Teharlev, the director of the seminary’s programs for Israeli women. Since then, Midreshet Lindenbaum, which is part of the Ohr Torah Stone network, has been in the front lines of the revolution to enable religious girls to enlist in the IDF, instead of civilian national service, a setting favored leaders of the National Religious establishment. In recent years, about 95% of the seminary’s graduates have enlisted in the IDF. Over 25% of each graduating class go on to become officers, and a further 30% sign on as career officers. Following Midreshet Lindenbaum’s lead, an additional eight seminaries throughout the country also have IDF enlistment programs.

Hadas IAF Soldiers Siyyum

This increase in the enlistment rate of religious women in the IDF and the expansion of the units in which they serve is generally viewed as a rebellion against the National Religious rabbinical and educational establishment. Sure enough, prominent rabbis in this camp have sternly condemned this trend. Yet there are also rabbis who find halakhic backing for the enlistment of religious women – people like Rabbi Teharlev. They resolutely maintain that enlistment in the IDF is a mitzvah that applies to both men and women.


Rabbi Teharlev isn’t perturbed by the National Religious rabbis’ appeals to these women, which aim to dissuade them from enlisting. “The most successful recruiters of women into the IDF are Rabbi Eliyahu and Rabbi Aviner,” he jokes. “Every time they object, another 20 women join us. When they protest, the subject returns to the public agenda, the Chotam organization publishes videos, and I ask them ‘Why are you making videos? Keep quiet!’ As far as I’m concerned, you might as well make a movie every time.”

In the past, girls would come to me from schools like Pelech or Ohr Torah Stone’s Neveh Channah, which are considered relatively liberal. Today, however, we have high school graduates from 30 different schools, and the vast majority of these schools are thought of as National ultra-Orthodox seminaries. A very interesting process occurred here. Unlike the young National Religious boys, these girls veered toward a more religiously liberal approach. I think that the opposite happened with the boys. They have grown more conservative. That’s what I’ve observed, at any rate.”

Teharlev states that every year, he visits about 40 schools on either side of the Green Line, in order to bring in girls from various backgrounds. “Ofra won’t let me in, so I run parlor meetings. I’ll do anything I can to assist these girls.”

Hadas soldiers learning“There were two things that guided us from the outset. We wanted to push the envelope of the religious establishment with regard to these women — within the bounds of halakha. I’m talking about being gutsy. We’re in the business of women’s empowerment. The most important place in Israeli society, the place that makes you Israeli and empowers you, is the IDF. So, if I want to educate girls to become leaders, and if I want them to integrate into Israeli society, and most of all, if I want them to serve Hashem as best as they possibly can, then they absolutely must have the ability to enlist. I see enlistment in the military as a religious imperative. This involves a major commitment to our people as well as to halakha. I think they’re performing an enormous mitzvah. When addressing boys, people constantly promote the mantra of fighting a milchemet mitzvah, a war that is considered a religious obligation. Girls are no different. I can produce halakhic sources that attest to this.”

“So, some claim that these girls will “leave the fold”. But don’t the boys also risk leaving the fold, even more than the girls? And not only that; for 18 years, we have been investing heavily in their education, and then, all of a sudden, when it’s time to enlist – it’s all been for naught? They will leave the fold? Why the insecurity? It sounds like we don’t believe in ourselves or in our girls. Girls and boys don’t leave the fold when they are in the army because of the setting they’re in. If they do so, it’s because they are becoming adults. There are girls who “leave the fold” during their national civilian service as well. It has to do with the processes they are going through. This is a generation seeking answers, and I say the opposite: a girl who enlists does so because she leaving her protective shell. She meets people who are different, and in doing so, begins a serious soul-searching process. Ultimately, when she remains observant, her religious life will be far more serious and profound. And if not – it’s not because of the army.”

Ohad Teharlev“I think that national civilian service is wonderful, but it isn’t an either-or situation,” emphasizes Teharlev. “My vision is that religious and secular girls in the State of Israel will go through egalitarian screening. Half will go to the army, and half to national civilian service. They will all complete two years of service. There are 2,700 religious girls in the army today, so this is the direction we are headed in.”

“What’s unique about our seminary is that we are an independent entity affiliated with the Security-Society Division of the Ministry of Defense, and we accompany these girls during their military service. It just like the nuclei of the Nahal infantry brigade. I visit the bases religiously every two weeks. Last week, within just one week, I visited seven bases in the north and south of the country. This is how I’ve been working for 20 years – like a lunatic. I generally come with ice cream and other treats for them. And then – I conduct a Torah lesson. They thirst for these things! I try to focus these lessons on existential issues. The IDF is the exact opposite of the setting at the seminary, and the idea is to combine them.”

