(Israeli Apache helicopters release flares during an air force pilots' graduation ceremony at Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 29, 2011. Some 40 cadets, including an record-high of five women, graduated. REUTERS/Nir Elias )

A top Israeli military rabbi resigned on Tuesday after making comments that appeared to condone allowing ultra-Orthodox troops to avoid contact with women, which stirred debate over the sway of religion in the Jewish state. The ultra-Orthodox make up some 10 percent of Israel’s population and the secular majority often chafes at their welfare benefits and electoral clout.

Secular Jews have complained about the spread of ascetic practices such as sexually-segregated buses. Anger boiled over last month after an 8-year-old girl complained of being spat on by men who deemed her dress immodest.

The ultra-Orthodox are routinely exempted from conscription, but a small number, in the low thousands, have been persuaded to volunteer for the armed forces. To accommodate devout troops, the military had quietly excused some from attending mandatory functions when women were present. When the practice drew attention, chief of staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz announced on Army Radio that full attendance would be enforced.

Lieutenant-Colonel Moshe Ravad, chief air force chaplain, who was in charge of enlisting ultra-Orthodox Jews, said last week he feared for the volunteers’ “piety”. His comments, leaked to the media, were widely interpreted as a rejection of the orders requiring soldiers to attend mixed-sex events.