Religious Freedom From “Immodesty” in Israel

The United States is not the only country where “religious freedom” is being advanced rather aggressively these days. As Gershom Gorenberg explains at The American Prospect, certain religious nationalist rabbis are denouncing the exposure of Orthodox soldiers in the Israeli military to the horror of hearing women sing at military events:

As framed by one side in the dispute, the question is whether Orthodox Jewish soldiers must attend army ceremonies at which they’ll hear women sing, even if they believe that such a performance is an utterly unkosher act of public indecency. Framed by the other side, what’s at stake are basic military values of discipline and unity.

This is not a small problem, thanks to a recent infusion of Orthodox Jews into the Israeli military, notes Gorenberg:

According to a study published in an army journal, with the author listed only by his first initial for secrecy’s sake, the proportion of Orthodox men among graduates of the officers’ training course for the infantry rose from 2.5 percent in 1990 to over 26 percent in 2008. (Just over one-eighth of all Israeli soldiers were Orthodox.) The change has been fed by two kinds of religious institutions with military ties: In hesder (“arrangement”) yeshivot, men alternate between periods of religious study and stretches of active duty in their own separate platoons. In pre-army academies, men undergo a year of physical training and religious instruction before entering the army. In both cases, the instructors are likely to be rabbis for whom right-wing politics come straight from God.

At stake in the current dispute is not just the right of troops who happen to be women to sing at military events. It’s closely connected to the claims of some rabbis that the devout are not permitted to participate in military actions of which they disapprove, as was evidenced by protests against the withdrawal of settlements in Gaza a few years ago. More protests could be on the horizon:

If Israel ever signs a peace agreement with the Palestinians, far more settlers will need to be evacuated from the West Bank. In the meantime, the army occasionally demolishes a few illegally built structures in one of the outposts, the tiny settlements put up since the 1990s to fill in the spaces between the bigger ones. Two years ago, a handful of hesder soldiers held up protest signs—first at a public ceremony, then at a West Bank base—to announce that they wouldn’t evacuate settlers. Amid the public storm over politicization of the military, the Defense Ministry suspended a yeshivah with a particularly vocal and extreme dean from the hesder program.

It’s no coincidence that the same dean, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, has repeatedly declared in recent weeks that soldiers must disobey orders rather than listen to a woman sing. In his understanding of religious law, a woman singing in public is flagrant immodesty, and women should be silent lest men should become aroused. But his columns in the settler newspaper Besheva make clear that larger issues are at stake. One is power: “Religious law takes precedence over the army’s standing orders,” he wrote. Religious law, in this case, means the instructions of the rabbis of the radical right. Another issue, in Melamed’s view, is whether Israeli society will be guided by rampant post-modernist secularism, the spiritual successor of communism, or by religion. The forces of secularism, in his description, favor sexual permissiveness and oppose West Bank settlement.

Sound familiar?

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.