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Women rabbis: Questions and considerations

A close look at the key arguments against women’s ordination and the case for why they don't hold up

A recent statement by the Rabbinical Council of America, America’s largest umbrella organization for Modern Orthodox rabbis (the “RCA”), on the permissibility (or lack thereof) of women assuming positions of rabbinical leadership has ignited a firestorm within the Modern Orthodox community. As a community member and the father of two young daughters, this is an issue of great interest to personally, and should matter to us as a community. Nevertheless, to my profound disappointment, the debate over the permissibility or impermissibility of women rabbis — one that our community needs to have in a thoughtful and substantive manner — has devolved into a sad spectacle of politics, semantics and pettiness, on both sides.

We need to steer this very important conversation in a different direction, and below is my modest attempt to do so by considering the merits of the traditional arguments that have been raised against women’s ordination. In so doing, I respectfully ask that you, the reader, please consider three things. First, my perspective — I am in favor of ordaining women rabbis. Second, my credentials (or lack thereof) — I am not a rabbi or a scholar, but a layperson. Finally, my goal — I am writing to stimulate substantive discussion and not to end it.

Women Rabbis: a Violation of the Mesora?

An oft-repeated, but deeply flawed, argument against women assuming communal leadership positions is that appointing women to such positions would violate the Mesora, the Jewish notion of adherence to tradition. The problem with this argument is that it is predicated upon a fundamental misunderstanding of what Mesora is and how Mesora guides Jewish practice.

Let us start with what Mesora is not.

Mesora does not mean that Jewish practice does not change or that Judaism categorically rejects innovation. Such a notion is simply false — not as a matter of opinion, but fact. If there is any overarching theme in Jewish history and tradition, it is that Jewish practice changes, and there are literally hundreds of examples of such changes across all aspects of Jewish life throughout Jewish history. With respect to Jewish learning, the Mishnah and Talmud were themselves radical departures from what had, until their compilation, been largely oral and fragmented traditions. And several centuries later, in different ways, both Rabbi Isaac Alfasi and Maimonides, among the greatest halakhic authorities in Jewish history, radically altered those same “traditional” Jewish sources yet again (Elfasi shortened the Talmud; Maimonides sought to replace it entirely with his code). With respect to Jewish practice, Jewish prayer (itself an innovation) has undergone enormous change, such that one could walk into Ashkenazi, Hassidic, Yemenite, Sephardic and Spanish-Portuguese synagogues, all of whom are Orthodox, and witness entirely different customs and liturgies. And in the realm of Halakha, European communities throughout their history created new laws to address certain overarching values. Notably, Rabbenu Gershom banned polygamy and non-consensual divorce in the 10th century, and European communities banned eating certain legumes and grains on Passover beginning in the 13th century.

Mesora is also, to be sure, not about law, but practice — tradition captures what we have done and not necessarily what we should have done, which is what law articulates. To highlight that distinction, we should note that Halakha, or Jewish law, and traditional Jewish practice have, on occasion, diverged, and a historical example of that divergence is with respect to the biblical commandment that Tzitzit, the fringes observant Jews attach to four-corner garments, must include Tekhelet, strands dyed with a unique turquoise dye, called Tekhelet (Num: 15:38). Nevertheless, although Jewish law requires Tzitzit to include Tekhelet, the loss of the dye’s formula after the Temple’s destruction led to the Jewish practice, for the last two millennia, of Tzitzit being donned without such strands. The claimed rediscovery and reintroduction of Tekhelet in recent times has accordingly led to a fascinating dilemma — should one wear Tekhelet in accordance with the underlying Halakha or not wear Tekhelet in accordance with what has been Jewish tradition, the Mesora? Proponents of sticking with tradition argue that the weight of Jewish practice effectively nullifies the law (at least until the time of the Messiah). The more accepted view, to follow the law, counters that Jewish practice informs the law but does not supplant the law and in a contest between the two, Halakha prevails over Mesora (indeed, it is difficult to argue that Mesora has not only binding, but superseding authority when there is not one unified or uniformly-accepted tradition).

So what is Mesora? Stated simply, Mesora is the Jewish concern for the past and the belief that it is necessary to look back in order to move forward, and it addresses the following two concerns.

Mesora’s first concern is one of stability, that Jewish practice, as an organized system, requires continuity and predictability. Students of law refer to this as Stare Decisis — that legal systems resist changes that could “jolt” or undercut the system by creating uncertainty as to what its laws are at any given time or by suggesting that its laws are inherently transient, here today and gone tomorrow, and lack the continuous force to be followed. Applied to women’s leadership, the concern would be framed as follows: would women assuming leadership roles undercut Jewish practice on a systemic level?

Mesora’s second concern is with respect for authority — for God, whose will Jewish law embodies; for religious leaders, past and present, who interpret and guide Jewish law and practice; and for the generations who preceded us and were the conduits of that tradition — and the sense that what often underlies change is disrespect for prior authority. And, to be both honest and fair, that is not a groundless concern. It is fair to assert that what lies behind many if not most modern notions of progress is a rejection of the past as unenlightened, backwards, and even “wrong” — all unacceptable notions to Jews, who see wisdom and truth in the past.

