Q. Recent debate has focussed on the role of women in the Australian Defence Force. Is there a Jewish view as to women in the military?
A. The Talmud (Kiddushin 2b) says, “It is the way of a man to make war and not the way of a woman”. On the whole this has been the fact of life, that men have gone off to war and women have stayed home. But this is not the whole story. Deborah (Judges 4:4-16), Yael (Judges 4:17-24, 5:24-27) and Judith (Apocrypha) all played a significant role in destroying the enemy.
The Mishnah states that in an obligatory war (e.g. to defend Israel) every Jew must go and fight, even a bride from her Chuppah (Sotah 8:7). Some commentators ask how this is possible when Judaism usually prefers women’s role to be non-public: “The glory of the princess is in the inner chamber” (Psalm 45:14). One possibility is that women did not actually go into battle but served in a non-combat capacity.
Thus R. Eliezer ben Ya’akov says that a woman should not wear military uniform or carry weapons of war (Nazir 59a; Sifre Deut. 226; Onkelos to Deut. 22:5). The Sefer HaChinnuch (Mitzvah 603) exempts women from rooting out Amalek, but the Avnei Nezer (Orach Chayyim 509) makes a distinction between an actual battle, in which only men took part, and attacking an individual Amalekite, which even a woman must do.
The conclusion would seem to be that women’s modesty and dignity require that they not serve in combat positions but can and should assist the war effort in other roles.