Originally published in The Jewish Review, 6 (162) (1952), p. 3.
In view of the recent controversy in Israel over the conscription of women it may be of interest to examine the Halachic background to this involved question. The writer would however, like to record at the outset that it is not his intention to even attempt to anticipate the ruling of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel or to voice his opinion as a Rabbi on a subject about which so many learned contemporaries disagree. For this he has neither the authority, the learning nor the first hand knowledge of actual conditions in Israel.
It is his purpose—and in this he is indebted to the excellent survey of the material, in S. Savin’s Leor Hahalachah, Jer. 1946, pp. 16-18—merely to sketch the views of the earlier authorities who have grappled with the problem. It will be appreciated that such discussion in the pages of rabbinic works, published before the emergence of the State of Israel, is academic and theoretical and a completely fresh investigation is required now that the problem is a practical one.
The second century teacher R. Eliezer ben Jacob taught that it is forbidden for a woman to fight with a man’s weapon, quoting as his authority: ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man’ (Deut. 22, 5) (Nazir 59a). Rashi refers us to the account in the Book of Judges of Jael slaying Sisera with a hammer (Judges 4, 22) i.e. with a woman’s weapon and not with a sword or a javelin. To quote this, however, in order to prohibit women ‘manning’ an anti-aircraft unit, for example, would be to beg the question for it may well be that the prohibition applied in ancient times only when it was unusual for women to engage in battle but if it is decided that women may actively engage in war, then the use of modern weapons of war would no longer be peculiar to men. As an example of changed conditions affecting a change in this very law we may refer to the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 156, 2) that the Talmudic law which forbids a mirror on the grounds that it is used exclusively by women, no longer applies seeing that nowadays men too use it.
Two Types of War
Before examining further Talmudic statements it is necessary to note that Talmudic law draws a distinction between an optional war (milhemeth reshuth) and an obligatory war (milhemeth mitzvah). Maimonides thus describes these two types: ‘A king fights first only obligatory wars, that is wars against the seven nations, against Amalek, and in defence of Israel against attacking foes. After that he may engage in voluntary wars, that is, in wars on other nations in order to widen the border of Israel and to magnify his greatness and his fame. For obligatory wars he does not require the permission of the Sanhedrin, but undertakes them himself at any time, and compels the people to fight. Offensive wars he may wage only with the consent of the Sanhedrin of seventy-one.’ (Hilchoth Melachim: 1-6, 6-8).
It follows from the reference to the king and the Sanhedrin that the whole question of aggressive war is purely academic and that nowadays Judaism would not countenance an aggressive war. The only type of warfare it would sanction is the war of defence and this is a milhemeth mitzvah. Now the Mishnah (Sot. 8. 7) rules that although certain people are exempted from military service in an optional war, all have to serve in an obligatory war, even ‘the bridegroom goes out (to fight) from his chamber and the bride from her canopy,’ from which it would seem to follow that in a war in defence of Israel women too can be conscripted.
Some Talmudic Dicta
However, this appears to be contradicted by the following two Talmudic passages. In a discussion on the obligation to marry and have children it is said that women are exempt from this seeing that Scripture says: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it’ (Gen. 1, 28) and women do not engage in ‘subduing the earth’ i.e. in warfare (Yeb. 65b). Similarly, the Talmud notes that in a verse, dealing with warfare, ‘they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways’ (Deut. 28, 7), the masculine form of the Hebrew numeral is used because in the ordinary way it is men and not women who engage in warfare (Kidd. 3b).
It is possible that the contradiction is more apparent than real for these two passages may speak of normal conditions and the Mishnah deals with an obligatory war. In the ordinary way women do not engage in war but this duty devolves on them in the case of milhemeth mitzvah. This would be borne out by the reference to ‘subduing the earth’ in the verse quoted in the first passage and by the fact that the verse quoted in the second passage does not deal with Israel at all but with its enemies. But no less an authority than Aaron Halevi of Barcelona (d. circa 1300) in his famous Sepher Hahinnuch, states, evidently on the basis of the above passages, that women are exempt from engaging even in a milhemeth mitzvah (Mitz. 525, 526, 527, 603 and 604).
How will this author understand the Mishnah? There are two possibilities. It may be, as R. David Ibn Abi Zimra (d. 1589) suggests in his notes to Maimonides Code (Hilchoth Melachim 7, 4) that the words ‘and the bride from her canopy’ simply state that the wedding is postponed and may have no reference to the bride going out to fight. Or it may be, as R. Samuel Straschun (d. 1872) in his notes to the Talmud (Sot. 42b) and R. Israel Lipschütz (d. 1860) in his Tiphereth Yisrael (Sot. ad loc.) remark, that a distinction has to be made between conscription for active military service and conscription for supplementary purposes such as providing the army with food. The Talmudic passages and the ruling of the Sepher Hahinnuch refer to conscription as soldiers whereas the statement in the Mishnah ‘and the bride from her canopy’ refers to conscription for such other services.
To sum up it would seem that if the view of the Sepher Hahinnuch is adopted then women cannot be conscripted for actual military service even in a milhemeth mitzvah, but they can, if we follow Straschun and Lipschütz, be conscripted to work on the land and to help the war effort in other ways. In Israel today there are two further considerations which will no doubt be considered by the Rabbis in their deliberations. One is whether the above rulings apply to defence precautions taken in a time of peace, and the other whether, quite apart from halachic considerations, the conscription of women in time of peace, will not prove harmful to the great Jewish ideal of family life.