Q Does Halacha permit a woman to serve as prime minister of Israel?
A While the election of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to head Kadima has reignited interest in this question, the propriety of women politicians has divided religious factions since the beginning of the Yishuv. The debate has also extended beyond the Knesset to communal positions like synagogue presidents and kashrut supervisors, raising issues of feminism, pragmatism, tradition and self-fulfillment.
The major sources excluding women from public office revolve around the possibility of a ruling queen. When the Torah declares "Place unto yourself a king" (Deut. 17:15) the midrash infers "a king, but not a queen" ('Sifre'). While this midrash only explicitly refers to the monarchy, Maimonides extended the prohibition to all positions of authority ('Melachim' 1:5). A medieval midrashic compendium, 'Pesikta Zutarti', as well as a Cairo Geniza manuscript of the original midrash, seemingly buttress his opinion.
The precedent of Deborah the prophetess, who led the people in the Book of Judges, strongly challenges this broad prohibitive ruling. Some medieval authorities rejected this precedent since Deborah was uniquely chosen by Divine revelation ('Tosafot Bava Kama' 15a). Others contended that Deborah served as a judge, but not a political leader. In addition to its potential implications for women serving as legal decisors (a topic for another column), this opinion would allow women to occupy judicial positions, but not political office. Many authorities, however, argued that Deborah justifiably served as a political leader since her appointment received communal agreement ('kabala') and was not forcibly imposed on the people ('Ramban Shavuot' 30a).
In 1918, the Jewish Agency granted women the right to vote and to hold political office, generating a fierce debate within the rabbinic community. A number of leading rabbinic sages prohibited women from not only running for office, but from even voting. They argued that women can only receive ad hoc acceptance as judges and leaders, but not receive permanent appointments. Rabbi Hanoch Agus contended that women are entirely excluded from the mitzva of appointing a king and therefore have no role in political matters ('Marcheshet' 1:22).
Beyond the formal halachic issues, Rabbi Abraham I. Kook contended that modesty standards restrict women from engaging in the fierce and assertive dealings of political dialogue ('Ma'amarei Hareiya'). He further contended that allowing women to vote would cause marital disputes when husbands and wives support opposing candidates.
These arguments drew heavy criticism from Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, who forcefully argued for women's suffrage because it was immoral to impose the responsibilities of citizenship without granting them the right to vote ('Mishpatei Uziel' CM 4:6). He further mocked any concerns of family strife or immodesty at the voting booths, contending that these were absurd arguments that wrongfully denied women the political voice they deserve as intelligent humans created in God's image. Indeed today, for integral or pragmatic reasons, all segments of the Orthodox community encourage women to vote.
More significantly, R. Uziel asserted that women could hold public office since democratically elected women, like Deborah, receive communal ascension and therefore do not face the same restrictions created in more authoritarian feudal or monarchal systems. He dismissed claims that political dialogue would lead to immodesty, noting that the seriousness of public deliberation precluded levity. Other supporters of this position included Rabbi Yehuda L. Maimon and Rabbi Haym Hirschensohn, with the latter accusing his interlocutors of guising ideological beliefs for legal reasoning ('Malki Bakodesh' II:4). As such, the religious-Zionist parties National Religious Party and Meimad include female candidates, while haredi party lists like Shas and United Torah Judaism do not.
A potentially different permissive approach might distinguish between different types of communal positions. In addition to women, the Talmud also excludes converts from holding offices that possess coercive power, such as bailiffs and inspectors of weights and measures ('Kiddushin' 76b). The law prohibits holding offices like the historic monarchy, which operated through royal fiat. Positions without "lordship" ('serara'), however, remain permissible ('Shach' YD 269:15). As Rabbi J. David Bleich has suggested, synagogue officials possess no coercive powers (perhaps to their chagrin!), and therefore women and converts should not be excluded from holding these offices ('Tradition' 15:4).
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used this argument to permit a woman to serve as a kashrut supervisor ('Igrot Moshe' YD II:44-45). While he ultimately objected to female politicians and synagogue presidents, he conceded that a righteous and qualified woman was preferable to an unqualified man.
Indeed, following the failure of Livni to create a coalition agreement with Shas, the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ruled that one should vote for a religious party (like Shas!), but if necessary, support the secular candidate most supportive of religion, independent of their gender (halachayomit.co.il). The ruling both indicated Shas's willingness to potentially work with Livni in the future and the complex mix of Halacha with Israeli politics.
The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.