Parshat Pinhas: Jewish law and women leaders

There is a great necessity for women to serve in adjunct clerical positions, especially in the modern synagogue setting.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘the daughters of Zelophehad spoke correctly; you shall surely grant them the acquisition of an inheritance together with their father’s Kinsmen.
You shall transmit the inheritance of their father to them…” (Deuteronomy 27:6-7) During this last joyous period of institutional graduation ceremonies (from elementary schools to universities), there has also occurred a number of unique celebrations for the awarding of semicha (the authority to enter the halachic discourse and render halachic judgments) to women. I am proud to say that our Midreshet Lindenbaum (Susie Bradfield Institute for Women’s Leadership) was the first to grant such ordination – two of our “musmachot” have already published a book of halachic response – and it is more than coincidental that on June 29 we held a special memorial siyum for Belda Lindenbaum, of blessed memory, who (together with her husband, Marcel) was largely responsible for making such advanced women’s learning possible worldwide.
Our women’s semicha program is taught by Rabbi Shuki Reich, the same kollel head who prepares our men to pass the examinations given by the Chief Rabbinate; our women’s requirements are no less exacting and rigorous than are those for our men. Hence our women are no less qualified than our men to give halachic decisions on all areas discussed within the pages of our religio-legal Codes of Law (Shulhan Aruch).
They are granted the title of “Manhighot ruhaniot” or spiritual leaders.
Nevertheless, the rendering of such ordination to women is not without controversy. Indeed, the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America is having a special panel of rabbis discuss the issue at their annual convention taking place a I write these lines. However, it is important to note that there is a great precedent to accept women as instructors in Jewish Law.
We have already seen in our previous commentary to Shlah, how the daughters of Zelophehad referred to by the Talmud as being wise, analytical and righteous (B.T. Baba Batra 119b) stood up before Moses in a Talmud class and asked a question which illuminated a halacha (of inheritance) of which Moses was ignorant and God Himself declared that they were correct.
In this way the Shulhan Aruch states clearly that “any scholar who has reached the ability to render halachic decisions and does not do so is preventing [the spread of] Torah and placing stumbling blocks before the multitudes” (Yoreh De’a, 242:14).
The Rema adds, “The rabbinical ordination which is customary in our time is a way of informing the nation that the ordained individual has attained the ability to give halachic direction, and is giving instruction with the permission of his master who ordained him” (ibid).
There are precedents for accepting the halachic teachings and decisions of women, even over the decisions of men. For example, the Tosefta brings an example of a debate regarding the ritual impurity of an oven in which the sages preferred the opinion of Bruria, the daughter of Rabbi Hanania ben Teradyon, over the opinion of his son.
Rabbi Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal, relates in his response No. 29 that his grandmother, Rebbetzin Miriam, regularly sat behind a curtain (for reasons of modesty) and taught Halacha to outstanding male students.
The mother of the first Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was said to have halachic knowledge that exceeded that of most men, and she even adjudicated halachic questions, according to the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn.
The author of the Sefer Hahinuch writes (Mitzva 152): “Someone who is inebriated with wine should not enter the Sanctuary, and likewise one who is inebriated should not instruct… And the prohibition of coming to the Sanctuary drunk during the Temple period applied to both males and females. And the avoidance of giving halachic instructions [in such a state] applies to males in every place and in every era, as well as to a wise woman who is worthy of rendering halachic instruction.”
Likewise, we learn from the Hida’s Birkat Yosef: (Hoshen Mishpat, siman 7 subpar. 12) “Even though a woman is unfit to judge, nevertheless a wise woman may render halachic decisions,” and the practical halacha is brought in the Pit’hei Teshuva and in the Sefer Halacha Pesuka: “A woman may sit with the judges, to teach them the law in the cases brought before them in which she is knowledgeable, and she may teach Halacha in matters of permissibility and prohibition.”
It would seem that the only opinion that explicitly disagrees with this license for a woman to teach Halacha is the author of the Sha’arei Teshuva. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the great majority of authorities permit a woman to teach Halacha and render halachic decisions.
Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who was the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel from 1993 to 2003, writes in his book Binyan Av (1:65): “A woman and a proselyte may serve as instructors of Halacha, teachers of Torah and decisors of halachic rulings. All positions whose authority is determined by the abilities of those holding them and where authority derives from one’s knowledge and purity, may be filled by a woman or a proselyte.”
In conclusion, let us take to heart the words of Tana Devei Eliyahu concerning Deborah the prophetess, the heroine of this article: “And Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lapidoth, judged Israel at that time.” What was so special about Deborah that made her [worthy of being]judge of Israel at that time, and a prophetess to God? Was not Phinehas the son of Eleazar alive at the time? I hereby testify today before the heavens and the earth: Whether an Israelite or a gentile, whether a man or a woman, whether a manservant or a maidservant, each has the divine spirit rest upon him in accordance with his own acts.”
Postscript: I intentionally have not used the terms “Rabbi” or “Rabba” in my discussion of a woman’s acceptability for rendering halachic decisions.
Two of the main functions of a congregational rabbi, especially in smaller communities, are to lead the communal prayers and Torah reading. Indeed, the initial purpose of a synagogue was to establish a proper environment for the expression of these two rituals.
Since communal prayer and Torah reading are responsibilities which the Talmud sages specifically placed upon the congregation of males, it is not halachically permissible for women to discharge this obligation and to serve as Torah readers or cantorial representatives of congregations that include men. Hence, I do not believe that a woman can serve as the sole religious leader of a Jewish prayer community at the present time.
Nevertheless, there is a great necessity for women to serve in adjunct clerical positions, especially in the modern synagogue setting, which functions more as a house of Jewish assembly than as a house of communal prayer. I also believe that there are many more halachically viable opportunities for women to actively participate in congregational prayer than is now considered de rigueur, and I hope to delineate these in a forthcoming article.
Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His latest book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.