General Topics

Women Rabbis


There’s a storm in a teacup over Rabbi Avi Weiss, a well known Orthodox American rabbi who has, it seems, appointed a woman “rabbi”–no, a “maharat”, no, a “rabba”, or perhaps it is a “rabbit”. The Orthodox right is up in arms. There was even talk of expelling Rabbi Weiss from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

What really is the issue? Is it anything more than a quibble about titles? If a woman is counselling, advising on religious and personal matters, answering pertinent questions on Jewish law, and teaching Torah to those in the community who want it, there are enough major and universally accepted rabbis of impeccable Orthodoxy who agree there is nothing halachically wrong with this at all. Nowadays, in Israel and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, women do all these things all the time, and plead in rabbinic courts, sit for the same exams as men, and give halachic advice from official positions within the State Rabbinate.

It is true that there are certain ritual functions that women cannot perform for men. But these do not define who a rabbi is or is not. Unlike priests in Christianity, rabbis are no different than any religious male in terms of what they can or cannot actually do. You don’t need a rabbi to marry you or bury you. There are limitations and differences between men and women in Orthodoxy. One may or may not agree with them. But no one who supports women functioning in Orthodox communities has suggested changing that order.

Rabbinic ordination in the Talmudic sense no longer exists. The term for ordination, semicha, literally “laying on of hands”, originally was a way of passing on the chain of tradition directly from one great leader to the next. The Romans under Hadrian tried their best to hamper this transmission and banned it. Nevertheless, the religious leadership staggered on until finally the line of the Gamliel dynasty was terminated around 1500 years ago.

The great post-Talmudic Gaonim derived their authority from their acknowledged expertise. Communities appointed their religious leaders based on their qualities, or they emerged thanks to their charisma. It was only later when non-Jewish states started to appoint official ecclesiastical representatives and chose the term “rabbi” that the question of qualification and ordination emerged as an issue. The schism between Orthodoxy and Reform muddied the waters; because the Reform movement chose to call its clerics “rabbi” the title lost much of its lustre. It seemed to the Orthodox inconceivable to have a rabbi who ate pork and did not keep Shabbat. (This is not to say that non-Orthodox rabbis cannot be scholars or make important contributions to Jewish life.)

The rabbinate today owes more to imitating non-Jewish clergy than it did originally, when it simply denoted a scholar, a Talmid Chacham. A Talmid Chacham could well be a leader. True spiritual leadership is earned, not appointed. In the Mir Yeshiva of my day, the heads did not have semicha and they were no less regarded for it. They did not need it. They considered semicha rather like a qualification someone going out to teach school needs, whereas those who stayed in Jewish academe were all research PhD’s. In fact in yeshiva to call someone a rabbi (as opposed to “rav”) was a putdown. Semicha, the title “rabbi”, does not define religious leadership in Orthodoxy. On the contrary, if anything it might be a handicap!

The term “rabbi”, itself, is nowadays pretty meaningless. Anyone can call himself, or herself a rabbi. Like “who is a Jew”, or having a degree. You can buy one online. What matters is where and from whom you got it. Because of the devaluation of the title many Orthodox leaders prefer to be known as Rav or Rabban or Rebbe. “Rabbi” in many Orthodox responsa is written “RA Bi” which in Hebrew means “Bad for Me”. It is indeed intended in some quarters as derogatory. So why the fuss?

One Orthodox objection is based on tznius, modesty. According to Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah’s director of public policy:

Tznius isn’t a mode of dress. It includes the idea that women are demeaned and not honored when they’re put in the public eye and put on a pedestal. Putting a woman in front of a group of men and women on a regular or ad-hoc basis is violative of tznius.

Codswallop. Modesty is a matter of comportment and attitude. Male Orthodox rabbis have projected far more arrogant, immodest concupiscence and corruption this past year than women. Are they suggesting that any woman automatically is immodest? So why are Orthodox women allowed to appear and plead in public rabbinic courts in Israel, or function in public as teachers, doctors, lawyers, and CEOs? Are they all loose women? Come on!

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, NJ, gave the real game away when he lambasted Weiss’s move because it “not only mimics Reform, but in fact is a throwback to pagan ideologies and a perennial challenge to religious establishments.”