Not surprisingly, different Jews have reconciled progress with Mesora in different ways. Traditional Jews, who often reject progress, do so because they accept the modernist attitude that progress necessarily entails rejecting the past. Modern Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, who tend to accept progress, do so not because they reject Mesora, but because they reject the modernist attitude that progress necessitates rejecting the past. On the contrary, we argue that what underlies prior practice is profound truth which must be understood and, if we are to move forward, correctly applied to modern facts. In a word, Modern Orthodox Jews reapply past principles, Traditional Jews replicate past practices. Applied to women’s leadership, a Modern Orthodox Jew would ask (and one would expect Modern Orthodoxy’s rabbinical leaders to ask) — are women rabbis really a rejection of past principles or merely a reapplication of those principles?

In my opinion, for the following reasons, women rabbis do not violate Mesora in either respect.

With respect to stability, women assuming rabbinical roles would not undercut Jewish practice on a systemic level — on the contrary, it would enhance it. First, it is difficult to understand how having more well-trained and educated Jewish rabbis dedicating their lives to educating and enhancing the observance of our community would somehow do anything other than strengthen that practice on a systemic level. Second, systemic disruption results when laws are disregarded, replaced or themselves changed — not when a vacuum that needs filling is filled and something is added. The reality is that there is a very actual and practical need for women rabbis.

Advocates of women rabbis do not ignore or deny that there are gender distinctions within Judaism (there are) — on the contrary, their position arises out of an acceptance of those distinctions. If we acknowledge that men and women are different, surely we should expect women, whose pastoral experience and spiritual development we care about deeply, to relate better to rabbis who are women than to male rabbis. And that is not just a theoretical consideration. It is amazing that a community that emphasizes modesty and privacy expects women to freely consult male rabbis about personal issues relating to their religious observance, including their menstrual cycles and sex lives. Indeed, if we are truly concerned about systemic Jewish observance, we should ask whether women more likely to consult with male or female rabbis on (and thereby observe) those areas of Halakha. It is a fairly easy answer.

On respect for authority, woman assuming rabbinical roles is hardly a rejection of past principles. First and most fundamentally, there needs to be a past principle in order for that principle to be violated or rejected. The historical absence of Orthodox women rabbis does not at all imply a principled opposition to the concept. Indeed, to assume principle from non-practice, as opponents of women’s ordination do, is to assume that (a) our predecessors actually considered the same issue seriously and that (b) their non-practice indicates that they were against it rather than that they had no opportunity to implement it. Neither assumption is necessarily true.

Indeed, it is equally valid to consider non-practice as a historical coincidence, like the absence of Tekhelet for generations, rather than an affirmative “tradition.” And historical accident is all the more likely when one considers the general historical absence of women in leadership roles (in the United States, women could not even vote on a national level (they could in some states) until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified) — and one realizes that Eastern European rabbis living in the Shtetl would have had to be almost prophetic to have seriously contemplated the issue of women rabbis during such times.

Finally, with respect to the respect for authority aspect of the equation, it is again difficult to see a rejection of past principles when what is proposed is that women hold positions that would enable them to further educate and enhance their community’s observance — which is what those who came before us ultimately sought to achieve — and where we are not talking about the removal of a principle or concept, but the creation of one in order to fill a need.

Serara: Are Women Rabbinical Leaders Improperly Assuming “Positions of Authority”?

Another common trope of the anti-ordination camp is that women’s assumption of a rabbinical position violates a traditional Jewish notion of “Serara,” which looks askance at women holding positions of “authority.” Indeed, some members of this camp will argue that the concept could very well apply to a woman assuming any communal position of authority, such as a synagogue or Jewish organization’s presidency, and not only a rabbinical role. I would respectfully submit that here as well the argument is flawed because it is predicated on a misunderstanding of both “Serara” and the contemporary rabbinate.

The concept that women cannot or should not assume positions of Jewish leadership is by no means clear-cut. Classical sources, if anything, suggest the opposite. Perhaps most notable among a whole host of female biblical characters that overshadow their male counterparts is Devora — a prophetess, leader, and even military strategist whose reign is recorded in the book of Judges. Indeed, the bible’s only outright injunction against women assuming positions of dominance is not Jewish, but Persian. In Esther, King Achashverosh, at Memuchan’s behest, responds to Vashti’s defiance by passing an edict that “each man should be dominant (“sorer”) in his household” (Esther 1:22). An edict which, in the context of the story, is meant to be ironic—for both Haman and Achashverosh are ultimately themselves dominated by Esther (and Haman is also very clearly dominated by his wife Zeresh).

