The Israeli Draft of Women: What is Orthodox Judaism Anyway?

On his web site, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner exclaims boldly, emphatically, and with crystal clarity, that “drafting girls [into the Israeli army] is absolutely forbidden.” He reports that

In 1960, eleventh graders from Shevet ‘Chalutzim’ of Bnei Akiva approached a number of great Torah luminaries regarding the question of girls being drafted into the Israeli army.” [“Drafting Girls is Absolutely Forbidden!”]

There are legal and social sources of law. Social sources of law reveal the reasons, also taken to be the stimuli, or the historical forces that occasioned the enactment of a legal norm in space, time, and in culture. The legal source of the law, the actual enacted legal norm, is the legal, Jewish, legislated religious norm, which is the Jewish reason that a Jew acts the way he or she ought to act.

The relevant Jewish legal sources are:

  1. Deuteronomy 1:1 teaches that “These are the Laws/words/matters that Moses said to the Israelites.” The Torah’s fifth book begins with a demonstrative pronoun that we believe that Moses said “these” and not “those” words. We must apply philology in order to determine what the Torah means, demands, and commands, and that philological reading is what Torah is in normative actuality. Torah is the word of the Lord, [Isaiah 2:3] and it is not the socially conditioned intuitions of latter day saintly rabbis.
  2. Deuteronomy 4:2 and 13:1 echo, affirm, and confirm this doctrine, that we may neither add to nor detract from these words as recorded in God’s sacred, unchanging and revered Torah. Just as the Reform wrongly acts to abrogate Torah law, Street Culture Orthodoxy stops being authentically “Orthodox” if and when it claims that its intuitions, tastes, and undocumented opinions are Daas Torah, i.e. the moral equivalent of God’s will which inadmissibly assume the moral valence of God’s word. Also inadmissible without a functioning supreme court of Israel/Bet Din ha-Gadol, is the invocation of the magic word that trumps conversation, silences dissent, and is called “masorah/Tradition.” A Tradition that is not documented in the Oral Torah canonical library is not a Tradition that carries the religious valence of “masorah” that is God’s Torah. Recall that Pharaoh would not add to the straw needed by ancient Israel for the making of building bricks, but would not diminish the required, unreasonable, and unrealizable quota that the Israelites were required to produce. See Exodus 5:7-8. By alluding to Pharaoh’s actual words and commands, themselves arbitrary and not subject to review, Moses’ alternative Torah, reflected by Moses’ own divinely directed words in Deuteronomy, allow for reasoned and persuasive conversation. The thinking Orthodox adherent must reject as illegitimate any Daas Torah claim that cannot be shown to be the clear and unambiguous manifest meaning of the Torah’s actual language, philologically parsed.
  3. bSota 44b teaches that unlike the political war, in antiquity discretionary wars, [the discretionary war, in order to be a legally authorized war, required the approval of the Bet Din ha-Gadol and the approval of the breastplate oracle called Urim ve-Tumim], a draft could not be compulsory because there were unqualified exemptions for grooms, planters of new vineyards, and even if one claims cowardice of the battlefield danger, that person is exempt from military service. However, in a defensive war, there is no mandated or even licensed exemption for women, as the woman, even if a bride must be conscripted from the wedding canopy and mustered into the military. It is argued by Rabbi Alfred Cohen who, while aware that the words of the Torah document conflict with the views of latter day rabbis who are recognized as Torah scholars, will argue that the “niceties,” a.k.a. the actual words of the Oral Torah, may be vetoed by the really great rabbis in any and every age.

The unorthodox subversion of Orthodox Jewish law:

Only a Sanhedrin or Bet Din ha-Gadol is empowered to abrogate a rabbinic law as ours, i.e., the drafting of women into the Israeli army. R. Aviner does not object to, and indeed mandates, male military service. The same passage we cited obligates women and men equally in national self-defense. Hence we review and unpackage R. Aviner’s reports:

The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Ha-Gaon Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank told them that halachically speaking, girls were forbidden to enlist, so they were obligated to choose the religious exemption. They asked him, “And what if the required declaration is not made sincerely, for example, when it is the result of parental pressure? After all, the formula requires one to declare that one is seeking the exemption ‘for reasons of religion and conscience’. Seemingly, in some cases, this would be a false declaration.” Ha-Gaon Rav Frank answered, “One is allowed to make the declaration, and it is even a Mitzvah, in fulfillment of ‘Honor your father and your mother’, especially considering that it is for her own good.”