“During the month of Elul, I come to talk to them about repentance. Why would soldiers care about repentance? They are living in such a different world. It’s very challenging to take that idea and combine it with something that really affects those soldiers. So how can someone in the army connect to this issue? I deal extensively with the subject of issues between man and fellow man. It’s about being sensitive and compassionate toward others. These are things we often encounter, on a daily basis. That’s the challenge. Another challenge emerges once these women begin their lives as independent adults. Will they still be attached to the Torah? Besides observing halakha, will they study Torah as well? It needs to interest them. They should write books and develop tools and knowledge. It’s very hard, in today’s world of modern technology, for Torah to maintain its allure. I have a lot of smart girls here. That is why the educational challenge is both intellectual and spiritual.”

Today, girls want to do exactly what they wanted in their military service,” Teharlev says, referring to one of the seminary’s educational challenges. “That’s quite foreign to me – the idea that if a girl doesn’t get exactly what she wants, it’s as if her entire world has come crashing down on her. In my generation, no one ever asked us what we wanted. I was in tanks, even though tanks are the farthest thing from my personality. Still, I dealt with tanks for 30 years. Today’s world is more indulging. I try to explain to the girls that the IDF isn’t a lifetime commitment. It’s two or three years of service – just a taste of this world.”

“There are parents who truly have hard time with their girls coming here.” Teharlev mentions perhaps the hardest challenge of all – bringing the parents on board. “They are worried about their daughter’s spirituality and religious observance. They are terrified of her leaving the fold. She might suddenly prefer wearing pants, and they struggle with this. She might bring a boy home who isn’t exactly the person they had envisioned. Yet you often see that the girls take the lead here. They bring their parents to the seminary, and the parents see that it isn’t so bad. Quite the contrary! They are amazed by what happens here and what their daughters experience, and this causes them to change their minds drastically. As an example, four years ago, I understood that religious girls from Givat Shmuel weren’t joining our program. This is a higher socioeconomic level population with a rather conservative mindset. After working on this, I managed to bring 10 such girls to the seminary. Their parents were terrified. But today, their younger sisters are registering. That’s because we’ve changed our image.”

“Clearly, in the religious world, what a rabbi says holds a lot of sway and people respect our knowledge of the Bible. However, today, the world of Torah is open to all. Once upon a time, a rabbi’s power and authority stemmed from his knowledge. He was seen as more sublime than others. People didn’t have enough autonomy to speak their minds. Today, things are different. Today, many people are knowledgeable, and you can’t pull the wool over their eyes. Knowledge is more accessible, and just as a rabbi can say that it is prohibited for girls to enlist, I can come along and say that it’s a mitzvah for them to enlist – and here are the sources to prove it. In a class called “Preparing for life”, I tell them why going to the army is a great mitzvah for them to perform. Moreover, today’s girls think independently. Certain rabbis voice the claim that a girl would be put under the authority of her commander, and not under her father’s authority. This argument assumes that a Jewish girl may either be under her father’s authority, or under her husband’s, and that’s that. This is a mindset that still persists, and there are rabbis who say this unabashedly. However, I ask the young women: “Are any of you planning on studying what your father wants you to study at the university? Would any of you let your fathers dictate what kind of guys you’ll date? Of course not! There’s an enormous divide between this type of rhetoric and today’s reality.”

“Religious life in an open and modern society is a thorny issue. We’re living in a reality where we need to embrace those with various sexual orientations. On the other hand, we must remain committed to halakha. When I’m asked what we should do to contend with this, I say that I don’t know – but that it’s a challenge. I don’t know how to solve this dilemma. It’s a challenge to combine the world of Torah values embodied in the beit midrash with the outside world. It’s a profound challenge. These are two different worlds. How can I be fully at peace with both, without being conflicted? It’s very easy to “fake it”. That’s why it’s so important to prepare these girls to face all challenges.”

Another major challenge Teharlev identifies is the equal status of men and women. “We are discussing the army, but this applies to life in general. It’s about women’s role in the synagogue, a place where she isn’t given a role. She isn’t allowed to say Kaddish, and so on. This is part of the revolution, and it’s a formidable challenge for the Torah world. Moreover, these girls return to their communities, prompting a great deal of frustration, since these communities are National Orthodox and conservative. This is their social challenge.”

“This seminary is the best thing that has ever happened to them,” Teharlev concludes, with a touch of optimism. “Both the IDF and the seminary open a new world for them and educate them to deal with complexity. The girls are magnificent. Some of them return to their communities and try to reshape existing mindsets, and some develop new seminaries, where they teach. They spread Torah knowledge. The greatest opponents to military service for girls understand that they are losing this battle. They are clearly feeling threatened, but at the same time, worldviews are being transformed. After all, if the army is so sacred to them, how could you claim that it is a holy mission for boys, and a great desecration for girls? That doesn’t work. These girls aren’t foolish. They wanted to be in the IDF, they want to be officers, and we need to make sure that’s possible. Any halakhic crisis that arises can be solved. If you ask me, in five to seven years, this argument will be yesterday’s news.”

Read the original Hebrew article on the Davar Rishon website

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