Is Tzahal Trying to "De-Program" Religious Soldiers?

[Interview which appeared in the Jewish Press -

Last week, the Israel Defense Forces announced that kosher supervisors will now be drawn from the ranks of female soldiers along with the men. While instruction courses were designed to be taught separately, after an insufficient number of female cadets registered, it was decided that men and women soldiers would study together. The new arrangement raised eyebrows in the Orthodox community which, time and again, during the tenure of former Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisencot, raised its voice in protest over a list of army ordinances which seemed to disregard, and even oppose the religious beliefs and sensitivities of Orthodox soldiers, decrees including beard regulations; women in combat units; ultra-liberal lecturers in the army education program; required attendance at ceremonies where women sing, and more. To clarify matters, the Jewish Press spoke with Israel’s Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ateret Yerushalayim in the Old City, and Rabbi of the town Bet El, author of more than a hundred books on Torah commentary and halacha.

We have sometimes heard Rabbis state that there exists a conscious effort on the part of Tzahal’s higher echelon to “de-program” religious soldiers from their allegiance to Torah. 
HaRav Aviner: “That isn’t true. There is a very minority of people who say such things, and the media blows it out of proportion to make a spicy story, but there is no secret conspiracy in Tzahal to strip religious soldiers of their beliefs. On the contrary, throughout all of the ranks there is a spirit of, “All for one and one for all.” Unity, concern for one’s fellow, and working together to achieve a common goal, characterize the attitude of soldiers, officers, and generals alike. Similar to every large group, there can be exceptions here and here, but overall, the IDF is exemplified by joint respect and brotherhood throughout the ranks.
“First we have to understand that the situation is not all bad. There are problems, and we work to improve everything that we can, but because there are problems, that doesn’t mean that the Israeli Army is traf, G-d forbid. The situation is not black and white. As the old saying goes, you have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the dirty bath water.
“When we speak about the Israel Defense Forces, we are speaking about ‘pekuach nefesh,’ meaning life and death. In this case, we are speaking about the life and death of all the Jews in Israel. We have to remember that Israel is surrounded by enemies. Hundreds of millions of enemies who want to destroy us. This is certainly ‘pekuach nefesh,’ and in a situation where life is at stake, such as when soldiers must go forth to battle, it is forbidden to weaken the ranks. This is forbidden by the Torah. If criticism of the army causes people to view the army in a critical light, to the point of refusing to serve in the army, this attitude weakens Tzahal and endangers the nation. Therefore, we have to be very careful when criticizing the army. We recognize the matters that demand correction, and we strive to correct them, but we must first have a feeling of respect for the IDF and its leaders, along with a feeling of gratitude that Hashem has given us a Jewish army to defend us from our enemies. Certainly Tzahal must respect the rules of modesty. The army is no place for women, and certainly no place for women combat soldiers. Without question, it must honor the rules of kashrut and Shabbat. Great progress has been made in these areas. The Army Rabbinate works around the clock to ensure that the beliefs and religious practices of dati soldiers are honored. Special religious units have been created for soldiers who want everything glatt kosher. There is the Hesder program that combines army service with Torah learning, and there are the Shachar and Nachal Yehuda programs for Haredi soldiers where there is no contact with women. Yes, there are matters that need correction, but because problems exist, we don’t reject the army. The same is true with the State of Israel. Certainly there are problems. Not everything is the way we want it to be. There are many foreign groups, organizations from Europe and the like, who invest great amounts of money to denude Israel of its holy Torah values, attempting within the army as well, and this is a phenomenon which must be opposed, but because of the problems, we don’t reject the gift we have received from the Master of the World. When a baby is born with some type of defect, we don’t throw it into the trash, G-d forbid. We do everything we can to heal the infant, with patience and love.”   

If a soldier finds himself in a compromising situation with a female soldier, what should he do?
Rav Aviner: “In such a situation, for example, if he is ordered to spend the night in a vehicle on guard duty with a woman soldier, he should inform his commander that he cannot follow the order – that he is willing to do a hundred other orders, but not this one, and he should refuse to obey the command.”

There are voices which insist that Torah study brings protection and strength to the nation – therefore students of Torah should not have to serve in the army.
HaRav Aviner: “Service in the Israel Defense Forces is a mitzvah. A person interrupts Torah study to daven shacharit. One interrupts Torah study to honor one’s parents, and so on. A person must study Torah for a solid period of time, and then serve in the army when the time and circumstance demands, then return to his studies or his chosen field of endeavor. The IDF allows Torah students to serve less time than regular soldiers, but some service is required of everyone, for three reasons: to save the life of the nation; to maintain Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel; and to avoid the Chillul Hashem of non-Jews defeating Israel in battle and conquering the Land which Hashem gave to the Jews. Moshe Rabeinu served in the army; Yehoshua served in the army; King David served in the army, etc. These holy heroes of the nation were great in military prowess and great in Torah.”

When a Jewish youth in the Diaspora reaches the age of army service, does he have the same obligation to serve in the IDF that young men in Israel have? 
HaRav Aviner: “Young Jewish men in the Diaspora have the obligation to make Aliyah, and out of that obligation, they have the duty to defend the people of Israel from the enemies which threaten the nation. Of course, Aliyah is not easy, and there are those, for whatever justifiable reason, are not capable of performing the mitzvah. But today in Israel, a livelihood is possible to find, Jewish education abounds, and olim can find comradery and support from others like them who have come to Israel from America, England, or France. The fact is that Jewish life in the Diaspora is not without dangers of its own. Sixty percent of Jews intermarry. Seventy-five percent see no reason why they shouldn’t marry out of the faith. According to trustworthy surveys, in the overall Diaspora population, the lack of Jewish identity has reached at a catastrophic low. It is a silent Holocaust. This makes the mitzvah of living in Israel even more imperative.”

When discussing the issue of Aliyah with Orthodox Jews from America, one often hears the argument that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein stated that Aliyah is not an obligation, but rather an optional mitzvah.
Rav Aviner: “We don’t purport to disregard the opinion of HaRav Feinstein, of blessed memory, but not everything that HaRav Feinstein said was agreed upon by all the Rabbis, just as not every decision of the Rambam was accepted as halacha. Today, the time of the great Rabbis of the Diaspora has come to an end. Indeed, there remains but a handful compared with days gone by. Today, the greatest concentration of Gedolim by far can be found in the Land of Israel. That fact speaks for itself. It is very difficult to find among them, someone who says that Aliyah is not an obligation. There are those who have a problem with recognizing the sanctity of the State of Israel, but, almost without exception, they all agree that today a Jew belongs in the Holy Land. The exaltedness of Eretz Yisrael is so great that many are against leaving the Land, even to participate in a wedding celebration. Our Sages inform us that living in the Land of Israel is equal in weight to all of the commandments of the Torah, so, of course, living here, and defending the nation and the Land, are supreme and holy mitzvot for each and every Jew.”