Torah scroll 521.
(photo credit:PAUL WIDEN)
The issue of women receiving rabbinic ordination has recently roiled the
Orthodox community, particularly in America. While no widely-recognized decisors
of Jewish law have endorsed such an innovation, it remains on the agenda of some
Orthodox activists. To facilitate greater dialogue, Rabbi Michael Broyde and I
wrote a 34- page article surveying the various halachic and policy issues at
stake (Hakirah 11). This column will briefly summarize two of the major legal
issues, while the more complete article (available on the web) greatly
elaborates on additional aspects.
The historic institution of semicha
(rabbinic ordination), which ceased in late antiquity, recognized a scholar as a
bearer of the oral tradition and a potential member of the Sanhedrin who could
adjudicate in all realms of Jewish law (MT Sanhedrin 4:1-3). In contrast, the
contemporary notion of semicha, which originated in medieval times, represents a
more limited mandate from a teacher to permit his student to issue rulings in
Jewish law in areas of his expertise (YD 242:14). According to some, such
authorization is unnecessary following the teacher’s death (Rivash 271), even as
the consensus view believes that such certification is always required (Shu”t
Radach 18:10). Such certification, however, is not necessary to teach Torah or
to explicate decided matters of basic Jewish law (YD 242:8-9).
its more limited powers, some authorities believe that contemporary recipients
of ordination must have the same qualifications as bearers of the ancient
version of ordination, which includes the ability to perform all judicial
functions of the Sanhedrin (MT Sanhedrin 4:8-10). They worry that recipients
with lesser qualifications would not garner proper communal respect (Shu”t Rama
24) or would errantly act beyond their authorization (Hatam Sofer EH 2:94). This
criterion would exclude women from ordination. since they are generally
ineligible to perform judicial functions (Shevuot 30a).
believe that contemporary ordination may be issued to any pious student who
displays proper erudition (YD 242:14), and may be limited or expanded based on
the areas of expertise. Numerous sources attest that sufficiently knowledgeable
women (even without formal ordination) may issue decisions of Jewish law (Hinuch
77, 152) and, despite limited educational opportunities, there exist several
examples of such learned women throughout Jewish history (Halichot Bat Yisrael
9:7). According to this ordination criterion, women would be theoretically
Yet as Mordechai Breuer has documented, different limitations
or conditions have frequently been added to this form of ordination.
figures believe that ordination could only be given at a certain age, or impose
limitations on activities to prevent undue rabbinic competition. Others believe
that standard semicha inherently includes certain posts, including that of a
synagogue rabbi (Aruch Hashulhan YD 242:29). As such, any attempt to ordain
women would need to resolve this dispute and explicate the nature of its
Independent of ordination, a second issue relates to the
propriety of women serving in positions of authority (serara). From the Torah’s
declaration, “Place unto yourself a king” (Deuteronomy 17:15), the Sages
inferred, “a king, but not a queen” (Sifre).
While some authorities
limited the prohibition to the monarchy (Hinuch 497), Maimonides, following
different versions of the midrash, extended the prohibition to all positions of
authority (MT Melachim 1:5). This parallels the talmudic prohibition on converts
from holding offices that possess coercive power, such as bailiffs and
inspectors of weights and measures (Kiddushin 76b).
The precedent of
Deborah the prophetess strongly challenges this broad prohibitive ruling (Judges
4:4-5). 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, which was allowed
based on a wellestablished rule that litigants can agree to be judged by those
normally forbidden from this position (Hinuch 87).
however, argued that Deborah justifiably served as a political leader since her
appointment received communal agreement and was not forcefully imposed (Ramban
Shavuot 30a). This notion served as the basis for Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel’s
assertion that women can be elected as members of Knesset (Mishpatei Uziel CM
4:6). Others have alternatively noted that many (if not most) rabbinic positions
do not carry the coercive powers forbidden to women and that therefore women
could serve, in function if not in name, as rabbis in many realms (Shu”t Binyan
Beyond these disputes, other issues surrounding the ordination
of women include: questions of modesty in public roles; the propriety of
innovations that differ from traditional practice; the potential threat to
communal unity; the impact of polemical disputes with non-Orthodox movements;
the breakdown of traditional notions of gender; and practical questions
regarding various restrictions on the ritual involvement of women.
that no semblance of consensus currently exists on these matters, the
controversial agenda of female ordination should be shelved, with greater
energies dedicated toward increasing women’s education and expanding their
meaningful contributions to the community.
The writer, online editor of
Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at