Religious Soldiers in Israel’s Army

Israel's armed forces, like many Israeli institutions, make special provisions for the religious needs of Jewish participants.

In the first years of the State, nearly all Jewish Israelis served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). As the security situation in Israel stabilized, religious leaders sought to create frameworks that would allow religious men to combine study at yeshivot (religious academies) with army service. Many of these programs were created because the majority of the army, and its predominant cultural norms, are secular. Thus, religious soldiers in the IDF face unique challenges relating to issues of daily life, such as dress code and food, and religious practice, such as prayer, Shabbat, and holidays. 

Hesder and Shiluv: Combining Service and Study

Yeshivot Hesder (arrangement yeshivot) take part in a program — founded in 1965 — which allows young men to defer their army induction for a year and a half in order to spend time studying at a yeshivah. After that period at yeshivah, they are drafted into army units designated for observant men from yeshivot hesder. These units are fully integrated into the army’s hierarchy.

religious israeli soldiersMen serve in these units for thirteen to eighteen months, depending on the character of the unit and the length of training, after which they return to yeshivah. The length of the entire hesder program is five years. Variations on the hesder model exist, and some entail up to seven years of yeshivah study prior to being drafted into the IDF. There are approximately forty yeshivot hesder in Israel today.

The Shiluv (combination) program was started in 1985 by the religious kibbutz movement (hakibbutz hadati), as an alternative to hesder. Shiluv allows young men to combine a full army service term with a first class yeshivah experience. Shiluv participants spend a year at one of two yeshivot belonging to the religious kibbutz movement before being drafted into the IDF. After a year and a half of service they return to yeshivah for one additional year, at the end of which they complete a full army service term for a total of three years in the army, and thus the five year program.

The Ultra-Orthodox and Army Deferments

Ultra-Orthodox men do not, as a general rule, serve in the IDF. The ultra-Orthodox community has relied on what is called the “status quo agreement,” struck before the founding of the State between the religious and secular factions within the Zionist movement. That agreement stipulates that with the founding of the Jewish State, the situation then in existence (status quo ante) with regard to all issues of religion in the public realm must be kept in place. In accordance with this, the Defense Minister has the power, by law, to “dismiss eligible recruits from service for [a number of reasons].” By the power of this law, each Defense Minister has, since the inception of the IDF, dismissed ultra-Orthodox soldiers from service, on condition that they sign a statement confirming that “their Torah study is their work” and they have no other employment. This dismissal was challenged unsuccessfully by a petition to the High Court of Justice in 1982. More recently, attempts have been made to anchor this dismissal in law.

Ultra-Orthodox Men in Uniform

The Nahal Haredi program was developed in 1999 by a group of rabbis in cooperation with the IDF and the Ministry of Defense. It is an attempt to solve the problem of dropouts from ultra-Orthodox (haredi) yeshivot, and at the same time act as the haredi community’s contribution to the IDF, thus alleviating some societal pressure to have all ultra-Orthodox men serve. Haredi men who prove unsuited to the life of study in a yeshivah are sent to serve in specially designed units in the IDF. These units cater to the specific needs of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, maintaining cultural and religious standards (no contact with women, Shabbat observance) and offering some help in adapting to life in larger society (e.g., completing high school equivalency). The ultra-Orthodox public has expressed some dismay over the existence of this unit, however, the unit continues to draw new recruits.

Sherut Leumi – Voluntary National Service

Sherut Leumi (national service), founded in 1971, was originally intended for religiously observant young women as a substitute for military service. Military service is perceived to entail challenges for any observant soldier, and for observant women in particular, specifically in relation to issues of modesty as perceived by the Orthodox world. Today, Sherut Leumi is open to any Israeli, male or female, who does not serve in the army for reasons of health or conscience. There are a number of organizations, recognized by the Ministry of Social Affairs, that coordinate the volunteer activities of participants. Participants must commit to at least one year of full-time service, working for an approved organization. After at least one year of service, participants are eligible for benefits from the State, similar to those given to discharged soldiers.

Practical Problems for the Religious Soldier

The requirement to serve in the army brings the rural kibbutznik together with the Tel Aviv urbanite, the religious man together with the secular woman, and the sabra (native Israeli) together with the immigrant. This lively mix can sometimes present difficulty for religious soldiers.

The Army Rabbinate is charged, among other duties, with providing for the religious life of Jewish IDF soldiers. By nature, religious soldiers are the main clients of this service. The rabbinate has a hierarchy of rabbis and non-commissioned officers mandated to care for religious soldiers and provide for their needs. Military rabbinate personnel are spread throughout every unit and every base in the IDF. They are in charge of assuring that kashrut is supervised, that the base has a synagogue with appropriate appurtenances, and that soldiers receive their rights in regard to religious life.

There are a number of issues of daily life that bear upon the life of a religious soldier. The army has made provisions to accommodate those needs. Some are profiled below.

Prayer: Every soldier is entitled to receive time for daily prayer, 3 times a day: 30 minutes for Shaharit, 15 minutes each for Minha and Ma’ariv, with added times for holidays and Torah reading. In practice, religious soldiers who serve in units with predominantly secular soldiers have to request special permission to pray, and they usually receive prayer time in place of normal activity. This can sometimes cause tension within a unit, as those who pray do so “at the expense” of their friends, who have to complete the same tasks with fewer people to help.

Shabbat: In order to maintain basic and emergency functions, many army tasks, which would normally be forbidden on Shabbat, must be performed on Shabbat. A guiding principle for Shabbat-observant soldiers is pikuah nefesh — preserving life. If the function may plausibly save a life, it supersedes the laws of Shabbat. Before using electric equipment for radio communication, writing, and performing guard duty, observant soldiers consider whether they could be justified according to the principle of pikuah nefesh.

Co-ed units: Most units in the army are mixed male/female. Religious soldiers, even those who do not have a problem in principle serving in such units, sometimes deal with difficult or uncomfortable situations created by the mixed-gender environment. For example, a religious soldier who holds him/herself to a high traditional standard of personal modesty, including not having any physical contact with members of the opposite sex, not even shaking hands, will probably face challenges in a co-ed unit.

Dress code: Religious soldiers are allowed certain changes with regard to the army’s stringent dress code. Women soldiers can obtain permission to wear a skirt or not carry a weapon, in order to avoid prohibitions against wearing men’s garments. Men in the army can obtain permission to grow or maintain a beard.

Food:  All food in the IDF is kosher. Some religious soldiers only eat glatt (strictly) kosher food, and the army provides special food for them.

Observant Officers

A phenomenon of the past decade is the ascent of Orthodox officers to the rank of general. For many years, the top brass of the IDF was a preserve of the secular elite, with the vast majority of generals hailing from upper middle class secular backgrounds. More recently, two religious generals were appointed to the general staff: Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh was appointed Head of the Homefront Command in 2003, and Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern was appointed Head of the Manpower Division in 2004. This phenomenon extends through the ranks of the IDF, where increasing numbers of religious officers can be found. This is an indication of the greater comfort and acceptance religious Israelis are coming to feel in once-secular bastions of Israeli society.

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