Regarding Army Service for Women

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Behar-Bechukotai 5766 – translated by R. Blumberg]

Our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook said that theoretically speaking, even women are obligated to fight in a Milchemet Mitzvah [compulsory war]. As the Mishnah states, “Even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her wedding canopy [must go to war]” (Sotah 44b). Likewise, Rambam rules, “In a Milchemet Mitzvah all must go to war, even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her wedding canopy” (Melachim 7:4). Our situation today would be classified as a Milchemet Mitvah by Ramban, since we are still at war in our conquest of the Land (Note 4 from Ramban’s Additions to Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot), and by Rambam, since our wars involve “assisting the Jewish People against their enemies” (Melachim 5:1). The latter is itself an extension of the Torah’s command, “Do not stand by when your neighbor’s life is in danger” (Vayikra 19:16).

Yet our Sages said, “It is the nature of man to conquer, but not the nature of woman” (Yevamot 65b). Therefore, Radbaz, Rabbi David ben Zimra, wished to soften Rambam’s statement and to say that he didn’t have in mind actual military tasks but offering soldiers assistance, in line with Rambam’s comment that women should “provide food and water to their husbands” (Melachim 7:4). This novel thought is not mentioned in the Mishnah, the Talmud or in Rambam, who quoted the Mishnah word for word. It is clear that Rambam’s intent was about all military tasks (and the same can be found in Sefer HaMitzvot, at the end of Shoresh 4).

Rambam would explain that “It is not the nature of women to conquer” was not said regarding Milchemet Mitzvah and women bearing weapons in them. While women bearing weapons is normally forbidden due to “No male article shall be on a woman” (Devarim 22:5 and Nazir 49a), in a compulsory war, a life and death situation overrides all else.

In this way Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda clarified the fundamentals of the law (Sichot Rabbenu: “Ish VeIsha" se’if 42-43 and Le-Netivot Yisrael vol. 1, p. 124). Yet he immediately added that in making a halachic ruling, it is essential to take into account the trials and obstacles to modesty faced by girls serving in the army. “In girls’ military service, there is a danger of moral decline, and it is hard for a girl to maintain her pristine modesty… It is a fact that in the army there is a problem with modesty.” Therefore, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda directs us to turn to the “judge who will be in those times” (Devarim 17:9), in other words, the Chief Rabbis of Israel. As is known, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate forbade girls to participate in military service, in any form of a draft, from then until now.

Therefore, later on Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda publicized his view opposing military service for girls, in accordance with Radbaz, not because that is the essence of the law, but as a fence around modesty. He also said that we should view National Service as a way of preparing girls to serve their Nation and Land: “Our holy Mishnah states for all time that in a Milchemet Mitzvah even the bride goes forth from her wedding canopy. According to the decision and clarification of the greatest later sage following Rambam – Radbaz – the Mishnah means that girls should assist the army. Today this can be accomplished through the ‘National Service’ arrangement, bearing in mind our Sages’ enormous caution regarding situations where modesty is at stake, as described at the end of Kiddushin” (Sichot Rabbenu, ibid., 44).

Obviously, even regarding National Service, not all locations are the same. Some are reputable, and it is a mitzvah to serve there, but unfortunately there are also places where things are different. We can employ the following yardstick: Just as we won’t eat food unless it carries the approbation of an authorized Rabbi, so too, a girl should not do National Service without the program in question receiving the approbation of an authorized Rabbi or Rebbetzin.

Yet regarding military service for girls, that program has always been rejected entirely by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda issued the same ruling. If, however, a girl enlists all the same, we have to engage in damage control. We must therefore praise the “Aluma” Organization which directs girls to army programs in which less immodesty prevails, providing them with guidance and assistance all through their service. After all, if someone is falling, we don’t push him down further. We further must praise the pre-military program for girls, “Tzahali Va-Roni Yoshevet Tzion,” slated for opening. If a girl is going to enlist either way, we have to strengthen her in Torah and the fear of G-d in preparation for her enlistment, and Torah study is always good.

Obviously these words of praise are not meant provide any legitimacy to girls’ military service. They are only an expression of our bearing responsibility for the entire Jewish People, even if they do not follow the straight and narrow. After all, there are co-educational pre-army programs, including one of the Reform Movement, and they, too, provide great assistance to draftees, hence they belong to the umbrella organization of the pre-military programs. All the more that there is a place for pre-military programs for religious girls. May we be so fortunate that from “Tzahali VaRoni Yoshevet Tziyon” we should advance to “The princess’s glory is all on the inside” (Tehillim 45:14).