Religious-Zionism and Gender: 70 Years of Redefining the Identity of Women in the Military, Religious, and Public Spheres

Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman. Israel Studies. Volume 23, Issue 3. Fall 2018.

On 13 May 1948, the day before the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel and at the height of the War of Independence, 39 young Religious-Zionist women from the Gush Etzion kibbutzim, mostly single, but also some married women and mothers, serving as medics, coordinators, and guards were captured by the Jordanians.

Despite the tragedy, this event may be perceived as epitomizing the new identity the Religious-Zionist women gained during the British Mandate; an identity which was expressed in their participation in the security, political, and organizational aspects of the traditionally “male” public space. Originally stemming from a desire to share in the national struggle with the men, this involvement became the platform for the development of new gender relations within the Religious-Zionist sector. “We, the religious pioneer movement, have revolutionized the status of the woman within traditional religious society, taking pride in the fact that we have not impinged upon classical Jewish ethics in the process,” asserted Moshe Una, a Hapoel Hamizrahi MK, in a Knesset debate in the wake of which female conscription became mandatory in 1949.

The creation of the State, however, redirected Religious-Zionist history yet again. While many aspects of gender relations reverted to their previous status, in the 1980s the place and position of the religious woman and revolutionary and feminist initiatives became the subject of increasing discussion. This debate still revolves around three major issues: military service, Torah-study and women’s participation in religious activities, and self-organization by religious women on behalf of women and women’s rights. The article addresses these three areas and the developments that have occurred within them over the 70 years since the establishment of the State.

On the Eve of the Establishment of the State: Revolutionary Gender Initiatives on a National Platform

The distinctive female identity that developed within the Religious-Zionist sector in Mandate Palestine was formed against the backdrop of the heterogeneous social nature of the Yishuv. While constituting an integral part of the new society, Religious-Zionists sought to preserve a traditional lifestyle. The constant tension they experienced between the new and the old directly affected the image of women that developed within it, many looking for ways to maintain the traditional patriarchalism predicated on gender division while also espousing a new set of gender relations for the nascent Jewish sovereign State.

Calling for the mobilization of all available resources, the national struggle for the establishment of the State created a window of opportunity for projects that, retrospectively, may be termed feminist. Religious women formed female organizations as a way of contributing to the Religious-Zionist enterprise and the advancement of women alike. Institutions were created to assist the integration of immigrants and educate young religious girls, many women also entering professional training courses. Running on independent religious lists, religious female representatives were appointed to elected assemblies, participated in the settlement enterprise, and established kibbutzim, their daughters studying Talmud from a young age together with their brothers in a clean break from tradition. Religious-Zionist women joined various branches of the defense forces, acting in diverse capacities therein, 20 falling in the War of Independence. While many acted out of a sense of nationalist identification rather than a desire for gender equality, they heavily impacted the self-image of religious women and recognition of their abilities.

In general, Religious-Zionist women in Mandate Palestine conceived their personal, religious, and national purpose as motherhood. Some, however, also sought to change the image of society and the place of women therein, calling for gender equality while retaining the spirit of Judaism. Promoting equal education for both sexes, they believed that women could move beyond the confines of the home and help establish the national homeland. This being in part a response to the fledgling national revival, it may be perceived as a “conditional feminism” fueled by specific circumstances. It was also marked by a contradictory desire to establish and assume new feminine roles while remaining within traditional identity parameters. This was a difficult task that created a paradoxical reality, many continuing to express themselves in conservatism terms and at the same time pioneering new female paths and roles in action. While engaging in feminist activity, many soon resumed their traditional roles.

The Initial Decades: The Triumph of traditional Gender Conservatism

The gender developments that occurred within this sector on the eve of the State stuttered and failed to make any real ground all the way through to the 1980s. The uncertain security situation, poor economy, integration of waves of mass immigration, etc., with which Israeli society had to deal upon the creation of the State pushed gender issues onto the back burner. Assimilating the new values relating to women and their place was a long and protracted process that only gradually began to make its mark on society at large. Although the national struggle to establish a Jewish state not only facilitated but even prompted it to a large degree, thereafter it stalled, the agreement between the Religious-Zionists and Orthodox factions in this regard exemplifying the Religious-Zionist commitment to traditional values over cooperation with secular Zionists and the adoption of new views of gender and equality.

