Editors’ Note: The Orthodox Union’s recent statement regarding professional roles for women in Orthodox synagogues has sparked heated debate for the sake of heaven. In the hopes of contributing to that ongoing conversation, Lehrhaus has convened a symposium to reflect upon the statement. Over the course of the next week we will post further installments, so please check back frequently. Each contribution will contain links to the other pieces in the symposium.
Symposium Contributions: Sara Wolkenfeld, Tzvi Sinensky, Shmuel Winiarz, Leah Sarna, Rivka Press Schwartz, Matt Reingold, Laura Shaw Frank, Chaim Twerski, Chaim Trachtman, Shayna Goldberg, Shaul Robinson, Todd Berman, Jeffrey Fox, Elli Fischer, Jeffrey Woolf, Zev Eleff & Ari Lamm
The recent sweeping OU responsum authored by leading rabbinical authorities presented the arguments in opposition to the recent movement to allow women to enter the rabbinate. Their reasons were presented from halakhic sources and also argued from the standpoint of precedent and the current religious ethos. Overall, the responsum is formidable and the halakhah has been clearly established. My business here is to shed some light on some of the esteemed rabbinic panel’s points of argument.
Talmudic Sources on Women and Torah
The past and present state of affairs is most likely related to the position taken up in the Talmud (Sotah 20a), which states a clear objection to teaching women Torah: “One who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he teaches her lewdness.” Considering that women were not taught Torah, and moreover were even forbidden to be taught Torah, one could hardly expect women to become so proficient in Torah as to be able to advance halakhic rulings.
Two explanations are given to understand why the Talmud objected to teaching gemara to women. The Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13) states that most women, due to their mental weakness, would not understand the teachings correctly and would distort the Oral Law. A similar position is offered by the sages themselves, namely, that “women have light minds” (Shabbat 33b). Perhaps, Rambam interprets the words ke-ilu milamdah tiflot—“as if he teaches her lewdness”—as the result of their inability to comprehend the Torah leading to distorting the Oral Law.
Rambam’s assertion in interpreting “light mindedness” the way he did was most likely influenced by his observation of women in his time. Lack of education will deprive anyone of mental development. Today, however, we see no difference between men and women in their mental capacity.
The Talmud (Sotah 21b) offers another reason. It states in Mishlei (8:12): “I am wisdom and I reside with craftiness.” Accordingly, once wisdom enters the mind it is capable of being sly (or devious). Wisdom, then, is a double-edged sword. It can be used for good and also for evil. The absence of wisdom allows for the person to remain on the straight and narrow path. Alternatively, introducing wisdom allows for the opportunity to deviate with clever but wrongful reasoning. It can lead to sophistry, which corrupts the Torah and indeed the individual, as well (see also Maharil n.199).
This second reason is seemingly also invalid in contemporary times. Women are sophisticated today, and go through the same core secular curriculum as their male counterparts.. A similar argument to allow limited Torah education for women was the backbone of the Hafetz Hayyim: today, women are generally educated.
I have the following family tradition. Someone once challenged the Hafetz Hayyim for his support for Bais Yaakov schools, basing the criticism on the previously cited passage in Sotah. To this person, the Hafetz Hayyim responded that “today, all types of ‘lewdness’ are taught to girls, and you are concerned with the word ke-ilu (‘as if’)! If the Torah will not be taught to girls, they will have no appreciation of Torah values and will be left only with lewdness!”
The Hafetz Hayyim did not go so far as to advocate (nor would have have) for the study of Talmud for girls. Nonetheless, the argument he used could be presented as a reason in present times to take a much larger step in Torah education for girls. Some have claimed this for Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s support of women’s Talmud at Maimonides School and Stern College for Women.
The Precedent Argument
The OU rabbinic panel staked the claim that “we find it implausible to say that the question of female ordination has never presented itself throughout the history of our mesorah.” I am not as sure. Historically, women who were proficient enough to rule in matters of halakhah were extraordinarily rare. It is no doubt true that there exist no examples of women in the Orthodox rabbinate in past generations. True, Deborah was a “judge,” but anyone can understand that a prophetess is an exception to the rule. Notwithstanding the Book of Esther, I know of no halakhic work written by a woman in the expanse of Jewish history or even a work of drash, sermons.
It is not reasonable, in my opinion, to draw an inference from the negative that there must have been in the past a “halakhah le-Moshe Mi-Sinai” or a ruling from the great Sanhedrin that women cannot be halakhic deciders when the absence of such could be due to the fact that such women were a rare anomaly. Granted that by halakhah women are invalid as witnesses—and according to most poskim, as judges, as well—that in itself would not preclude a woman who is educated in Talmud and halakhah from being able to rule on matters of Orah Hayyim or Yoreh De’ah—areas which involve matters of halakhic knowledge, not jurisprudence.
