• Home
  • Parashah Insights
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals & Fasts
  • Articles
  • Books
  • About
  •  

    Women soldiers & Jewish law

    March 23rd, 2017

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 23 March, 2017.

    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 chuppah, 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 Kochba’s troops were female. We have the names of those who held leadership rank in the struggle against Rome.

    The Sefer HaChinnuch says that the command to eradicate Amalek “applies to males but not to females” (Mitzvah 603). The Avnei Nezer (Orach Chayyim 509) distinguishes between a battle, in which only males take part, and attacking an individual Amalekite, which a woman can do. Sefer HaChinnuch itself (Mitzvah 245) allows women to help eradicate the seven Canaanite nations as part of the mitzvah 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 Chazon Ish (Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz), who told David Ben-Gurion that Judaism would be morally endangered if there were women soldiers.

    On Deut. 23:1, Nachmanides 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, realising 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 milah 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 Halachah 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.


    38 labours & the 39th – Vayakhel

    March 19th, 2017

    Vayakhel begins with Moses telling the people that there are types of labour which God had forbidden on Shabbat.

    They derive from the types of work that were necessary in the construction of the tabernacle.

    By tradition there were 39 categories. The first 38 deal with creative activities which remind us of God’s work in creating the world. These 38 represent change from one substance to another. They represent what man does for himself and for his own benefit.

    The 39th, dealing with carrying, is different. It does not speak so much about changing but moving. Its theme is not so much what you do for yourself but what you do for society. The life of a community depends on how people interact and how they give and take.

    The Talmud reports that King Solomon and his advisers decided that the Sabbath required human beings to rest from the frantic pace of moving things out of one’s house to the public domain and vice-versa.

    Within the house members of the family could move things from place to place, for example from the larder to the kitchen and from the kitchen to the dining room.

    Only if there was an eruv could the wider context be narrowed so that the whole of a given area could be regarded as one entity and the people involved could be thought of as one family.


    The women worked harder – Vayakhel

    March 19th, 2017

    Exodus 35:22 records that both men and women brought contributions to the construction and decoration of the sanctuary. The Torah text tells us that the men and the women both came forward.

    This is the way in which Rashi understands the verse. According to him, the word al is to be read as “with”.

    Ramban (Nachmanides) has a different take on the verse. His view is that the women were much more enthusiastic than the men. It’s not just that their donations were more valuable, but their spirit was more excited and eager.

    One can imagine that many of the men had a rather perfunctory attitude. They knew they had to bring contributions, but they were more business-like and practical than the women. It was the women who overflowed with love for God and keenness to adorn His Holy Place.

    This difference between men and women is echoed in many parts of Jewish history and development.

    When people ask why men seem to have a dominant role in Jewish worship, it may be that they were the ones who needed to be trained and taught to serve God whereas with the women it was more natural and instinctive. The women needed less ritual prodding to love the Almighty.

    We see it every day when women, who in many cases are exempt from fulfilling the commandments, take their own initiative in prayer and psalms.

    The Israeli buses are the scene of many of these moments. Women tend not to sit and stare on the bus but to daven and read Tehillim.


    God is in my head – Ki Tissa

    March 12th, 2017

    The sidra opens with the words, “When you count the heads of the Children of Israel” (Ex. 30:12).

    Metaphorically the verse could be read as saying, “When you get inside the head of a Jew”.

    What does one find inside a Jewish person’s head?

    The range of answers has many ideas and priorities and there is no guarantee that God has a place.

    Nonetheless more people believe in God than tell you so. Though they reject the “God as grandfather” concept which features a benign old man who smiles and tells you tales of the past, God cannot be pinned down to a stereotype.

    God is unique (Ehyeh asher ehyeh – “I am what I am”) and His presence is often suddenly revealed.

    The beauty of Nature, the grandeur of the human spirit, the impulse toward truth, justice and peace, the sense of comfort and confidence – all burst upon us as signs of the Divine Presence.

    God of my mind, I reason You exist.
    God of my heart, Your presence comforts me.
    God of my memory, I recall how often You inspired me.
    God of my books, I read the testimony of others.
    God of my eyes, I see Your works.
    God of my ears, I hear Your call.
    God of my feet, I go where You send me.
    God of my hand, I seek my brothers.
    God of my guts, I sense You everywhere.
    God of my people, Your wings protect us.
    God of my land, Your holiness is in every cranny.
    God of my nerve, my courage comes from You.
    God of my life, I am overwhelmed by Your grandeur.
    God of my being, I am upheld by Your greatness.
    God of my music, I sing Your song.
    God of my mouth, I speak Your praise.


    The Hebrew for a cemetery – Ask the Rabbi

    March 12th, 2017

    Q. Why is a cemetery called Bet Olam (“Place of Eternity)?

    A. The term derives from the end of Kohelet chapter 12 (verse 5), which speaks of a person who dies going to their “long (i.e. eternal) home”.

    This is only one of the terms for a cemetery.

    Another is Bet Chayyim (“House of Life”) in which the word “life” is a euphemism that really means the opposite, or, which fits in better with Jewish thinking, it is where a body is laid to rest when the soul is now in another dimension of life.

    Since we believe that there are two worlds, this world and the World to Come, the person who has died remains alive in some sense.

    Another term is Bet K’varot (“Place of Graves”). In England there is a colloquial custom of calling the cemetery “the grounds”, which might have begun as a softer alternative to the blunt word “grave”.

    There are a number of colloquial distortions of the Hebrew name for a cemetery, e.g. “Bsaylum”.