We do find limitations on women’s roles in post-biblical sources. Sifrei, one of the Midrashei Halakha, states that women cannot be kings. (Deut. 17:15). Generations later, in the 12th century, in an almost passing remark, Maimonides seems to extend Sifrei’s limitation on women’s roles even further, to “any positions within Israel” (Hilchot Melakhim 1:5), though what “positions within Israel” includes is unclear – does it include any position (e.g. even a teacher) or only certain positions? Finally, in his 16th century code, the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Joseph Karo records a prohibition on women serving as judges (Choshen Mishpat 7:4). It is notable, however, that this prohibition seems technical and localized — it stems from women’s inability to serve as witnesses (See, e.g. Beit Yosef, Sema) — rather than symptomatic of something philosophical and overarching.

The understanding that has emerged from what has (rightly or wrongly) been perceived as a historical string of rulings (rather than separate rulings based on distinct rationales) is that Judaism looks askance at women assuming positions that would constitute “Serara,” or dominance. And, to be clear, not a prohibition on their holding all positions of any kind, but only positions of authority where a concern of “dominance” would truly be relevant.

So what exactly is a “position of authority”? It is worth noting that Maimonides, whose notion is the true touchstone of this concept, makes his remark in the context of whether women can be kings and, I would argue, it should be understood within that context. That, in sum, any prohibition (if there even is one) is extraordinarily limited — not for all positions, but positions of authority; and not any type of authority, but authority similar to that of a king or a judge, whose words and rulings must be followed and accepted as a matter of law. In other words, the positions that should be withheld are those that carry binding authority.

And therein lies the argument’s second flaw — it assumes that a contemporary “rabbi” title is a “position of authority.” And, in my opinion, for the following reasons, it is not.

First, holding a title and holding a position are two very different things. As many professionals can attest, one can have the title of lawyer or doctor without a position in which to put that title into practice. One can be called a ‘judge,’ a ‘senator’ and even a ‘president’ without any of the authority that such a title implies (after they retire). Likewise, one can be a ‘rabbi’ without holding or ever having held a position of any kind — in fact, most ‘rabbis’ today never actually go into the rabbinate. Are those rabbis — who are rabbis no less than any other ordained rabbi — in a “position of authority”? They are not.

Second, I would argue that even rabbis who do practice are not “authority figures” — at least not in the halakhic sense. Though rabbis would surely like to compare themselves to kings and judges and believe that they rule by fiat, any congregational rabbi who is intellectually honest will attest that the contemporary reality is that they do not. Unlike kings and judges, no rabbi — not even an extraordinarily inspiring rabbi — has binding authority (in contrast, say, to the shul board). Any ‘authority’ a contemporary rabbi does have is persuasive authority — not granted by such rabbi’s title or ordaining institution, but by us, the community, and we ultimately choose whether to grant it to that rabbi, another rabbi or no rabbi at all. The title of ‘rabbi,’ in other words, may give on credibility and make the community more inclined to listen to an individual — as would, for the matter, any other scholastic achievement or other measure of a person’s scholarship — but it in no way forces the community to do so.

Do Titles and Motivations Matter?

Some have argued that titles do not matter and that women should focus on substance instead — an argument that would have perhaps some merit if the individuals who make it did not so clearly relish their own titles. Writing for Haaretz in defense of the RCA’s statement, for example, one (usually more thoughtful) commentator asserted that “[w]omen don’t need a title…to teach Torah and influence thousands.” Of course, as some observers noted with amusement, the commentator was sure to list his own rabbinical title in his byline. More fundamentally, if titles do not really matter, as those like this commentator suggest, then one could just as well ask — why put up such a fight against conferring a title that you assert is irrelevant?

Clearly, titles do matter — which is why we confer them. In law, try telling an associate who has been passed over for partner that titles do not matter. Try telling a politician who has lost an election that he or she could achieve the same results without the title. And try telling a Semikha student embarking upon four years of intensive learning that it is all — as this commentator implies — for an effectively meaningless title.

Some may respond to this with yet another, often-made argument: that women seeking semikha have impure motivations — that they are trying to achieve parity of the sexes rather than help better the community. First, as an initial matter, it is important to note that such an argument does not support an across-the-board ban. It would be terribly unfair to assume that all or even most women have nefarious motivations — and why should we deny semikha to women with proper motivations on account of the few women with ‘improper’ motivations? Second, if we accept the proposition that there is nothing wrong with a woman serving as a rabbi and that, on the merits, it is being unfairly denied to them — is it somehow “impure” or wrong to desire the correction of an injustice? And even if it is (which it is not), is it more wrong than the continued perpetuation of that injustice? Of course not.

But the final and most fundamental argument on the motivation point is fairly basic — who cares? Do we care about the motivations of male semikha students (to boost the shidduch resume)? Do rabbis refuse million dollar donations to their shuls because a donor’s motives are not entirely pure (communal prominence)? Of course not. And that is not wrong — in the final analysis, Jews care more about practical, objective results than about personal motivations. And if we are willing to look past the motives of donors of money, we should certainly be willing to look past the motives of those willing to donate themselves — their talents, their passions and their destinies — to the betterment of our community.

About the Author
Yigal M. Gross is an attorney who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife Tamar Warburg and their children Ella, Sara and Yonatan.
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