By referring to R. Frank as the “Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem,” and as a “gaon,” an excellency and as a genius, R. Frank is presented to the reader as if his atextual personhood be seen as a source of textual Torah authority. God is, however, to our view the Torah’s Author and not his Excellency, the genius, R. Frank. When King Solomon said at Proverbs 21:30 that “there is no wisdom, understanding, or counsel” when measured against what God said in the Torah canon, we conclude that not only is it not arrogant to ask Rabbis Frank and Aviner why their view of female conscription seems to the simple reader to contradict the explicit and therefore licit law of bSota 44b, which reflects as Torah law the official will, if not the actual word, of God.

Continues R. Aviner:

Rabbenu Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook answered the same way, adding, “When her father pressures her, he is simply guiding her in the halachic path. The girl is not steeped in Talmud and halachic sources, and she does not know all the various laws regarding going to the army. Rather, she has a passion for enlisting. It is therefore a Mitzvah for her to heed her parents’ voice, and her declaration will be the truth, both in terms of the word ‘religion’ and in terms of the word ‘conscience’.”

By referring to R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook as “our teacher,” or “rabbenu,” R. Aviner subtly but unmistakenly wants the girls to obey R. Kook’s reading and ruling as if his undefended opinion were Torah. By referring to the girls as unlettered, R. Aviner implies that those who learn Torah text might have a religious right to an opinion; however, a lady who would be willing to be drafted is not only violating Torah, she is no more than an uneducated and impetuous “silly goose.” I wonder what Rabbis Kook and Aviner would respond to a learned lady who studied the texts of the Oral Law who asks:

  • The oral Torah at bSota 44b seems to require Israeli military service for both women and men when faced with the threat of a defensive war.
  • The words of the Talmudic plenum would seem to carry greater religious valence than your considered, culturally conditioned ruling.
  • The fact that bSota 44b is not even addressed by the contemporary rabbis who forbid female military service indicates that we have an integrity problem and a modesty problem. We worry about the segregation of the sexes which is not explicitly mandated by the Oral Law, but we do not concern ourselves with clear Oral Torah mandates that should direct our religiously informed Torah consciences. And we also have a modesty problem of sorts with men speaking with the sanction of God’s ‘mouth’ about women who are seen by those men as the gender of sexual energy bundles that lead men to temptation, so these sinfully inclined men need to be delivered from evil, because they lack the power, kingdom and glory to regard women as humans who, unlike themselves, happen to have two X chromosomes and are just incapable of avoiding sinning with women unless women become recluses. And because men have a right to be public humans, women must restrain themselves because of men’s evil thoughts and avoid the temptations of public life. No one speaks of demanding modesty of those men who speak in God’s voice.
  • If the Torah is so holy, how can its holy words be contradicted by great and holy rabbis in modernity? See Maimonides, Repentance, 3:8, which reflects our conundrum. Some great rabbis of today refer to Torah contradictors/machishei maggidehah to those who refuse to defer to their divinely inspired halakhic intuitions. And as in our case, it seems that the Orthodox rabbis of today, who resist social change, are ready to entertain religious change when the social world of human creation is addicted to the nostalgic folkways of yesteryear, even when that nostalgia’s sensibility contradicts the Torah of Sinai.

Continues R. Aviner:

When they asked Ha-Gaon Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, he told them to look in his book, “Le’or Ha-Halachah” (p. 27), which states that women are forbidden to take part in war. He added, “Our military circles have done research and concluded that drafting girls does not bring any tangible benefit. As far as the work and assistance that the female soldiers do provide, it would be provided more efficiently, and with a much smaller budget, by salaried civilian clerks.”
They asked him, “What about girls making an insincere declaration, based on self-interest?” and he answered, “If the girl is truly religious, she can make the declaration, even if she is making it for other reasons as well.”

If the military does not desire women enlistees, it is for the military and not the rabbis to say so. That women are told to lie in order to appear to be pious, which here is a designated culture equivalent of good girl compliance to community conformity discipline—and not God’s standard [See Exodus 23:7 for the norm regarding distancing oneself from falsehood, is suspended when that Torah norm conflicts with the Durkheimian god of a given society’s social ethos.

Continues R. Aviner:

By the way, it was Rabbi Dr. Zerach Warhaftig who insisted that to the expression “for reasons of religion” be added the words “and conscience”, which leaves an opening for irreligious girls to choose this option as well.

