What Role Does Feminism Play in Judaism?

One of the things I view as essential to concepts of equality and justice in which I so strongly believe is to treat women with the same dignity and respect as men. As such women — like men — ought to be allowed to pursue any endeavor they are individually capable of.

In 21st century America this has in fact happened. Women today are achieving success in every facet of life. Whether in the classroom or the board room. As  entrepreneurs or as professionals. Whether in government or in the private sector. Whether in the military or in civilian life. Whether in academia; the arts; or the trades.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the very distinct possibility that the next President of the United States — whether Democrat or Republican – will be a woman. No one will bat an eyelash if or when that happens.

That there still exists discrepancies between men and women in certain areas (such as the fact that financial compensation for equal work in just about any field is greater for men than it is for women) is an injustice that remains unrectified.  An injustice that I deplore! But other than that no woman should feel that there is still a glass ceiling that has not been penetrated.

I have always thought of myself as a feminist and advocated for the above mentioned ideals. However, based on the current definition of feminism, I would not be considered one. In recent times, feminists have become obsessed with equality under any and all circumstances, discarding anything that gets in the way of that. I call it the ‘take no prisoners’ form of feminism. It is not longer about equality in the workplace and treating women with dignity — same as a man. It is about equality no matter what. If there is a religious principle that gets in the way of that, the religious principle must be discarded.

I am not that kind of feminist.  Alas there are many Orthodox Jewish feminists that almost feel that way. And try to insert equality into every possible nook and cranny of Judaism they can find. Is that a valid approach? Is there a glass ceiling — where women can see men in higher roles and through which women — unfairly — cannot pass? The answer is not a simple yes or no. It depends on how you look at it. Let us first examine what  the role of a woman is in Judaism.

If one is an Orthodox Jew one understands that Judaism is not a religion that sees equal roles for men and women. Quite the contrary. Men and women each have their roles defined for them in the form of which mitzvos they are required to do and which mitzvos they are exempt from doing. Much of that is based on the physical differences between men and women.  It is those physical differences that tends to naturally lead men and women into different roles. It is also the nature of male-female relationships that guides many of our laws. The Torah encompasses all of this in its body of law.

That of course does not deny women the right to achieve equally with men in other areas. Which they do as I indicated above. But in Judaism there are lines that that even the most strident Orthodox feminist would concede cannot be crossed. There is for example no Orthodox feminist that would say we may count women into the necessary minimum of ten people for a minyan.  Nor would they abolish the mechitza. However, Orthodox feminists have gone to great lengths to do what they can to approximate the feminist goal of equality with men. Hence you have things like Women’s Tefillah Groups that mimic male minyanim stretching the boundaries of Halacha as far as they can go.

What about Torah study — the formerly exclusive province of the male student in Orthodxy? Until the early 20th century women only studied those laws that pertained to them. Which they usually learned in the home from their mothers. That changed in response to what was perceived by the rabbis of the time to be an existential threat to the future of Judaism. (The details of which are beyond the scope of this essay.) Women started studying Torah in schools — albeit limited in scope. They were not taught Gemarah. That again changed later in the 20th century when Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik taught the first shiur in Gemarah to the students of YU’s Stern College for Women.

As it stands now, women capable of doing so can — if they so choose — study any subject in Torah as they wish. While Torah study is not mandated for women as it is for men (who are required to study it) they may nevertheless study it in the same depth as men.

What about recognizing a woman’s achievement in Torah study? If she has studied the same material required for an ordination as a man shouldn’t she be recognized for that?

I think she should. There ought to be a degree conferred upon anyone who has mastered a course of study. I would have no objection to conferring a bachelors, masters, or PhD (or Hebrew equivalents such as BHL, MHL ord DHL) to any woman who mastered any religious discipline of study. You could for example have degrees in Talmud, Halacha, or Machshava (Jewish thought).

But the one thing that should not be done is to give them Semicha (a rabbinic ordination). Semicha is more than a degree. It is a right to lead in an area that tradition has not allowed. Tradition should not be changed unless there are existential reasons to do so.  Judaism is not only about Halacha. It is about Mesorah — traditions handed down from  generation to generation.  We can’t change things so easily — just because the spirit of the times agitates for it. A religion that defines separate roles for men and women – by definition does not cater to the egalitarian feminism of our day.

An article by Rabbi Marc Angel advocating the ordination of women (as does Yeshivat Maharat) says that since the ordinations in our day are not the same as the real ordinations of old, we should not fear giving Semicha to women. It’s just a way of recognizing their achievement in learning. Not doing so is simply catering to the right.

I disagree. As I said, there are other ways of recognizing achievement in Torah study. What this is about is not catering to the left. What about the lack of fairness in giving men the right to have Semicha and not women? That is no more unfair than sitting behind a mechitza is. Fairness as defined by the Zeitgeist has nothing to do with Judaism.

Just to be clear — this does not mean that women can’t be leaders in other ways. But — to put it the way the RCA did — not in ways that do not have the broad support of the Orthodox Rabbinate.

Speaking of the RCA (Modern Orthodoxy’s rabbinic fraternity) they have released a statement — with which I completely agree. Here are some excerpts from a JTA article:

RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution…


The RCA, reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community. We strongly maintain that any innovations that impact the community as a whole should be done only with the broad support of the Orthodox rabbinate and a firm grounding in the eternal mesorah (tradition) of the Jewish people…


Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title. The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.”

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.