Women in the Military

Women in the Military


Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom


Parshat Ki Tetze – פרשת כי תצא

August 21, 2021 – יג אלול תשפא

This essay is sponsored by Alan Benjamin in honor of the Anshe Sholom daily minyan.

Women in the Military

The Torah bans cross-dressing. “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 22:5).” The sages widened the scope of the prohibition to include personal grooming specific to the opposite sex. Men are forbidden to remove their armpit or pubic hair (Nazir 59a). Men are also forbidden to wear women’s jewelry and cosmetics (Sifre Deuteronomy 226).   Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob derived from Deuteronomy 22:5 that women are prohibited from going to war with weapons because military gear is a male adornment. The Midrash found support for this ruling from the fact that Yael killed the Canaanite general Sisera not with a sword, but by driving a tent peg into his skull (Judges 4:21). She used a household item, not a conventional weapon, precisely because women are forbidden to handle military hardware (Midrash Proverbs 31). Torah Temimah noted that Deuteronomy does not use the word איש (man) to describe the kind of attire forbidden to women. Rather, the text has גבר, connoting masculinity and bravery (גבורה). The clothing and implements employed for manliness are not meant for female usage.   The Talmud posits that it is the way of the world for men, not women, to wage war (Kiddushin 2b). God’s directive to early man “Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth, and master it (Genesis 1:28)” is understood to mean that it is in the male, but not the female, nature to engage in conquest (Yebamoth 65b). The Talmud’s repeated use of the word דרך (derech), meaning “way,” is a manifestation of the rabbinic worldview that society functions according to predictable patterns of behavior largely determined by a person’s gender, age, socio-economic status, etc.   With the rise of modern Zionism, and especially after the establishment of the State of Israel, the question of conscripting women into the Armed Forces became a matter of vigorous public debate. On February 27, 1951, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Ha-Levi Herzog and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel jointly issued a statement declaring that it was halakhically forbidden to conscript women (whether married or single) into any manner of military service (including even in clerical or any other non-combat roles).[i]   Haredi objections to the conscription of women precipitated the fall of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s 3rd Government of Israel. After Minister of Welfare Yitzhak Meir Levin’s resignation in September 1952, Agudat Yisrael would not rejoin the government until the Likud’s rise to power in 1977. On October 20, 1952, Ben-Gurion famously met with the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak. Some accounts of that meeting describe it as being a discussion about female military service[ii].  However, according to the only eye-witness, future Israeli President Yitzhak Navon, the issue of women soldiers never came up.   Despite being an Israeli state institution, the Chief Rabbinate continued formally to object to the presence of women in the IDF. In the face of a strong halakhic preference not to take solemn oaths even when the underlying statements were true, Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef considered it a “great mitzvah” to testify about the piety of a young woman seeking a military exemption on religious grounds (Shu”t Yabia Omer 1 Yoreh Deah 17). In 2014, the current Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef reaffirmed the Chief Rabbinate’s opposition to the service of women in the military. Then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid called for the Chief Rabbis to resign. He noted that if the State adopted the Chief Rabbinate’s viewpoint, it would be necessary to increase the term of male conscription to an unacceptably long 4.5 years. Then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, though personally in favor of women’s military service, chastised Lapid for being disrespectful to the Chief Rabbis, who were merely re-affirming the traditional guidance.   However, several Chief Rabbis quietly issued more flexible guidance to individual petitioners. Rabbi Abraham Biderman, who served as secretary to Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman (1964-1972), acknowledged that the Rabbinate would not object to a religious girl’s serving in the army if the young woman was highly motivated to serve and was absolutely convinced that she could maintain her piety and innocence in the face of great pressures. Rabbi Zalman Kwitner, personal secretary to Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1973-1983), quoted Rav Goren as saying that a young woman who believes that her religious commitments are strong enough to survive the army experience may be inducted, though preferably in an all-religious unit.   Is there any basis in rabbinic literature for a lenient ruling on the matter of women’s bearing arms in defense of their country?   