After they heard what the great rabbis had said, the young people concluded that it was forbidden for girls to enlist, and in the Movement’s magazine they addressed all girls asking that they declare their desire for an exemption – hopefully with sincerity. They added that by doing so, the girls would be helping themselves and the country. (“Chalutzim” Magazine, No. 3, 1960).

In this version of Orthodoxy, which forbids women’s military service, the great rabbis and not the great books of Torah define the will of God. Not one rabbi cited by R. Aviner, or for that matter, R. Aviner himself, dealt with mSota 44b, which carries greater Torah valence than the comments of R. Aviner himself and the rabbis whom he cites put together. There are here directives, but no conversation. There are other Orthodox rabbis who forbid Yeshiva men from entering the army. Unstated by R. Aviner is why men may be drafted and women not; if R. Aviner may pretend that bSota 44b is not normative and needs to be suppressed, why cannot other great rabbis forbid the drafting of men into the Israeli army?

Continues R. Aviner:

Rabbenu Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda further said, “Drafting girls involves a risk that they will decline spiritually. Some say a girl can’t be in the army without declining. Others say she can, in fact, and it depends on the girl. Presumably, some will be affected more than others, but generally speaking, spiritual deterioration does occur.”

Yet it is obvious that where modesty is concerned, a person’s spiritual rise or fall is not to be assessed by what the person himself imagines, but by the guidelines laid down by G-d and by our Sages. Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda therefore wrote that girls should apply to “the National Service alternative, taking into account our sages’ fear and reverence as far as avoiding immodesty, as described and depicted at the end of Masechet Kiddushin” (Sichot Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda, “Ish Ve-Isha, p. 44 and quoted in the book “Bat Melech”).

He therefore declared, “Someone who really wants to know, has to ask ‘the priest officiating at that time’ (Devarim 26:3), the Chief Rabbis of Israel, who are likewise familiar with all of these deliberations, and who also possess divine assistance in their decision making. Therefore, one must rely on them in every matter” (ibid., p. 43).

Indeed, at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, Israel’s Chief Rabbis ruled: “Drafting women in a military framework, in any form whatsoever, is absolutely forbidden!”

Fighting compulsory wars is certainly a great Mitzvah, but as is well-known, we don’t do a Mitzvah by way of a sin. A Mitzvah that comes about by way of a sin is itself a sin. National Service positions authorized by rabbis are a great Mitzvah, involving no sin. It doesn’t matter if it is less “exciting”. It often happens that the evil impulse is more exciting than the good impulse, but the good impulse is holy.

Moreover, a girl who does not go to the army, strengthens the army, for thanks to her action, G-d is with us in the army camp. “Hashem, your G-d, makes His presence known in your camp, so as to deliver you and grant you victory over your enemy. Your camp must therefore be holy. Let Him not see anything lascivious among you, and turn away from you” (Devarim 23:15). It’s our choice who we want in the army: girls or the Master of the Universe.

Therefore, there were no girls in the army of Moshe nor in the army of Yehoshua, nor in the army of Shaul or of David, nor in the army of the Chasmoneans or of Bar-Kochba.

If a rabbi feels that women will sin if not monitored by men, he may forbid what Talmudic Oral Torah requires. When R. Kook conceded that the defensive war is a commandment, his position is strong; in light of bSota 44b, calling the halakhic mandate a sin could be understood as a partial rejection of the Oral Torah itself. How R. Kook or, for that matter R. Aviner, knows that “a girl who does not go to the army, strengthens the army,” is unstated, unsourced, and therefore religiously illegitimate given the parameters and principles of official religion Orthodox Judaism, which is applied by later rabbis based on reason, but which may not deviate to the right or left of the sacred rule.

It is particularly unacceptable that rabbis rule, beyond that rule and here, in violation of Oral Torah rule, that halakhah, God’s unchanging and perfect law, requires reconstructive reforms in order to conserve familiar folkways. And unlike the Judaism of the Written and Oral Torah, this Judaism views women as the troublesome helpmates of men who, as bundles of sexual energy, will make men sin.

There are rabbis who authorize national service for women. And there are those who do not. Reasons are not given, discussions are not permitted, and conversations ultimately demand submission to a human authority. People won’t take Orthodoxy seriously because Orthodoxy rightly speaks in the name of God but wrongly finds God not in the revealed text of the Law but rather in the revealing habits, biases, mores, and social norms of its culturally traditional street.

[Editor’s note: Given the technical issues involved and the chance of misunderstanding, it seemed prudent to include the text from R. Aviner’s article, “Drafting Girls is Absolutely Forbidden!”]

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.