Well, knock me down with feather. Since when is a woman teaching Torah, counselling, visiting the sick, and making herself useful around a large community pagan? But it is Reform that is the issue, because they thought of it first!

In the end, Rabbi Weiss gave in to pressure and changed his mind. I do not agree with many of Rabbi Weiss’s political positions, but I do admire his guts and ideals, and I do think Jewish religious life is all the richer for having highly learned and qualified women contributing to it. But then, as Rabbi Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name?”

10 thoughts on “Women Rabbis

  1. when referring to modesty you do not refer to sex. Men, apparently, are less able than women are more easily tempted and therefore a woman, even modestly dressed and performing g-d's work can be irresistable to men especially dressed in rabbinical dress and worse still wearing tallits etc. I am being funny and serious at the same time. On the one hand many men will admire a woman thrust in front of them, especially a strong and confidant women they may think would be a "challenge" but at the same time the more I hear about relationships breaking down, thank g-d not my own, the more I think it is the men that need to cover themselves up and hide from "man eating" women.

  2. Two things occur to me.

    There is a simple point, implicit in what you said, that communication of rabbinical style can be accomplished through the informality of smicha, and therefore if the system creates just one woman rabbi, before long she will be laying her hands on loads more women and, as the Talmud might have said "there would be no end of it". I personally have no problem with this (making the a priori assumption that all the candidates are suitable), but I can see why this might challenge the elitist and essentially male circles of orthodox rabbis.

    There is the altogether more important point of what we (a) want and (b) need our rabbis to be. The function is ever-changing, even if the halachic basis for orthodoxy is not. If we need them to be teachers, spiritual counsellors, interpreters of complex legal issues, local community "holy (sic.) men", or merely inspired friends, then the fairer sex can do all of this. But while all of this is important, we should by now have got beyond this. What we require is leaership that projects contemporary orthodox Jewish values to the outside world. The leaders and chief ministers of nations can be, and often are, women (NB even in the Muslim world!). Multinational organisations, large cross-border corporate enterprises, universities and institutions of learning with international regard and reach, and even sections of some countries' police and armed forces, are led by women. And this is because those women are promoted and they have something useful to add, to say, to bring to the discussion table. Don't we, a religion that meets the outside world (far more, say, than Islam does) and asks the outside world to accept our challenges as we accept and work around its challegnes, look a little odd and backward if we can't find a way through this to give our very best and most learned women a sensible status in our company that reflects this?

    As you say, the name may mean little, but the status and the recognition this brings should be very important to us, communally.

  3. Doubtless you will be castigated for being sensible and modern in your approach. Maybe rabbonim are scared that women may do the job in a superior fashion and so become preferable to some members of the clergy who haven't got time for either ordinary mortals or common sense.

  4. Daniel:

    If the issue is that one can learn from anyone, Mikol MeLamdai Hiscalti, and that would include Beruria or Miriam or Devorah, then why not indeed? So as long as halacha remains intact!

    Similarly the role of the Rav, Gadol, etc., has changed over time and according to different demands. The role of the clergy today is not what it was. But anyway why not have different paradigms within halacha, just as we have had different types of prophets, kings, and indeed Talmidei Chachamim. Isn't the difference between a Hasidic Rebbe and a Lithuanian Gaon a good example?


  5. Anonymous:

    I have often tried to make that point (about men not taking into account the feelings they may "engender" in women), but very few men seem to grasp it. Perhaps they are thinking, "How could anyone be tempted by the sight of a man?" 🙂


    Word verification: asmates

  6. SS:
    I'm afraid evolution has not been kind to the males of the species. Perhaps now that they are coming to realize how far they are falling behind (more women graduates each year) they might learn to adapt!
    Happy pesach,

  7. Rabbi Rosen,
    Great post! I do resent the evolution bit, however. I am just as evolved as any lady or Rabbah… albeit, not necessarily as educated…

  8. Rav Rosen, a wonderful post! Rabbah Hurwitz is as true a Rabbi as any and she has had to be very strong and courageous to follow her path. I hope more women are able to do so in the future, no matter the position of the RCA. People will flock to those who enlighten them, lift them up, and lead them. Title or no.

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