Women in the Rabbinate: ‘Rabbi, can you make some tea?’

This Shavuot, I was at a dinner where it turned out that a fellow guest knew a relative of the first female Orthodox communal leader in Israel. The conversation moved quickly from the infamous “Jewish geography” to discussing the idea of a female, Orthodox, rabbi. Featured comments included things along the lines of:

“She can’t hang out with the boys after davening.”
“She doesn’t count in the minyan, isn’t that a bit problematic?”
“Can she really paskan (decide legal matters)?”
“I think it’s better that there is a couple, rather than one leader (who’s female).”

In this post, I have absolutely no intention of critiquing (for the positive or negative) the Efrat community, that has made this move. As a community, that is their prerogative. However, I have been mulling over the above comments and the implications of having a female leader which I’d like to explore.

Firstly, we need to take a drastic step backwards and remove both the adjectives “female” and “male” from this debate. This may sound mystifying, but it is in fact a necessary step in our investigation. If we do not exclude gender straight away, we make our debate precisely that: a debate about gender roles, and we will unhappily land up in a maelstrom of feminism, anti-feminism, misogyny, etc. If we want to discuss gender roles, we are asking the question: “Can a woman be a rabbinical leader?” and not “Should a woman be a rabbinical leader?”

It is for this reason that I will be using the term “rabbinical leader” in this post to cover both male and female communal leaders, and “rabbi” to refer to the traditional image of a male communal figurehead. The moment we say “woman + rabbi =” we immediately are throwing women into a male role. To illustrate conversely, “man + communal leader =” does put a man into a perceived male role, it just associates the two.

Now, what has this to do with communal leadership? Everything. The very fact that we are questioning whether females can be rabbinical leaders means that there is something disrupting our established concept of leadership. I would argue that this is due to increased female involvement within the community because as women develop a voice and are (extremely) slowly becoming recognized and respected, they too require leadership and guidance that meets their needs. And so, we need to remove gender from the question that pinpoints what foremostly needs to be answered: what do we need in rabbinical leader?

I believe that the four comments I quoted above cover some of the elemental criteria. The second and third — counting in a minyan and being able to paskan — are legal and halachic. Our rabbinical leader must participate and ensure the continuation of religious practices such as prayer quorums, circumcision, weddings and the like as well as decide matters of law. The first — “hanging out with the boys” – speaks more to the delicate position of being socially accessible as well as a trusted guide. Thus, to summarise, the rabbinical leader has both legal and social responsibilities.

However, this is where it becomes tricky and admittedly, it would be boring if we didn’t address the question we are so cleverly trying to avoid. So… can a woman be a rabbi? With a resounding certainty, the answer over the millennia has been: no. Yet most crucially, that resolute answer was not from the Divine; it was from men — our rabbis. I do not need to provide a history or psychology lesson to demonstrate how men have disowned women of their intelligence and capability in order to deny them the same power and privilege. Thus, a “rabbi” has been and continues to remain a role exclusive to men.

Am I criticizing our rabbis? Am I saying that Judaism does in fact permit a female to be a rabbinical leader? To the first, I answer “no” and to the second, “perhaps.” However we look at it, we have to admit that our rabbis (past and present) have been hugely influenced by contemporary thought. Many famous commentators — Maimonides included (if I am not mistaken) — categorized women to the unintelligent and foolish saying often that “my writings are not fit to be read by women.” To the contrary, Modern rabbis are being influenced by modern, feminist trends and acknowledging women’s equal capabilities (as the topic of this post clearly indicates). It is a matter of time and place and whether we should judge them is an extensive topic. Yet, the fact remains that they were influenced by and shared “outside” attitudes. This, of course, becomes the distinction between Jewish society and Judaism.

I must disappointingly concede my ignorance of Judaism’s attitude towards female rabbinical leaders. Yet, as rabbis like to preach on the topic of Jewish feminism, Judaism does have its female leaders – Miriam, Devorah, Chana and a few others. I daresay there were others and not to be provocative, but it is worth remembering that all our canonical works were written by men with a selective bias. I absolutely do not believe that g-d sees women as inferior and incapable of being a rabbinical leader: “and g-d created man [humankind] in His image, in the image of G-d He created them; male and female He created them” (Genesis, 1:27). Male and female are created in g-d’s image referring to the idea that we imitate g-d in His attributes; we – men and women. It is the rabbis who ruled that women cannot be kings (or queens as you will), judges, witnesses, halachic authorities and what not. Judaism clearly differentiates women from men in later developed conceptualisations of gender roles (based entirely on perceived biological tendencies), but we cannot and must not construe that in terms of inequality.

Now that we have put aside the halachic “issue” of whether women can be rabbinical leaders, we must address whether women should be rabbinical leaders in terms of the social. Here is where we must tread carefully for if we slip into our “female rabbi” thinking, we will become skewed in our mindset all over again. Instead, we need to turn to psychology. Women relate most to women; men to men. It is for this reason – and solely this reason – that I advocate for a dual partnership in rabbinical leadership. Gone must be the day where the male rabbi offers counsel to both his female and male congregants and answers their questions. A man, although he may sincerely try, cannot understand a female perspective (and likewise). If we wish to adhere to the intrinsic mentality of Jewish law, we must answer the person and not the question. Jewish law has a beauty in being able to give entirely two different answers that are both acceptable. A woman must not be answered by a man; she must be answered by a woman. And the woman who answers her must, must, must have her own equally parallel authority to her male counterpart. We need to create female rabbinical leaders to speak to our women.

Just the other day, I heard a story quoted and with this, I will end. The Brisker Rav was gathered with his students after the Friday night meal at the traditional “tish” (a social meeting after dinner on Friday evenings with a rabbi and his students). Yet where were the women? They were, in the words attributed to the rav, at the theatre. Women were leaving Judaism and at one point in Poland, there was apparently a “shortage” of religious young women for men to marry. Women need leadership and guidance just as men do and if they cannot find it, they will leave and find it elsewhere.

I applaud the Efrat community for recognising this need, necessity and capability for equal female authority. As Rabbanit Shira Marili Mervis has said: “Many times in my life I missed having a female Torah figure until the penny dropped that I can be that figure for other women.” This is the ideal we need to strive for.

About the Author
Raised in South Africa, Tanya graduated cum laude with a BA in French and Philosophy and recently completed her MA in Jewish Studies at Hebrew University. She works in the Hebrew University Business School marketing team as a content writer. She is passionate about social impact, education and nonprofit work.
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