Ask the Rabbi: May women serve as rabbis?

The issue of women receiving rabbinic ordination has recently roiled the Orthodox community, particularly in America.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: PAUL WIDEN)
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).
Despite 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).
Most authorities 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 eligible.
Yet as Mordechai Breuer has documented, different limitations or conditions have frequently been added to this form of ordination.
Some 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 ordination.
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).
Many authorities, 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 Av 1:65).
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.
Given 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 (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.
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