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Women Can Be Rabbis In All But Name, But They Are Still Not Qualified To Wear Tefillin, Part 1

March 31, 2014


Rabbi Avraham Gordimer is right that there is a centuries old and accepted ruling that women may not wear tefillin. However, it is not exactly halachic to quote opinions, let alone follow them, if they were both novel, in the sense that they themselves override previous halachic rulings, and perhaps conditional or due to circumstances that no longer apply.

One following the controversy should ask: being that the sages, rishonim like Maimonides, and codifiers like the Beth Yoseif allowed women to wear tefillin, what would prompt later ashkenazic authorities to “protest” women wearing tefillin? Why would they suddenly claim such a thing? Perhaps they had a reason to discard centuries of precedent?

Indeed, in the standard editions of the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Hayim 38:3) one can find that both the Taz and the Magen Avraham explain that the Rema, and those on whom he based his opinion, believed that women could generally not be trusted with maintaining “guf naqi,” or controlling their flatulence, similar to the reason why children are only encouraged to practise wearing tefillin as they approach Bar mitzvah age, or why those with stomach issues shiuld not wear tefillin. (38:1-2)

I would like to point out one view of Maimonides concerning another position taken up by Rabbi Gordimer’s rebbeim and heroes among the RIETS faculty and the RCA, and how those rabbis have implicated time and again that women can certainly be trusted as much as ordinary laymen with the responsibilty of wearing tefillin in the proper physical state.

When the whole Rabbah/Maharat controversy was going on, R’ Schachter reiterated the position his mentors, students, and associates had taken for the last century: Women, by definition, could not be ordained as rabbis.

I do not wish to take issue with that particular ruling, but I would like to point out that one of its bases is Maimonide’s ruling “that any s’rara in Israel” may only be given before the fact to a man, just like the kingdom, and the rabbinate is considered one such s’rara according to Rabbi Soloveichik’s understanding. However, being that Maimonides of course believed that women were even qualified to serve as prophetesses, and that the ordination under discussion is merely an acknowledgment that the candidate knows enough to answer everyday questions of Jewish law, such a position would not be a s’rara. It is also worthy to note the following (Laws of Kings and their Wars, 1):

A king should not be appointed from converts to Judaism. This applies even if the convert’s ancestors had been Jewish for many generations, unless his mother [or father1] is a native-born Israelite, as Deuteronomy 17:15 states: ‘You may not appoint a foreigner who is not one of your brethren.’ This does not apply to the monarchy alone, but to all s’raroth, positions of authority within Israel. A convert may not serve as an army commander, a leader of fifty, or as a leader of ten. He may not even supervise the allocation of water from a stream to various fields. Needless to say, a judge or a nasi should only be a native-born Israelite, as it is stated (ibid.): ‘Appoint a king over you from among your brethren.’ This implies that all appointments must only be ‘from your brethren.’

Halacha 5
We may not appoint a woman as king. When describing the monarchy, the Torah employs the male form of the word king and not the female. This principle also applies to all other positions of authority within Israel. Only men should be appointed to fill them.

Note that Maimonides listed the unavailable positions for converts and women, but limited them to typically exalted positions of Judge and Prince, when he could have taught us a greeter rule by saying that they may not even be Rabbis.

I believe that according to Hebrew grammar, the proper term for Rabbi is a Hakham, and therefore, a woman who is either married to a Hakham or knowledgeable in her own right, should be called a Hakhama.

Now, there is a historical example of these rules being applied to disqualify one of our sages. Berachoth 27b mentions that Rabbi Akiva was not considered for the position of Nasi because he was of convert stock. Note that they did not mention that his lineage prevented him from being a Rabbi, as it must have been that sages did not consider the position of Rabbi to be considered one of those s‘raroth that are off limits to women and those of gentile descent.

I would like to offer that the real reason we do not find women Rabbis, or even the question if they may be rabbis, throughout Jewish history is the same reason we find no great female philosophers, scientists, etc. among humanity at large: Women had no opportunities to use their minds and achieve. However, and as I pointed out earlier, the world has changed, and thanks to Rabbi Soloveichik’s efforts in endorsing adult-level Torah-study centers for women, there are now many women who the YU leadership, et al., must acknowledge as having all of the requisite knowledge to be Rabbis. We could even argue that much like just asking the question of whether we may bathe over the course of the dreaded three-day Yom Tov shows that we all assume that everyone bathes often enough to consider not bathing for three days to be a hassle, the very fact that we are asking whether women can be Rabbis shows that we have arrived at a point in history when we all assume that there are women who are eminently qualified for the position.

Here in lies the contradiction: In our day and age, the mainstream rabbinic authorities have conceded that women have what it takes to be rabbis in all but name only, yet they still stick to the medieval and novel opinion that somehow our women do not have maturity and know how to wear tefillin, the same maturity and know how we do assume are possessed by the average boy upon achieving the age of thirteen years. It is perhaps because the argument offered by the Rema, Taz, and Magen Avraham, has been shown to be irrelevant today, R’ Schachter resorted to arguing that women should not wear tefilln because “that’s what the conservatives do.”

As for the Vilna Gaon’s opinion, despite the fact that the sages of the Bavli eventually use the stories Michal and Mrs. Jonah opting to perform commandments required only of men and the sages not objecting to show that women may opt to perform any commandment that does not bind them, he points out that the Yerushalmi records in Rabbi Abbahu’s name that the sages actually did object to Michal’s and Mrs. Jonah’s actions, although the Yerushalmi does not say why.





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