The Lomdus of the Prohibition
However, there are other reasons to forbid women from the rabbinate. Primarily, the issue of serarah. The Rambam and others have stated that the Sifrei that states melekh ve-lo malkhah, a king (but) not a queen, is a blanket prohibition for a woman to be appointed to any position of authority. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:44) allowed the widow of a rav ha-makhshir to assume her husband’s position in the kashrut industry by assigning her rule as a mashgiach under a rav ha-makhshir, but would not allow her to have the authority of being the rav ha-makhshir herself. A congregational rabbi can certainly be considered an authority, as his rulings are to be obeyed by his congregation and those who have presented him their issues. Once a rabbi has issued a ruling another qualified scholar is not to rule against the first authority without obtaining permission to do so, unless the ruling was an obvious error and not a matter of interpretation or judgement (Avodah Zarah 7a, Beit Yosef and Rema Yoreh De’ah 242:31).
One might argue, from a societal standpoint, that in a Modern Orthodox congregation, the rabbi is not an authority at all. It is not at all uncommon in a Modern Orthodox setting for congregants to take the ruling of the rabbi as a suggestion and his rulings are often routinely ignored. If so, it could be argued that that type of position could be taken by a woman who has the requisite halakhic knowledge to issue halakhic suggestions. In more haredi societies, the old authority of the rabbi is often still intact—and the prohibition based on the authority limitation still applies.
But there might be another rationale, as well. Since time immemorial it has been the man/husband’s duty to be responsible for the family’s financial security and the woman’s role to manage the home. The job that requires more fortitude and indeed aggressiveness fell to the man. For that reason, women have been more submissive to men in the course of history. As a result, we might find that if a woman were to be put into a position of power, men would be reluctant to accept the authority—which would be self-defeating. It could be well argued that this is true even in the present time when women are sometimes appointed or even elected to high political positions and lead powerful corporate careers. It still does not go over well with many men.
A parallel can be seen in the halakhah that states that although, technically, women may be called to the Torah on Shabbat, this should not be done “due to the honor of the community” (Megillah 23a). In this case, the community would be insulted if a woman were to be called to the Torah. The only way to understand this is to relate to the traditional societal norm that men held as the dominant figures. For a woman to assume that role was viewed as insulting to men. Is this the way the Torah wanted this dynamic, or is this merely true to the facts of life? A good question and one that would be hard to resolve on the basis of precedent.
There is one other rationale for this prohibition that has to do with the nature of women rather than the nature of men. That is found in the Rema’s gloss to Yoreh De’ah (127:3), based on a Ran in Hullin (2a). The Rema ruled in a situation where a kashrut question needs immediate clarification, a woman’s word cannot be trusted. Why? Because a woman, more than a man, has a tendency to be lenient. This coheres with a number of Talmudic and rabbinic dictums that stress women’s mercifulness and empathy. This, then, would cause a woman to be subjective in matters of halakhah when an objective point of view would be required.
Very likely, the issue of tzeniut might be a concern, if not the most important reason, for the objection of Orthodox women rabbis. It is a principle found in the Talmud (see Yevamot 77a, Gittin 12a, Shavuot 30a) that kol kevodah bat melekh penimah, the beauty of a princess is within. For a woman to assume a mantle of religious leadership could be considered as a violation of this principle. Not just the rabbinate, but certain public educational roles and lecturing posts would fly in the face of this dictum, too. On this latter point, the contrary was stated in the OU position, which clearly took a positive view for educational roles for learned women even in a public sphere.
On top of all this, however, is the issue of making a revolutionary change to the nature of the rabbinate. The Hatam Sofer in his clever play on words stated “hadash asur min ha-Torah” in cautioning against even moderate changes in halakhic practice. Unquestionably, he would have been horrified to hear even a suggestion of a change of such magnitude. His concerns were a reaction to the Reform movement which began with minor innovations and led to major abandonment of halakhah. Many would say that in accepting this change as well we would be opening the door to even more drastic changes to the laws of the Torah by demanding that the Torah keep up with the times.
In conclusion, some of the reasons offered as to why women have been traditionally absent from the rabbinate may not be applicable in some contemporary societies. Other reasons may be considered timeless. As the OU rabbinic panel made clear: the ball is now in the court of those who would advance this innovation to present a reasoned rebuttal based on Talmudic and authoritative sources. This, despite some arguments that may be raised in support, will certainly be a formidable, if not impossible task.