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    Women soldiers, women chaplains?

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple AO RFD, former senior rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, to the NSW Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, 7 February, 2010

    NAJEX nsw association of jewish ex-servicemen and womenCanberra hosted the international conference of the World Council of Churches in 1991. I was the official observer of the world Jewish community and asked for the opportunity to address a plenary session. My request was denied, presumably because of the pro-Palestinian bias of the organisation, though I engaged in considerable networking in the lobbies.

    The major sessions were at the National Conference Centre, situated beside the Casino and near to Glebe Park. One lunchtime I was in the Glebe Park cafeteria eating a fruit salad when a conference delegate came up and asked, “May I share your table?” I not only said yes but, glancing at her name tag, said, “I think you owe me a vote of thanks. It is due to me that you are an Air Force chaplain!” Her appointment had been under consideration by the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services and the Christian representatives were not all in favour. Not that they had anything against her personally, but certain groups objected to women clergy. As sometimes happened, it was I who drafted a resolution that broke the deadlock when I proposed a policy that entitled any denomination to nominate for a chaplaincy appointment any minister in good standing in that faith group, and as a result the Air Force got its first woman chaplain.

    It is that episode that lies behind my choice of subject for this morning, but before addressing the Jewish view of women chaplains let me look at the halachic aspects of women in the military as a whole. I am well aware that, from at least the time of World War II, there have been Jewish women in the Australian Defence Force, and indeed some years ago the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation mounted an exhibition on the subject, which, incidentally, it was my privilege to declare officially open. I doubt whether any of these women, who included an orthodox woman from NSW, asked rabbinical advice before enlisting. Nor did any of them probably regard joining the ADF as an expression of feminism. In every case the motivation is likely to have been the wish to render service to their country. Nonetheless there must be a Jewish point of view about women in the military and there must be sources that need to be examined.

    The Torah (Deut. 20) has a section about war and warfare which takes it for granted that war is something that males do. This is reinforced by a discussion about whether a newly married man who has a wife at home can be subject to conscription (verse 7), which indicates that women were never thought of as soldiers. The Talmud says bluntly, “It is the way of a man to make war, and not the way of a woman” (Kiddushin 2b), and on the whole it has been the fact throughout history that the men went off to war and the women stayed home (and often ended up as widows).

    But this is not the whole story. Deborah (Judges 4:4-16) played a significant role in destroying the enemy. So did Yael (Judges 4:17-24, 5:24-27), and so did Judith (Apocrypha). These women used a combination of wit, wiles and physical effort, so it cannot be said that they left all the action to their menfolk.

    The Mishnah recognises women’s military capacity in a passage that says that in an obligatory war (e.g. in defence of the Land of 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 to have a more private role in society, as indicated by the verse, “All the glory of the princess is within” (Psalm 45:14). I thought at first that the women did not actually go into battle but served in a non-combatant capacity, but then an Israeli archaeologist, Dr Itzik Eshel, proved to me that a significant minority of Bar Kochba’s troops were female and gave me a list of the names of women who held leadership rank in the struggle against Rome.

    In the Sefer HaChinnuch, an analysis of the 613 commandments, Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona (Mitzvah 603) exempts women from the duty (Deut. 25:17-19) of rooting out Amalek: “This command applies in all places and times to males… but not to females”. The Avnei Nezer (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 509) makes a distinction between an actual battle, in which only males take part, and attacking an individual Amalekite, which even a woman must do.

    There must have been some early form of military uniform, possibly a precursor of suits of mail. Biblical verses speak of “a shield and buckler” (I Chron. 5:18). God Himself is figuratively called Israel’s shield (Psalm 18:3, etc.) But bearing in mind the prohibition of cross-dressing – “A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment” (Deut. 22:5), Rabbi Eli’ezer ben Ya’akov says that a woman should not wear military uniform or carry weapons of war (Nazir 59a; Sifra Deut. 226; Targum Onkelos to Deut. 22:5). Was it that woman were regarded as too weak to bear this burden or that their modesty and dignity would be compromised, or both?

    It is to be expected that the halachic status of women in the military would be especially pertinent in modern Israel, where compulsory military service applies to girls as well as boys. In the days of David Ben Gurion, provision was made for exempting girls who could prove that they were genuinely religious and would not serve in the military on grounds of religious conscience. As far as others are concerned, the Defence Service Law (Consolidated Version, 1986) discriminates between men and women in regard to length of service, reserve service obligations and circumstances of release from military service, but accepts that women are not obligated but may volunteer to join fighting units.

