Religious Student-Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces: Interview with Elisheva Rosman-Stollman

The founding of the modern secular State of Israel posed a dilemma for Religious Zionist leadership because the state operated outside of the realm of Rabbinic law. The state had neither Sanhedrin nor a Talmudic legal system. In addition, the daily operation of a state posed many conflicts to the state-less diaspora halakhic tradition. How does Jewish law now accept democracy of elected officials that now includes non-religious, non-Jews, and women? How does one produce electricity or load docks on the Sabbath? In the early years of the state, a variety of rabbis engaged in a still unfinished and unfinishable project of creating a Torah state in Israel. (For more information, see Asher Cohen, The Tallit and the Flag: Religious Zionism and the Vision of the Torah State in the Early Years of the State (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 1998).

Even as many still pin for those fragmentary projects, in recent decades the site of tension has been the required army service, a source of pride for the religious Zionist community especially their entering higher command positions. Yet, does one’s have to obey orders that go against one’s religious beliefs? What if orders go against one’s Zionist political beliefs? What are the limits of bending the laws of prayer, Sabbath, or modesty? To answer these questions of the tension of military service and religion there is a recent book by Elisheva Rosman-Stollman (Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University)For God and Country?: Religious Student-Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (University of Texas Press, 2014).


From the Blurb:

In many modern armies the religious soldier is suspect. Civilians and officers alike wonder if such a soldier might represent a potential fifth column. This concern is especially prominent in the public discourse over the presence of religious Orthodox Jews serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Will they obey their commanding officer or their rabbi? With research collected over almost a decade, including hundreds of hours of interviews, Elisheva Rosman examines this question of loyalties and reveals how religious soldiers negotiate a place for themselves in an institution whose goals and norms sometimes conflict with those of Orthodox Judaism.
Many journalists and scholars in Israel are suspicious of the student-soldiers who participate in these programs, but in fact, as Rosman’s research demonstrates, the pre-service study programs serve as mediating structures between the demands of Religious Zionism and the demands of the Israel Defense Forces and do not encourage their students to disobey orders… Rosman has discovered that the pre-service study programs can successfully serve as agents of civil society, both able to curb the military’s efforts to meddle in civilian affairs and vice versa.

Rosman prefaces her book by stating that: “Most non-Hebrew speakers are largely ignorant of the civil military issues” She presents the issues for the English speaking reader by looking at the mehinot, the shiluv programs as well as the hesder programs. Currently, more attend the former two programs than the latter one, even if hesder is better known in the US.. She also looks at the women’s programs, the new Garin program.

Traditionally, Yeshiva was an educational ideal, but can army service override it? The Haredi approach says no, it cannot override it except temporarily at best. But for many Religious Zionists army service a religious command like tefillin, while for others it is a needed practicality, or they feel that they are engaged in a continuous obligatory war, and for other it is bearing one’s burden and not standing idly by the blood of your neighbor. Rosman did discover that mechinah and shiluv programs report fewer religious problems, while hesder participants find greater dissidence.

The best parts of the book are based on her extensive interviews In which we see the important roles played by Rabbis Eyal Krim, Ohad Tahar-Lev, Rafi Peretz, Avi Ronztki and Eli Kahan in creating a Religious Zionist approach that closes the gaps between army and religion.

One of the heroes of the book is Rabbi Eli Sadan, who is seen by many as the father of mechinot, who wrote a pamphlet in 2005 stating that religious soldiers should not disobey orders because it would undermine the entire military and he sent it to all active relgious soldiers. Recently and beyond the scope of the book, Sadan called on soldiers to remain in the room when women sing during ceremonies and published sharp criticism against the “price tag” phenomenon. For more on him, see here and here. Sadan also recently put out three ideological pamphlets on the direction that Religious Zionism should take.

