As Americans follow the developing Democratic presidential campaigns—the polls, the debates, the policies, the vote tallies—many Democratic voters who aim to see Trump removed are nervous about wasting their one and only vote in the Democratic Primaries. With at least six candidates in the running (as of this writing), it would be a shame to vote for someone who has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. Even worse, it would be devastating for anti-Trumpists to rally behind a single Democrat who has no chance of defeating Trump. The word lurking in the shadows of these anxieties is “electability.”
Just a few years after the Electoral College handed Donald Trump the presidency when he ran against Hillary Clinton, many Americans wonder today if women simply can’t be elected. Such doubts keep Americans second-guessing themselves when weighing their votes for Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, or Elizabeth Warren. Jewish history, on the other hand, tells stories of women who were chosen by their people and, as leaders, traversed new frontiers.
The names of a few women from antiquity are still associated with the highest ranks of Jewish governance. Biblical narratives set as far back as the 9th century tell of the Israelites being led by Queen Athaliah, and ancient historians dated to around 75 BCE the beginning of Salome Alexandra’s nearly-decade-long rule as queen and sole monarch of the Jewish kingdom. Admittedly, great controversy surrounded the political lives of most of these women (whose terms immediately followed and preceded the rule of equally, if not more, controversial men). Still, there is the famous biblical narrative of Queen Esther, whose courage, dictates, and rule were widely celebrated among the Persian Jews in the exilic empire ruled by King Achashverosh (in what scholars presume to be something of an old historical-fiction story), and the Book of Judges recounts the legend of the Israelite judge Deborah, whom medieval rabbis later reimagined as a teacher of other tribal judges (not all of whom were female) (Tosefot HaRosh on Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 49b).
Students of early rabbinic literature, composed not long after the turn from BCE to CE, are wont to encounter a variety of women to whom Jews turned to answer questions that puzzled rabbinic culture. Sagacious women—such as Beruriah, Imma Shalom, Em, Yalta, and the daughter of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon—are inscribed in Jewish legalistic writings that chose to give voice to these women who, despite living in an era when rabbinic titles were not offered to women, deeply impacted Jewish discourse for centuries to come.
In the Middle Ages, notable Jewish women continued to influence Jewish masses. A number of women were well-reputed cantors, including Worms, Germany’s Orgiah (d. 1275), who is commemorated with a still-standing gravestone that recalls her for being a “chosen” liturgical leader. There was also Dulcia (d. 1197), whose spouse, Rabbi Elazar (also) of Worms, eulogized her in Hebrew rhyme: “All who saw her praised her… / In all provinces, she taught women and made melody of songs” (Isaac Meiseles, ed. Shirat Ha-Roke’ah, [Jerusalem, 1993], pp. 227 and 229). Outside the medieval cantorate, women found a place in leading Jewish scholars. Among the descendants of the 11th century French commentator Rashi was the much beloved Miriam Shapira-Luria, who, in the 15th century, took hold of a yeshivah and taught distinguished pupils in Padua, Italy. In the 17th century, Asenath Barzani headed a yeshivah in Kurdistan as its primary director and instructor, and Kurdistani Jewish folklore fondly recalls her as a miracle-worker.
Outside the realm of religious leadership were many Jewish women whose high place in the secular economy served the Jewish people at large. The best known example is perhaps the independent businesswoman Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi (1510-1569), who maintained a strong Jewish identity even after her family was forcibly converted to Christianity in Portugal 13 years before her birth. In the last 12 years of her life, Mendes Nasi governed Tiberias and provided financial support to the Jewish community there. Before she gained rule of this portion of the Land of Israel, she had already built multiple yeshivot and synagogues (one of which, “La Señora,” is named after her) in Turkey. After her death, Tiberian Jews lamented the loss of this formidable woman who had developed escape routes for conversos trying to save their lives and their dignity.
With the advent of the modern era, Jewish women remained popular influencers in their society. With the rise of the Chasidic movement in the 18th century, it was only natural that women who rose to leadership positions in this populist mystical tradition were received with great acclaim. In a time when it was assumed that dynasties would naturally transfer from fathers to sons, Eidel, the daughter of Chasidism’s founder, the Ba’al Shem Tov, is said to have “surpassed the popularity of her only brother and gained fame in Poland for her counsel and wisdom” (Renee Edelman, “Chasidic Women Rebbes,” in Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Alysa Mendelson Graf [eds.] The Sacred Calling [New York: 2016], p. 24). In the following century, Hannah Rachel Werbermacher, also known as the Maid of Ludmir, built her own shul, where she delivered public discourses to Jews of all genders. With the rise of the academic yeshivah movement near the beginning of modern Jewish history, Rayna Batya Berlin, born early in the 19th century into the dynasty of Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner and married to Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (who replaced Rayna Batya’s father in leading the Volozhin yeshivah), earned a special place—a full chapter—in the memoirs of her nephew, Rabbi Barukh HaLevi Epstein, who publicized for his readers the dialogues and nuanced lessons in Jewish ethics and rabbinic texts he learned from his unusually well-read aunt.
Although the origins of democracy preceded modernity by a few millennia, it was only in the beginning of the 20th century that governments protecting large Jewish populations began to rule that women’s voices should be heard in elections. With Israel adopting a parliamentary system early on in the nation’s life, Rachel Cohen-Kagan, as head of the WIZO party, was voted into the first Keneset in 1949 and stayed in her role for two years. Later formations of the Keneset would find other Jewish women voted into the top tickets of political parties with seats in the Israeli Parliament: Shulamit Aloni (Ratz, 1974-1975; and Meretz, 1992-1996), Shelly Yachimovich (Labor, 2011-2013), Zehava Gal-On (Meretz, 2012-2018), Tzipi Livni (Hatnua, 2014-2019), Tamar Zandberg (Meretz, 2018-2019), Ayelet Shaked (Yamina, 2019-present), and, most famously, Prime Minister Golda Meir (Alignment, 1969-1974).
And Jewish women have risen to high-ranking positions in the Diaspora as well. In the United States, Jewish governors have included Madeleine Kunin (Vermont, 1985-1991) and Linda Lingle (Hawaii, 2002-2010); senators have included Dianne Feinstein (California, 1992-present) and Jacky Rosen (Nevada, 2019-present); and over a dozen of the House of Representatives’ members have been Jewish women, from Florence Kahn (California, 1925-1937), to Elaine Luria (Virginia, 2019-present). Meanwhile, on other continents, Jewish women have been voted into their positions as prime ministers in Guyana (Janet Jagan, 1997-1999) and Belgium (Sophie Wilmès, 2019-present).
It is true that, before and even a bit into recent history, none of the women above were formally voted into their societal roles. After all, there was no democratic system for electing these powerful women; their admirers simply ‘voted with their feet,’ as it were. The cultural milieu inhabited by Bernie Sanders’ and Michael Bloomberg’s Ashkenazic ancestors was one where Jews could not vote for any women—or men—who left indelible imprints on the society around them. But, today, things are radically different.
So, does Jewish history tell us that women are electable? Jewish history tells us that many populations—Jewish and secular—have recognized the power of capable and talented leaders who happen to be women. Keeping in mind how recent a phenomenon it is that Jews can vote for women (or anyone) into any governmental position—a review of Jewish history reveals to us a lesson that we could have learned just as easily from the wise men of Chelm: women are absolutely electable—when we vote for them.