While seeking to bridge the secular and Orthodox worlds, Religious-Zionists were wary of being swept up by the new models and losing their traditional anchor. The sympathetic attitude towards gender initiatives they exhibited during the Mandate derived more from pragmatic principles and national needs rather than an essential change in outlook. Once the national objectives were attained, women resumed their traditional status, the new ideas being regarded as a transitory episode. Only championed by a minority, most religious women in the young State neither discussed gender issues nor pursued equality.

Without any explicit feminist consciousness, the window of opportunity the foundation of the State had opened up was not fully exploited by women, who refrained from building on the winds of change. The initiatives towards gender equality that arose in the religious camp during the Mandate vanished almost overnight with the establishment of the State, religious society resuming its traditional gender stance, confining women almost exclusively to the home for the next three decades.

Efforts to create an egalitarian religious space—such as kibbutz synagogues in which men and women prayed without a partition—gave way to traditional prayer practices. Talmud study amongst girls in religious kibbutzim never became a widespread phenomenon, the revolutionary ulpana (religious girls’ high school) formed in the 1940s along the lines of the male yeshiva being replaced by institutions designed to embed young girls within the traditional framework and strengthen their status as wives and homemakers. Following the establishment of the State, religious women’s organizations focused primarily on welfare and charity—traditional female fields; these were strengthened by the circumstances that made them a necessary fact of life.

The professional breakthrough that training courses for women had achieved also corresponded to, rather than challenged, traditional gender divisions. Following their intensive political involvement in elected assemblies, religious women were again marginalized politically in the wake of the détente between Religious-Zionism and Orthodox circles. Active duty in the defense forces gave way to a prohibition against female conscription. While Israeli women continued to break the mold by participating in military operations—albeit in female capacities—in religious circles most returned to the traditional rubric after participating in the War of Independence. In 1961, the absolute prohibition against female conscription to the IDF issued by the rabbinate was adopted by Mafdal, the Religious-Zionist party. This move was resisted by certain streams in the Religious-Zionist camp, however. Headed by members of the religious kibbutzim, these women continued for to enlist many years despite constituting a minority in their sector. Bnei Akiva female graduates similarly participated in Nahal groups for some two decades.

The Six-Day War and National-Religious rejuvenation that ensued in its wake inspired young religious girls to participate actively in implementing their national sentiments. Although some began enlisting in the military, up until the 1980s this recruitment rate remained low. Many opted for national service which, since the formation of the Israeli Volunteer Association in 1971, had gained greater official recognition. Becoming the preferred form of service within the Religious-Zionist camp, this trend gained momentum with the strengthening national-religious trend within the Religious-Zionist movement.

Recent Decades: Renewed Revival on the Basis of Female and Feminist Awareness

Towards the end of the 1970s, new buds of a religious-women’s revolution began to bloom. These were fostered by three sources: first, the second wave of feminism in the country, second, initiatives by American Orthodox, and feminist women who, seeking gender equality within the religious world itself, took active means to try and achieve it, and third—the involvement in the public space of religious women, driven by national goals. The voices calling for gender equality in recent decades are heard most loudly in religious space, public space, and the military.

From the late 1970s onwards, religious women became more well-educated, making their presence felt in the public space by occupying administrative posts and key positions and taking up careers in diverse fields beyond those traditionally reserved for women—education and welfare. Although many began looking for personal fulfilment in addition to their traditional-national gender role as family-makers and childrearers, they found themselves trapped between tradition and modernity.

At the same time, their growing participation in modern life highlighted the way in which they were excluded from many dimensions of traditional religious life. The fact that the synagogue retained its traditional format and women could still not engage in Torah studies (including Talmud) prompted a circle to work to open up this male preserve. These efforts formed the foundation for the emergence of new women’s roles.

The Religious Sphere

Throughout the generations, Jewish society has excluded women from Torah-study on diverse grounds. Even when Torah-based education was made available to girls in the twentieth century, the Talmud—its core—remained out of bounds. Under the leadership of Alice Shalvi, the pioneer in this field was Pelech, a religious girls’ high school in Jerusalem, established in 1975. Including Talmud in its curriculum, this sought to foster feminine awareness and encourage its students to become socially active, producing a nucleus of well-educated girls with a firmly-developed sense of leadership. At the same time, feminist Orthodox American women immigrants joined forces with religious kibbutz women to create groups to study Talmud. Over time, these evolved into Women’s Institutes and Centers for Advanced Torah and Halakhic Studies (Midrashot). The most well-known of these are Lindenbaum (Midreshet Bruria) (1976), Ein Hanatziv (1986), Matan (1988), Nishmat (1990), Migdal Oz (1997), and Be’er (2004). Although disparate in character, they all seek to seriously and systematically impart Torah knowledge and halakhah to religious women. Inspired by women looking to strengthen religion and participate in the public space, they constituted the first and most striking symbol of a gender revolution within religious society. Gathering momentum, they now number 44 across the country with a student population of several thousand.