As a political scientist, Rosman was more interested in society than ideas; her goal is to understand the function of the mechinot not to analyze the books. For example, she shows that the students of Har Etzion, Petah Tikvah, Yerucham, Ma’aleh Adumin are given a clear signal of where the institution stands compared to other institutions that leave the students in ambiguity. Her question was solely the clarity of the message not it’s content. Nevertheless for the student of Jewish thought, her framework and bibliography provides ample guidance in knowing who to read.

The book, still close to a revised dissertation, uses as a methodology the short book by Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus in To Empower People: From State to Civil Society. In the book, Berger and Neuhaus argue that we are not isolated individuals before the state, rather we exist, find meaning and create civil society through mediating institutions of church, school, and voluntary organizations. Rosman uses the book to show the function of the mediating institutions of mechinah, shiluv, and hesder in easing tensions. However, the work of Berger and Neuhaus came out in 1977 and was a polemic against the individualism of the era arguing for more conservative or religious values in the public sphere, eventually producing Neuhaus’ influential Naked Public Sphere. Rosman work remains functional and does not explore the values of her model. Similarly, the work is devoid of the American discussion of conscience and civil disobedience when looking at the personal opinions of the soldiers

1} What is the thesis of your book?

Pre-service religious programs mediate between religious student-soldiers, the IDF and their social group (religious zionism). When they are successful, these programs are able to regulate pressures and help all the parties involved coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial. In addition, these programs serve as agents of civilianization of the military (As opposed to militarization of civil society) and in certain ways, strengthen civil society in Israel.

Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book about mediating institutions that stand between individuals and the larger institutions of society, such as family, neighborhood, voluntary associations. But also the mafia, gangs, the KKK can all be mediating institutions. These institutions allow individuals to understand the larger constructs of society, give the state legitimacy and allow individuals to voice their needs and wants better.

My book looks at all the pre-service comprehensive programs: hesder, mekhinot, shiluv and the midrashot that serve this role in Israel between the religion and the state. In the context of the book, mediation is the attempt to stand between individuals and greater structures they belong to and regulate conflicting demands and pressures. It is a strategy that can be used – or not – by individuals in order to navigate between these larger structures.

The tensions between religion and the military include specific mitzvot such as how to observe shabbat, and sometimes how to observe kashrut. Observing prayer properly (minyan, torah reading during the week and on shabbat). How does one live in the same quarters 24/7 with non-religious individuals. If one is supposed to study torah during the ages of 18 and 24 (for men), then how does can one also serve in the military during this time?

2) How do the study programs help?

Study programs can serve as mediators by conducting negotiation on behalf of individuals either with the IDF or with religious systems. for example during the disengagement, some of the programs helped students by supporting them actively, some helped by negotiating with the IDF so that the students were less involved. Rabbis and books alone do not have this function.

Study programs can help individual student-soldiers with religious problems by giving halakhic advice, reassuring students, advising on how to navigate situations when dealing with specific situations or problems.  They can also mediate on a more general level: trying to help women soldiers project a halakhically-sound public image, trying to support students during the disengagement or in co-ed issues students find problematic.

In general the study programs serve mostly as a sort of “safety net” – students know that if they really need an advocate, the program will be there for them. In many cases, just the knowledge that this is possible is enough. Sometimes it isnt.

3) What did you learn from your interviews?

Any religious soldier in the IDF (and in other militaries) will tell you that he or she had to negotiate.

The book is looking at the concept of religious soldiers and the potential issues this concept raises from the perspective of the individuals themselves: what do religious Jewish Israeli soldiers contend with and how do they handle potential conflict? In that sense, I think the book is doing something new. It puts the individual soldiers in context. It looks at the mediators themselves, and the super-structures, but the focus is the soldiers. We usually talk ABOUT them, but don’t listen TO them. The book tries to listen to them, to their mediators and to the IDF. It tries to let them do the talking, rather than talk “over their heads”, as happens quite a bit in academic and journalistic discourse regarding this topic.

