In 1991, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, hosted the international conference of the World Council of Churches. I was present as an observer representing the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Though refused permission to address a plenary session, I was able to engage in networking behind the scenes.
One lunchtime I was in the cafeteria when an Australian conference delegate asked, “May I share your table?” I said yes and, glancing at her name tag, said, “I think you owe me one. It’s thanks to me that you are an air force chaplain!” Her appointment had been under consideration by the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services, of which I was the Jewish member. The five Christians on the committee were at odds about the proposal, not that they had anything against her personally, but some had a rooted objection to women clergy. It was I who broke the deadlock by proposing that any denomination be entitled to nominate for a chaplaincy appointment any minister in good standing in that faith group. Thus the Royal Australian Air Force got its first woman chaplain.
Though we had no Jewish woman chaplains, we did, from at least the 1940s, have Jewish women serving in the Australian Defence Force. I don’t think any woman had consulted a rabbi before enlisting. I doubt that any enlisted merely out of feminism. They simply wished to serve their country.
Nonetheless there is a Jewish point of view about women in the military. The Torah (Deuteronomy 20) considers the question of whether a newly married man with a wife at home can be conscripted for military service. Women were not thought of as soldiers. The Talmud says bluntly, “It is the way of a man to make war, not the way of a woman” (Kiddushin 2b). The men went to war; the women stayed home, often becoming young widows.
But this is not the whole story. Deborah (Judges 4) helped to destroy the enemy, like Yael (Judges 4-5) and Judith (in the Apocrypha). These women operated with wit, wile and tenacity. The Mishnah says that in an obligatory war (e.g. to defend the Land of Israel) everyone must fight, even a bride from her huppa, or marriage canopy (Sotah 8:7), though Judaism prefers women to have a more private role, saying, “The whole glory of the princess is inward” (Psalm 45:14). Nonetheless women did go into battle. An archaeologist relative has shown me that a significant minority of Bar Kokhba’s troops were female. We have the names of those who held leadership rank in the struggle against Rome.
The Sefer HaHinnukh says that the command to eradicate Amalek “applies to males but not to females” (Mitzva 603). The Avnei Nezer (Orah Hayyim 509) distinguishes between a battle, in which only males take part, and attacking an individual Amalekite, which a woman can do. Sefer HaHinnukh itself (Mitzva 245) allows women to help eradicate the seven Canaanite nations as part of the mitzva of settling the land. Because of the prohibition of cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5), Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says that a woman should not wear military uniform or carry weapons of war (Nazir 59a; Sifra to Deut. 22:6; Targum Onkelos to Deut. 22:5). Women were deemed too weak to carry arms, and it was feared that their modesty and dignity would be compromised in the uniformed military.
In the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society
, No. 16 (1988), Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen writes about drafting women soldiers. He finds across-the-board rabbinic objections to compelling women to serve in the Israeli military, quoting the Hazon Ish (Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz), who told David Ben-Gurion that Judaism would be morally endangered if there were women soldiers.
On Deut. 23:1, Nahmanides warns that army life is unpleasant: Soldiers, he says, rob, destroy, eat forbidden foods, commit adultery, and indulge in “every disgusting thing.” Women would face the same risk, and might even invite or be subject to licentious behavior. Rabbinic authorities prefer women to stay behind the scenes and handle food supplies. Rav Soloveitchik says that in a war against the surrounding nations, women can be used to sabotage enemy installations. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Ovadia Yosef allow women to bear arms on guard duty to save life (pikuach nefesh
Israel has compulsory military service for girls as well as boys, except for girls precluded by religious conscience. The Defence Service Law discriminates between men and women in regard to length of service, reserve obligations and circumstances of release, and allows women to volunteer for fighting units. In some views, women volunteers should not carry or use weapons.
In 1995, the Israeli Supreme Court heard the case of Alice Miller v. Minister of Defense, Chief of Staff and Others. A woman who sought to be an air force pilot claimed that excluding her from the training course was sexual discrimination. The IDF argued that because women serve less time in the military and can become pregnant, neither they nor the nation would derive the full benefit from the expense of training a woman pilot.
The court upheld the woman’s petition. Justice Dalia Dorner quoted Tennyson, “Man for the field and woman for the hearth; man for the sword and for the needle she” (“The Princess,” 2nd Song). The judge agreed however that women “should not be prevented from achieving their potential and aspirations simply because of their normal functions.”
What about women chaplains, realizing that chaplaincy does not necessarily entail bearing arms or being a combatant? Rabbinic authorities would almost certainly object for moral reasons, and also in the light of halachic considerations which we will address in due course. Maybe women chaplains could be appointed to serve female soldiers, who, I presume, would welcome this.
In the Diaspora there are few Jews in the military. I am not aware of demands from any Jewish community for women chaplains, even in non-Orthodox groups which routinely ordain women. What would be the rabbinic response to a request for a woman chaplain? I am not sure what I might have done if the problem arose while I was senior rabbi to the Australian Defence Force. I would have sought halachic guidance and would have spoken to Christian women chaplains to ascertain what they do and how their sex impinges upon their work.
From the halachic point of view there are two issues: the chaplain as pastor, and the chaplain as agent of religious tradition. Pastoral work requires personal skills that some women have and some men lack. This does not in itself preclude women chaplains. Counselors, mentors and moral guides are vital in a context that demands morale and stability. Women can clearly fulfill this role.
The chaplain as agent of the religious tradition is more difficult. A woman scholar or teacher is no major problem. Some Orthodox groups permit female halachic decisors. What about women officiants? Speaking at weddings and funerals is not the major issue. I know of an Australian case of a brit mila at a military base, when the ADF brought from Sydney to Darwin a (male) mohel whom I nominated. The ADF was always helpful in meeting Jewish needs.
The major question is about women as cantorial officiants (not just reading psalms or delivering homilies, but chanting worship services). In Jewish law the agent must have the same level of obligation as the principal. In this respect a woman is precluded by Halacha from being a shaliach tzibur
, “the agent of the congregation.” There is also a ban on a woman’s singing voice during prayer, kol b’ishah ervah
. We would be on shaky halachic ground if a woman chaplain’s duties included cantorial services.
On the general question of whether – as a rosh yeshivah recently claimed – army service leads to a woman becoming less Jewish, my experience, admittedly limited to the Diaspora, argues the opposite. Jews in the military, both male and female, seem to feel more Jewish afterwards, not less. Facing foxhole crises often makes you more of a believer.The author is the emeritus senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.