Sefer Ha-chinuch ruled that women are exempt from the commandment to hear “Parshat Zakhor,” the annual Torah reading commemorating the Israelites’ struggle against Amalek, because women do not engage in warfare (Mitzvah 603). This opinion has been largely forgotten; it is customary for women – even those who rarely attend synagogue services – to be present during the communal reading of Zakhor. The commentators questioned Sefer Ha-chinuch’s stance, noting that women do participate in some of Israel’s wars. After describing the process for exempting certain categories of men from military service (see Deuteronomy 20:5-9), the Mishnah clarifies that those exemptions apply only to discretionary wars. When Israel fights an obligatory war – a category not well-defined, but which undoubtedly includes national defense in the face of imminent attack – a groom is taken from the bridal chamber and a bride from the wedding canopy (Mishnah Sotah 8:7). The participation of women in the war effort is codified by Rambam -- although, like the Mishnah, he does not clarify the nature of the role to be played by women (Hilkhot Melakhim 7:4).   Radbaz questioned how women’s participation in the war effort could be reconciled with the verse “All glorious is the king’s daughter within the palace (Psalms 45:14),” the Scriptural basis for the traditional approach of restricting women’s involvement in public affairs. He theorized that what the Mishnah intended was for women to supply food and water to their soldier-husbands, as was the custom in his generation among Arabs. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef cited the Radbaz in explaining that during an obligatory war it is the responsibility of women to bake, cook, supply provisions, and sew uniforms for the soldiery (Shu”t Yechaveh Daat 1:84).   In the early decades after its founding, modern Israel was a garrison state situated in an unfriendly region and subject to frequent attack. Arguably, Israel’s precarious position justified drafting women into non-combatant military roles. The unwillingness of most of the rabbis to accept the demands of the moment was under-girded, in part, by technical halakhic considerations stemming from Talmudic interpretations of Deuteronomy 22:5. But the overriding considerations shaping their opinions were concerns about a) a dramatic departure from existing social norms and b) how women – even those who had had religious upbringings – would be tainted by the coarseness of the military environment. Those fears were not without merit.   Outside of the State of Israel, other western countries with Jewish populations opened up their militaries, in varying degrees, to female participation. In 1980, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter re-activated the Selective Service System. He also asked Congress to amend the law so that women, too, would be subject to the draft were it to be re-instated. Congress did not do so, and in 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court (in Rostker v. Goldberg) upheld the constitutionality of restricting the draft to men.   While this controversy was ongoing, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote a responsum in which he restated, in the strongest possible terms, the halakhic objection to women’s military service. He went further and declared forbidden any coerced national service for women. He regarded the proposed legislation to be a grave threat to American Jewry.   Rabbi Feinstein was a very patriotic American citizen. He was forever grateful to the United States for welcoming him and his family in the 1930s when they needed to escape from Communist Russia. He believed that the United States would not knowingly pass laws harmful to Jewry. And he was convinced that Orthodox lobbyists in Washington D.C. could explain the situation to members of the House and Senate and that the legislation would be scuttled. It is unclear whether Rav Moshe’s words reflect Judeo-centric naivete or cautious optimism. In any case, the desired outcome was ultimately secured (Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 4:9).   In the technologically advanced world of contemporary warfare, not all soldiers need to be heavily-muscled individuals ready to engage in hand-to-hand combat. Much current engagement with the enemy occurs at a distance, sometimes of miles. In light of such changes in the nature of modern warfare, some of the objections to women’s military service fade into the background.   Yet other objections remain, especially for those with a conservative social bent and for those who worry about sustaining a young woman’s religious orientation. It is a policy question that remains controversial.         [i] Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, said that “Even if they will recruit women for the recitation of Tehillim and arm them with Korban Minchah siddurim, the prohibition would remain intact! The determining factor is the forced conscription, not the nature and purpose of the conscription.” Shimon Finkelman, The Chazon Ish (1989) at 244.   The Chazon Ish’s position was that girls receiving draft notices were to ignore them, and that girls had to accept martyrdom rather than allow themselves to be drafted. I