While at end of the twentieth century the question at stake was women’s capacities, or the right to study Torah in all its aspects, today this is no longer a pressing issue. While Talmud study no longer lies beyond the reach of women, however, women’s education is still regarded in halakhic terms as less valuable than men’s. Nevertheless, the Torah knowledge they have acquired has enabled women to enter fields traditionally closed to them and impact the personal status of women in general and their place in religious society in particular. A new feminine-religious role has developed: rabbinic pleaders and halakhic advisors. Institutions providing the necessary qualifications for these posts also arising. These studies and the new status of women have led to the emergence of a feminine religious leadership.

Feminist ideas also found their way into the synagogue, one of the determiners of the personal identity of the religious Jew and membership within the community. “Women’s prayer groups” were established across the country. Alongside these, a number of Orthodox egalitarian-oriented synagogues that allow women to participate in the ritual and prayer (integrated minyanim) were established. The first Kehilat Yedidya (Jerusalem, 1980) was set up by Anglo-Saxon immigrants influenced by egalitarian synagogues in the United States (themselves inspired by the religious feminist movement). In 2002, an offshoot of Yedidya was formed, called Shira Hadasha, which served as a model for numerous others. Initiated by American academics and feminists, these have become social communities.

More than 20 integrated minyanim exists in Israel. Despite their clear statement of their intent to stay within the confines of Orthodox halakhah, these “stretch” the bounds of halakhah and have thus encountered fierce Orthodox resistance. They have nonetheless exerted a significant influence on regular synagogues, some of which have also begun appointing women to administrative posts and allowing them to deliver Torah addresses. Even though these new minyanim are few and far between, their existence and development attest to feminine and feminist awareness and dissatisfaction with traditional-gender-bound regular synagogues.

The Public Sphere

The feminist spirit has also found its way into public space. The struggle Leah Shakdiel, a pioneer of religious feminism, waged during the 1980s to serve as a member of the religious council in Yeruham marked the beginning of a movement towards the involvement of religious women in the traditionally male stronghold of religious space. After a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Shakdiel became the first woman in Israel to sit on a religious council, inspiring a wave of religious and feminist women to start working on behalf of women’s issues in the public space. These received the backing of the secular feminist organizations that arose in the 1980s in pursuit of gender equality.

Towards the end of the 1950s, the religious women’s bodies created in pre-State Israel—the Mizrahi Women and Women’s Workers of Hapoel Hamizrahi—united to form the Religious Women’s Movement (Ta’adal). Later becoming Emuna, this set itself the goal of advancing the cause of religious women without challenging the existing social order. The religious women’s organizations that developed from the 1990s onwards, however, exhibit clearly feminine and feminist features, their members seeking to raise awareness in public discourse and amongst the religious public of the importance of gender equality and working on behalf of women’s rights in the halakhic sphere.

One of the most prominent bodies in this context is Kolech (1998), a feminist and religious-women’s forum committed to effecting social and consciousness-awareness change in order to advance the status of women, gender equality, and women’s rights in society as a whole and the religious sector in particular. Attempts to improve the legal state of women within the framework of halakhah as part of the struggle against the religious Establishment were also undertaken by the International Coalition for Aguna Rights (ICAR, 1989), which brings together several organizations under a single umbrella in order to aid agunot, women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce, and help eliminate the phenomenon.

Religious-women’s organizations work towards raising public awareness within the religious sector of the injustices that up until now have been swept under the carpet and denied. Centers have been set up for religious women that seek to combat sexual harassment within the religious community. Bat Meleh (1995) and other similar organizations assisting women victims of domestic violence. The changes are even evident in the veteran Emunah organization, which operates in similar directions albeit occasionally in different ways. All these seek to promote a feminist agenda in public discourse and religious society, despite not all making this goal public either for reasons of principle or as a tactical step in order not to provoke antagonism among religious society, as many religious women still regard “feminism” as a radical and anti-traditional movement.

