Ask the Rabbi: Women Warriors

Why do some religious women enlist in the army while others enroll in alternative national service?

The inclusion of women in the army roiled the state in its early years, and continues to remain controversial within the religious community. The IDF estimates that close to 30 percent of religious girls join the army, even as the vast majority of the religious Zionist rabbinate opposes female enlistment, as highlighted by recent remarks by outgoing OC Chaplaincy Corps Avi Ronsky.
Under certain circumstances, the Torah clearly mandates warfare, as clearly exemplified in the books of the prophets. Most authorities have adopted the distinction between an “optional war” (milhemet reshut) intended to expand the nation’s borders beyond its biblical mandate, and “obligatory wars” (milhemet mitzva), which include battles against the Amalekites, the seven Canaanite nations and responses to enemy attacks and threats (Hilchot Melachim 5:1).
Unlike the former category, which remains inapplicable today as it requires the approval of the long disbanded Sanhedrin, the king can initiate “obligatory wars” and demand national conscription. Since Israel acts to protect its citizens and to secure its sovereignty over the land, many 20th-century rabbis, including the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog (Tehumin 4), deemed IDF activity as a milhemet mitzva.
In addition to exempting from warfare the tribe of Levi, the nation’s spiritual leaders, the Torah granted exemptions for those particularly fearful of entering war, as well as recent bridegrooms or builders of a house or vineyard (Deut. 20:5-8). Whereas the tender-hearted may leave the battlefield but must fulfill support functions, such as food supply lines, the latter remain entirely exempt from conscription (Hilchot Melachim 7:9-11), in line with the general proscription of their leaving their homes for any purpose (Deut. 24:5). These exemptions, intended to mitigate individual hardships and prevent timorous fighting, reentered public dialogue after Operation Cast Lead, when a reservist in his first week of marriage was nearly fatally wounded.
Later authorities debate whether these groups cannot be drafted but may volunteer to serve (Ha’amek Davar), or if they are prohibited from enlisting (Minhat Hinuch 581:3). Be that as it may, in the case of a mandatory war, these exemptions do not apply. As the Mishna states, “Regarding an obligatory war, all go out, even the groom from his chamber and the bride from the canopy” (Sota 44b). Although Rabbi Shlomo Goren postulated that the bridegroom should be drafted as a last resort (Meshiv Milhama II p.449), Rabbi Avraham Karelitz contended that no distinctions are made in an obligatory war (Hazon Ish, Moed 114:3).
The Mishna seems to include a bride and other women in the list of those drafted for a mandatory war (Minhat Hinuch 604:2). Furthermore, as rabbis Yehuda Shaviv (Tehumin 4) and Aryeh Bina (Betzomet Torah U’Medina III) noted in theoretical analyses of this issue, Maimonides seems to imply that women may participate in obligatory wars (Sefer Hamitzvot Shoresh 14), a point emphasized in the permissive Masorti responsum on this topic.
In spite of these sources, leading rabbinic figures in the Orthodox Zionist community, starting with the first Israeli chief rabbis, Isaac Herzog and Benzion Uziel, have fought against female conscription. They cited sources that interpreted the Mishna as rhetorically depicting a bride who will not enjoy the company of her drafted husband (Torah Temima Devarim 20:7), or that alternatively women would only serve in noncombat support roles, such as providing food (Radbaz Melachim 7:4). Many writers further noted that a number of biblical narratives seemingly exclude women from active warfare.
More poignantly, the Talmud cites the biblical prohibition of women wearing men’s clothing (Deut. 22:5) as the basis for a rule that women should not go to war and bear arms (Nazir 59a). As Rabbi Yehuda Henkin has noted (Tehumin 28), the prohibition of cross-dressing remains subjective to contemporary norms (YD 182:5). As such, in societies where men and women alike regularly wear uniforms and bear arms, the prohibition might no longer apply.
Yet many understood this and other talmudic statements as bona fide rules that women should refrain from warfare, unless their specific intervention is necessary in a life-saving situation (Torah Temima 22:5). Others, moreover, understood this proscription as a protective measure against illicit sexual behavior within the army (Rabbenu Behaye). Indeed, concerns for women’s dignity (tzniut) and inappropriate sexual interactions have driven much opposition to female enlistment.
Nonetheless, a few religious institutions today have establishedprograms to spiritually prepare female soldiers, especially thoseentering roles like education and intelligence, which might fulfill thecriteria of support roles mentioned in earlier sources. Moreover, asRabbi Shlomo Aviner, a vehement opponent of female conscription, hasargued, once a female solider enlists, it is incumbent upon thecommunity to provide all necessary means – and prayers – for herwelfare.

The author, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.