    On 8 November, 1995, the High Court of Justice heard the case of Alice Miller v. Minister of Defence, Chief of Staff and Others. A woman who wished to train as an air force pilot claimed that preventing her from applying for the course was sexual discrimination. The Defence Force justified its refusal on operational grounds, arguing that because women serve less time in the military and can become pregnant, they would not derive the full benefit from the cost of training a woman pilot. The court upheld the woman’s petition. Amongst the judgments of the members of the court, 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, 5:427).

    Justice Dorner pointed out that Israeli law accepts the principle of gender equality and advocated an intermediate position whereby women’s dignity must be preserved but they “should not be prevented from achieving their potential and aspirations simply because of their normal functions” (Justice, International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, no. 7, December, 1995).

    If this case had come to a rabbinic authority for a halachic decision, one can surmise that the petitioner’s case would have been rejected. Presumably the general policy would have been upheld that the military is not a profession for Jewish women, but that a woman who desired to serve in a support role could choose to do so.

    It follows that there would be no question in Israel of women becoming chaplains, even though chaplaincy duties do not entail bearing arms or being combatants. But what would be the position outside Israel? In Diaspora countries the numbers of Jews in the military are small, but even so I am not aware of any demands from within any Jewish community for women to be appointed as chaplains, even in non-orthodox movements which ordain women rabbis.

    But theoretically, what would be the response of the head of Jewish chaplaincy services to a request to nominate a woman chaplain? I have to emphasise that so much depends on the circumstances of a given community that all I can do is to speculate about what I might have done in this situation in my time as Senior Rabbi to the ADF. I am sure I would have consulted very widely and asked appropriate halachic authorities for their guidance, and I would have spoken to Christian women chaplains to get a picture of what they do and how being a woman might have impinged upon their work. I must add that in the Australian situation we have no full-time Jewish chaplains; those who do serve in the Jewish chaplaincy have other, more or less full-time careers, generally as congregational rabbis, and the most that we might be considering is adding a chaplaincy string to their existing bows. Since orthodoxy is the majority expression of Judaism in Australia we are unlikely to have any clamour for orthodox women chaplains; our one chaplaincy posting for a progressive representative is not likely to be claimed by a woman because chaplains serve across the board and not only the military members of their own grouping.

    Nonetheless the issue can still be addressed in a hypothetical way.

    From the halachic point of view I believe the question has two sides, the chaplain as pastor and the chaplain as agent of religious tradition.

    The pastoral role of chaplaincy requires a range of personal skills that some women have and some men lack. This role does not in itself preclude women chaplains. Supporting members of the military as counsellors, mentors and moral guides is vital in an area of society that demands morale and stability, and Jewish women chaplains could fulfil this role at least as well as any other chaplain.

    The issue of the chaplain as agent of the religious tradition is more difficult. The idea of a woman scholar, teacher and preacher presents no major problem. But how about the woman as halachic decisor? There has been development in this area which makes it easier for a woman to give judgments and decisions. But what about the woman as officiant? Conducting life-cycle ceremonies like funerals (God forbid) is not a major issue. Weddings are harder, but we could lay down rules that require the solemnisation of marriages to be referred to a civilian rabbi.

    The major question is about the woman as cantor. Here there are two halachic requirements, one positive, one negative. The positive requirement is that the agent must have the same level of obligation as the principal. In this respect a woman is precluded by halachah from being the sh’li’ach tzibbur, “the agent of the congregation”. The negative requirement is that a woman’s singing voice during prayer is not to be heard by males. Some might argue that this rule, known in Hebrew as kol b’ishah ervah (Berakhot 24a, Kiddushin 70a, Maimonides, Issurei Bi’ah 21:2, Shulchan Aruch, Orah Chayyim 75:3 and Even HaEzer 21:1), has only limited application in our day. However, we would be on shaky halachic ground if we appointed a woman chaplain whose duties included leading services, and it is doubtful whether any halachic authority would allow it.

    The whole question needs research and study, not necessarily because it is on the actual agenda but because of its intrinsic interest. As they say, watch this space.

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