When I teach this topic, students usually come up with lots of examples for negotiation – not just in this field. Discussion usually reaches the point that people wish there were more options for mediation in order to make sense of our public and private lives, but even more so in order to help us deal with structures we don’t understand, don’t know how to navigate, don’t want to navigate alone, and so on. We usually feel powerless or at a disadvantage when we deal with super-structures. In the context of the book, soldiers are perceived as part of the system, but they are individuals with needs that should be addressed. This is not just for the benefit of the soldiers, but also for the benefit of the military system and the religious system. Having a mediator can be helpful to all actors in this context.

I met with students once a year for at least 3 years. So I got an opportunity to watch them change over their service. I got to see them grow up in many aspects. I had good and bad experiences with army personnel. Rabbi Sadan refused to meet but agreed to a phone interview. He wouldn’t let me come visit the mekhinah either, we had ground rules for interviewing his students (it didn’t affect what I did in the end, but it was a clear message from him about how he felt about the project).

eli sadan
(Rav Eli Sadan)

4) Why is co-ed the most sensitive issue?

This has a lot to do with Israeli society today, I think, as well as the fact that issues of tzniut are in a way more clear-cut halakhically. On the one hand, in general we see a tendency to emphasize tzniut in Israel today. Gender scholars in Israel, such as Orna Sasson-Levy (such as in: “Gender Segregation or Women’s Exclusion? – The Military as a Case Study.” Civil–Military Relations in Israel: Essays in Honor of Stuart A. Cohen (2014): 147-169.), have written about this. And so you have demands to separate buses, not to display women’s photos in the public sphere and so on. Naturally, in Israeli reality, these things spill over into the IDF.

On the other hand, while issues of disobeying orders for example are harder to muster halakhic support for, co-ed issues are a relatively easy target. I think it is harder for rabbis to be lenient when considering tzniut.

In this context, I accept Charles Liebman’s thesis on extremism that all religious systems tend toward their extremist positions and extremism is the norm. It is far harder to explain religious moderation than extremism. Extremists rarely feel the need to apologize and usually blame the moderates for not being “truly” religious. I think this idea makes it easier to understand why the issue of mixed service has become the focal point for religious issues.  It is moderation that needs to be explained. So if a rabbi takes a lenient stance on modesty, it is much harder for him to defend his position if he were to take the more stringent one. Its always easier to say “its prohibited”. Moderate rabbis are suspect.

Looking at it from a different perspective, there are a few points regarding co-ed service that I didn’t discuss in the book: Asher Cohen has spoken a lot about the effect extremists have on the mainstream (for a latest example in English: Cohen, Asher, and Bernard Susser. “The Extreme Case Syndrome in Religion-Army Relationships.” Civil–Military Relations in Israel: Essays in Honor of Stuart A. Cohen (2014): 127-146). Most religious soldiers do not conform to stringent standards of Tzniut in their daily lives when not in uniform. However, when in uniform, they are affected by the minority calling for a more stringent position on modesty and may cave in to this position for many reasons.

Another point to consider is that most religious soldiers do not encounter women during their service. Contrary to what some other civil-military scholars in Israel posit, women and religious men rarely compete for the same military positions. The overwhelming majority of religious men serve in combat positions – few women serve in semi-combat positions in the IDF. So in truth, the majority of religious men in uniform meet women in the initial stages of training (if at all) as instructors. Some do serve with women either in combat support positions or non-combat positions. But they are by far a minority.

5) How are you agreeing or differing with the journalist Amos Harel who also writes about this tension of religion and army?

Amos Harel is a journalist at Haaretz who usually covers military affairs. Harel’s latest book, in Hebrew (the title was translated as: The Face of the New IDF), paints a portrait of the IDF in the 21st century using a single unit (Its a good book – I liked it). I was able to interview soldiers from many units, so its difficult to compare. Harel’s stance in his coverage of similar issues is usually that religion in the ranks is not a positive thing. Religion should not be part of the IDF. I’m trying to put things in context and show that it is much more complex than usually presented. Not “good” or “bad”. But, I’m not sure we’re even trying to do something similar.

