Why Can’t Women Be Rabbis?

Today, a rabbi may mean two things: 1. A person has a rabbinic degree, which means they have completed a certain curriculum of Jewish text study as well as pastoral courses. 2. A person serves in a professional role of spiritual and religious guidance and Torah teaching for a given community.

The term “Rabbi” itself does not have halachik significance. It is not defined in the traditional halakhic sources, like the Talmud or the Shulkhan Aruch, which is why there are not black and white halachot saying “So and so may/may not be a rabbi.”

Thus, the question of whether a woman who fits the definitions of rabbi stated above may be called “rabbi” is a sociological, not a halachik question. The real question is: May a woman obtain an education following the rabbinic curriculum of text study and pastoral courses, and may a woman serve as a spiritual-religious guide and Torah teacher?

In a Modern Orthodox community that believes there are no halachik or hashkafic issues with women obtaining an equal Jewish and secular education to that of men, there is clearly no reason why they may not study the rabbinic school curriculum.

So let’s move on to question 2: Women serving as leaders.

Some communities claim this would violate their standard of tzniut. The Modern Orthodox community however, where it is normal for women, whether as lay leaders or synagogue and school professionals, to stand on a podium and address the community, and where it is normal for men and women to socialize with each other, cannot convincingly make this claim.

Next comes the halachik prohibition on women serving as judges. The problem with using this as an argument against women rabbis, is that not all male rabbis are qualified to serve on a beit din. It’s possible to ordain woman as rabbis but to not accept them to serve on beit din positions. Also, there is a rabbinic view, based on the case study of Deborah, that if a community were to accept upon itself a woman judge, that act would be valid -but let’s assume we’re dealing with a Modern Orthodox community that doesn’t love relying on minority opinions.

So we move on to the halachik prohibition against women being leaders, stemming from the rabbinic view that God ordered the Israelites to have kings – not queens. Again, let’s discount the minority opinion that might allow women leaders in some circumstances – but not without acknowledging that Modern Orthodoxy does, as a movement, rely on minority opinions in certain areas, and there is a question that can be asked about why relying on minority opinions to expand women’s rights isn’t ok, when it is acceptable for other issues.

Now, the problem with arguing that this prohibition must prevent women from becoming rabbis, is that many Modern Orthodox synagogues do have women leaders. They have women board leaders, women executive directors, women school principals and more. Here is a sample of some of the titles of women clergy in Modern Orthodox synagogues I found on the internet: “community intern”, “community scholar”,  “director of community education”.

All of these titles appeared under the “clergy” and “rabbis and educators” sections of the synagogue’s website, and all of these women work in synagogues that are ideologically opposed to hiring a woman with the title of maharat or rabba – even though they employ women to teach Torah to the community and offer spiritual guidance -the main roles associated with the rabbinate. These Modern Orthodox synagogues are not castigated by the mainstream Modern Orthodox establishment, because even though they admit they employ women clergy and leaders, they shy away from the maharat and rabba titles.

I’m not counting yoatzot halacha as leaders, because yoatzot answer questions from individuals and couples. The job does not require standing up in front of the entire synagogue on a regular basis or acting as the public face of the synagogue. However, what yoatzot halacha do – answering halachik questions based on knowledge of the sources and the situation of the person at hand, and turning to a learned rabbi if the case is complicated- is also a main part of a rabbi’s job. This part of a rabbi’s job may be carried out by anyone with proper halachik training and moral fiber, and clearly, the Modern Orthodox community has no opposition to this part of a rabbi’s job being done by women, or yoatzot halacha wouldn’t be so popular.

In conclusion: Having a woman rabbi does not violate Modern Orthodox tzniut standards. As long as the woman rabbi isn’t appointed to a bet din, their ordination doesn’t violate the prohibition on female judges. The Modern Orthodox community already employs women religious leaders and Torah educators, so it’s already acknowledged the spuriousness of using the prohibition against women leaders to prevent them from serving as clergy. Since the community acknowledges women’s rights to an equal Jewish and secular education to that of men, it has no halachik reason to stop women from learning the curriculum learned by male rabbis. Once women learn that curriculum, they may answer halachik questions, just like yoatzot halacha.

Leading, learning and teaching Torah, answering halachik questions – I think we’ve covered every aspect of the modern definition of rabbi.

So why is there such a strong objection to ordaining and employing maharats and/or rabbas in the Modern Orthodox world?

The answer is sociological, not halachik. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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