Women as spiritual leaders

The Talmud in one place says women are more intelligent than men (Niddah 45b), though some rabbis – perhaps those with marital problems – said women were too talkative (Berakhot 48b).

September 7, 2019 20:04
3 minute read.
Hasidic women watch the funeral procession of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman

Hasidic women watch the funeral procession of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman. (photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)

A far-right Knesset member recently came out against women holding public office. It’s not a new question. The role of women in Judaism has long been debated. Women are part of the Bible story from the beginning, and there is much evidence of feminine spirituality.

The sages said it was women’s merits that brought about the deliverance from Egypt (Sotah 11b). The Talmud in one place says women are more intelligent than men (Niddah 45b), though some rabbis – perhaps those with marital problems – said women were too talkative (Berakhot 48b). Nahmanides said when the Temple was built, women were eager to show their devotion. Women had less commandments than men; spirituality came naturally to them.

The sages had a pragmatic policy. They said, “Whether man or woman, the Divine Spirit rests on them in accordance with their deeds” (Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah). They were reluctant to admit women to communal authority. The leaders in Talmudic times were “the seven good men of the city.” There are few precedents for female leaders, and some rabbis had a hard time explaining how Deborah could be a judge. Greco-Roman times had female “heads of the synagogue” and “mothers of the synagogue,” however, these were not officiants but donors. Women’s brain power was acclaimed (Proverbs 31), but their influence was behind the scenes (Psalm 45:14: “The glory of the king’s daughter is inward”). The women left the prancing and politicking to the men.

Maimonides barred women from office, reading Deuteronomy 17:15 as requiring rulers to be male: “As with all appointments (serarah), only a man may be appointed” (Hilhot Melahim 1:5). Not all sources endorse this view but argue that serarah applies only to autocrats who are not democratically elected, who do not serve for a limited term, lack coercive power, and do not make final decisions.

Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Uzziel let women hold community office. In synagogue elections, Rabbi David Hoffmann allowed them to vote but not be voted for, and this became the policy of the British Chief Rabbinate and United Synagogue.

The Hoffmann ruling is quoted to allow women to vote in synagogue elections; be delegates to other bodies and observers (or full members) at board meetings; and in some places, to be vice-president or president/chairman. Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik endorsed women as synagogue trustees or board members but not as presidents, who often exercise serarah-like functions. Rabbi J.D. Bleich says (Contemporary Halakhic Problems II, p. 266): “The rabbi who is firmly convinced of the cogency of the arguments of the permissivists [may] act in accordance with his views.” 

A few Israeli congregations allow women on their va’adot, though some women themselves think that this is not in accordance with Jewish law. One Jerusalem synagogue has had a woman president. There are debates about women as congregational clergy. Rabbi Soloveitchik allows women kashrut supervisors but not female kosher slaughterers, while some rabbis allow it. Such appointments were made in Renaissance Italy because of a shortage of males or (according to Cecil Roth) because women had a degree of emancipation.

Students of Rav Soloveitchik say he would oppose women’s ordination. In theory at least, Rav Uzziel allowed a woman to be ordained. No Orthodox authority endorses women cantors.

Orthodox women show little interest in ordination but many are assiduous students and teachers of Talmud and halacha, Jewish law. Apart from female legal pleaders, Orthodox women serve as school principals, counselors and administrators. In a sense, this makes them quasi-rabbinic figures but few Orthodox leaders grant them formal ordination even with titles like rabbah or maharat. Another possibility is the title ishah hakhamah (II Sam. 20:16), or maybe rabbanit, not in the sense of a rabbi’s wife but a woman rabbinic scholar.

Some synagogues allow women to conduct funerals, speak at weddings, preach and teach, give counseling, and represent the Jewish community to the wider public. Such ancillary roles in the synagogue program can be tailored to local needs, though they require traditional standards of morality and modesty. But there is a difference between having a position on the synagogue staff and holding overall religious leadership with a rabbinic title and authority. This seems to be serarah, on which the Rabbinical Council of America upholds the traditionalist position.  

The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue or Sydney, Australia, and former president of the Rabbinical Council of America Israel Region. This article represents his personal views.

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