In contrast to earlier decades, however, during which “feminism” was a “dirty word” amongst many religious women, the voices of religious women are now increasingly being heard within the public discourse and social media. Two representative websites are the “I’m a religious feminist—who also has no sense of humor” and “Halakhic feminists”. The openness and pluralism these groups exhibit form the launching pad for a lively discourse relating to diverse social issues that arise within the religious sector, such as the religious LGBT community, sexuality, etc. Some religious feminists openly declare: “Our worship of God is within our feminism”.

The Military Sphere

The new feminine awareness that began emerging amongst young religious women also manifested itself in the rise in the number of those enlisting in the IDF. The first signs of this trend appeared towards the end of the 1980s, when young religious women began—on their own initiative and without any prompting—to present themselves for service. Despite the reservations of the religious Establishment towards this movement and the unique challenges military life poses to religious women, the phenomenon has gained momentum and doubled in intensity over the past decade, the numbers of religious women recruits growing from 935 in 2010 to 1,830 in 2015. Many of these are not only graduates of ulpanot and maintain a religious lifestyle but seek to strengthen their religious identity prior to entering the army.

This movement runs in the face of the majority rabbinic opinion and religious Establishment, which prohibits enlistment. It also functions virtually without any official guidance or preparation by IDF representatives, who are refused entry to many girls’ educational institutions. It derives from a developing sense of feminine awareness and a desire for self-realization, together with a faith in religious women’s abilities and their personal and religious strength. Their national-religious foundation being firm, they seek to instill the values on which they were raised in their military service.

While some conservative elements sought to escalate the struggle against this “ground-roots” movement, others looked for ways to help the new recruits preserve their religious identity within the military framework. Some institutions were created to give them spiritual and practical guidance in preparation for their service—such as Aluma, founded in 1983 by the religious kibbutz, and a preparatory program established in 2002 that also supports the religious soldiers during their military service. Since 1998, midrashot have offered recruitment tracks combining military service and Torah-study. 2006 witnessed the establishment of the pre-army-service program Tzahali for religious women under the aegis of the religious kibbutz. Websites created by private initiatives also offer assistance to religious women recruits—such as Matat, launched in 2012. While these attest to a growing phenomenon, they themselves also form an integral part of its emergence.


The gender developments surveyed above point to a seesawing movement towards social change. The process began with (in retrospect) feminist voices that arose before the creation of the State. These then faded away, the traditional model remaining prevalent for many years. In more recent times, feminist projects have been initiated that reflect both dissatisfaction with the existing situation amongst the religious sector and a growing feminine awareness amongst the younger generation and search for solutions to the tension between feminism and Orthodoxy.

The religious women who are seeking gender change wish to remain within traditional religious society. Although this forms a challenge in personal terms it also tests the religious community, heightening the inherent tension between the modern secular and Orthodox worlds and the drive towards integration vs. the tendency towards isolation.

Despite their minority status, the “ground-roots” gender-change initiatives are forcing the religious sector to discuss gender issues, creating divisions with the Religious-Zionist camp and drawing attention to its heterogeneous character. The litmus test of the changing face of Religious-Zionism may thus well be defined as the question of women and their status in society. The developments reviewed above have led to contrary trends: while the liberals have sided with (often retrospectively) religious feminism, conservative opposition has grown, leading to a more stringent halakhic approach that seeks to preserve traditional gender relations. Now as then, one of the prominent issues this group raises is the threat of the slippery slope and what the future may hold. An analysis of recent historical gender developments nonetheless points to the fact that various aspects that aroused fierce opposition in the past have now become accepted norms. At the Kolech conference held in October 2017, for example, the discussion of women’s right to study Torah gave way to a debate over the new religious family, single women, religious single parents, etc. In the near future, we may expect these to remain the focus of attention and change.

The complex blend of feminism and Orthodoxy is a persistent subject of the public discourse within the religious community, also being addressed in many scholarly studies. It is commonly believed that an unbridgeable gap is opening up between the two. Tamar Ross posits that, inter alia, the solution will arise from the bottom up, initiated by women with a strong feminine and (albeit not always explicit) feminist awareness who are nevertheless committed to halakhah. While the developments we have noted herein appear to confirm this view, they also evince that the gender question within religious society does not relate exclusively to women but is also of great significance for the shaping of the image of society and the possibility of maintaining a religious lifestyle within modern society.