Religion can be a negative force. But it can also be a positive one – like anything else. When people go out to battle, or when they are serving their country in other ways, it is not uncommon to feel the need to turn to a higher power. For some people this is religion and it helps them be better soldiers. Not just to be brave, but it can also mean to be more moral. More humane. If a soldier thinks that religiously he is prohibited from behaving violently toward a prisoner of war, then religion can be a positive force. There are many other examples, and if you look at halakhic responsa (shootim) from the past decade or so, you can see examples for positive and negative influences of religion on troops. A lot depends on who is doing the asking and who is doing the responding, halakhically.

6) You compare the Israeli situation to Iran in terms of religious  aura and to Turkey regarding practical issues. Can you explain?

Islam and Judaism have a lot in common. So comparing Israel to Muslim countries is important and not done enough, i think. Of course Iran and Turkey are not the same as the Israeli case, but there is a good basis for comparison since we are dealing with religions that are law-based (or orthoprax). Additionally, all three cases are conscription-based militaries, so we might assume we would find similar structures. But we dont. And I think that the main reason we see differences has to do with boundaries and therefore also with mediation. The Iranian military doenst accept a secular reality. It is a religious Muslim force. So it has no use for mediation. Mediation would only weaken the religious establishment.

The Turkish military is apprehensive about anything to do with religion because it sees itself as a secular force – even though its soldiers are mostly Muslim, if mostly culturally so. This means it also rejects mediation. I think that perhaps if there was a possibility for mediation, the Turkish armed forces could manage religious soldiers and their needs better. In that respect, Turkey and Israel mirror each other. Since they are both conscription-based (for rank and file soldiers), they MUST include religious soldiers and so will have to contend with the dilemmas these soldiers bring with them: prayers, fasting, dietary requirements, dress and so on. In Turkey, these soldiers are basically ignored, but the problems exist. In Israel there are mediators, but – as I show in the book – they dont completely solve every problem. They are, however, better at managing tensions.

6) Does observance erode in the army?

In general, we can talk about processes. During the harder parts of service (mainly training), most of my interviewees felt there was a certain erosion in observance. However, as they progressed and entered other stages of service, this usually changed. Interestingly, quite a few interviewees felt that their level of observance actually increased. Their service made them more committed to their religious identity. Of all my interviewees, only two became secular during service, and even they weren’t entirely sure that this was a final identity change and refused to truly classify themselves.  I do note that my study did not focus on this point and I cant draw definitive conclusions as to secularization during service.

7) What makes the Gariinim program special?

The Garin program is a program geared to help religious women who would like to serve in the IDF but want two requirements met. First, they don’t want to serve in a military position that will be difficult for them religiously. Second, they would like to learn torah as well. These women can enlist through the garin and combine study with service in an environment that is more friendly for religious women (such as service as education NCOs). This is really the first time you have official programs with a halakhic “umbrella” that endorse women’s conscription. Actually, this is one of the projects I am working on now. I think that the garinim mark an important turning point in the way Israeli society in general and Religious Zionism in particular view religious women in uniform.

Religious women always served, but they were basically ignored by the religious establishment. In some places, enlisting meant you werent a “good religious girl”. 20 years ago, 12th graders in certain schools, who knew they were going to enlist rather than go to National Service, did their best to conceal this from their school so as not to hurt their sisters’ chances of getting in. The garinim didnt change this overnight, but they demonstrated how it was entirely possible to be a “good religious girl” and still serve. That is huge. I won’t say that today being a religious women in uniform is considered accepted or a norm or a “good” thing, but it certainly isnt what it used to be and the garinim played a very important part in that.

8) You read through dozens of ideological tracts, seforim, and little  books written by Rabbis for the students. Which do you recommend for readers to gain a sense of the ideological issues?

It really depends on what you are looking for. For readers who want something practical – how to guides, if you will – the books written by rabbis in mekhinot (such as LeEzrat Hashem BaGiborim) and Rabbi Yosef-Tzi Rimon’s (a rabbi  who teaches at Har Eztion) booklets are good choices.

These are basically “how to” books – either practical (how to keep up a positive attitude in the face of difficult and trying military realities, how to find ways to uphold morality or stick to one’s ideals even when others around are slacking off, wasting time and so on) or halakhic (for example – what to do with one’s tfilin if one is leaving the base on Shabbat for a combat situation and will not be back before Sunday morning. Is it permissible to take the tfilin with, in order to be able to use them on Sunday, even though it is prohibited to carry them on Shabbat? During prayer in the field, when it is difficult for cohanim to remove their shoes, can they perform “aliya la-duhan” with shoes? Are there halakhic rules for guard duty? [yes – there are. For example, it is forbidden to be late for your shift as being late means stealing time from the soldier you are relieving; which is prohibited by halakha]. Is it permissible to count non-religious soldiers for a minyan? Or – one of the most common dilemmas encountered by religious soldiers: is it permissible to eat “food that traveled”? – food that was brought to the military base or outpost on Shabbat, violating the eruv.). They are small, army-pocket-sized books that can be very helpful for a religious soldier in daily military life.

Personally, I find almost anything written by Rabbi Eli Sadan, one of the heads of the mekhina in Elie, fascinating. I think he is perhaps one of the least understood rabbis to those who are not his students. Everyone thinks they know what he says, but don’t bother to read him.I think if people really want to understand what the mekhinot are about ideologically, his writings are pivotal.

I think its a shame some rabbis and leaders do not publish more – Rabbi David Bigman of the Religious Kibbutz, Ms. Tami Biton of the Be’er program and Rabbi Ohad Tehar-Lev of the Hadas program, are just a few examples. They have a lot to say, but few hear them since they only speak to their students. It creates a reality where only certain voices are heard and this naturally influences discourse on the topic.

For example, all three of these figures speak of a “thinking halakha”, where a true Torah scholar is ready to ask questions, even without receiving answers, and is willing to face the modern, secular world, and learn from it. Tami Biton has a clear social agenda that she wants to instill in her students. Rabbi Ohad (as his students call him) feels that “if military service is a mitzva, then it’s a mitzva for everyone”, both women and men. His students are taught that their observance of halakha is important and meaningful and that the fact that they are women does not detract from this.

Rabbi Bigman’s students all stress that military service is not a positive thing. It is a civil duty that should be carried out well, but certainly not something to be looked forward to. In his classes and talks, he emphasizes that a Torah scholar must be sensitive to the world he lives in. During one of our talks he told me how much he was impressed, as a teen growing up in the United States, by the famous picture of Rabbi Heschel marching with Martin Luther King Jr. These voices are not as prominent in public discourse and rarely heard when discussing religious soldiers in the IDF.

I think the most interesting part of this project, for me, was meeting rabbis and students, various officers, women who are important to the changes in civil-military relations in this sphere. Most of these people dont have much of a public voice, but they are extremely influential and have something to say that is worth listening to. What I should really do is just publish the interviews. It would be more interesting than this book.

3 responses to “Religious Student-Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces: Interview with Elisheva Rosman-Stollman

  1. Elisheva, thank you for the fascinating interview, I look forward reading your book. How do you explain what happened and not happened during the Disengagement and what are your projections for the future in terms of further withdraws that may take place?

  2. “the mekhina in Elie”, should be Eli (as in its official site: As an historical footnot, the approach taken by Shabtei Ben-Dov in his article in “Sullam” in 1962, if I recall correctly, to create a Yeshiva that the State required should be included in any academic study of the mechinot phenomenon. As for the so-called secular mechinot, or the mixed ones, like Ein Prat, I presume some PhD candidate is working on those.

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