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Women Can Be Rabbis In All But Name, But They Are Still Not Qualified To Wear Tefillin, Part 3

June 21, 2015

(Part 1 here, Part 2 here)

The controversy has come up again. Here are my thoughts.

1. Women could even be prophets! What does that tell us? I will analyze that shortly.

2. The argument, popular at YU, that women are ineligible for the title of Rabbi because it is a s’rara has been refuted. I would guess that R’ Schachter’s insistence on holding that way is out of prudence and pragmatism, and that is why his colleagues on the left, who see the communal situation differently, disagree with him. 

3. Women can not serve as judges on a court, nor can they generally testify in courts. These halachoth are ancient and undisputed.

4. R’ Avraham Gordimer has a major problem. I would guess that he is only continuing his crusade against the OO because the RCA or whoever is paying him to do so. There is no reason a healthy person would spend all his efforts trying to denounce and delegitimize others instead of doing something productive. I hope he has a friend out there who can intervene. 

5. Legitimate or not, the proper Hebrew term for anything feminine is just the masculine, feminized. We’re not supposed to have regnant queens, but Maimonides still calls such women m’lachoth, queens. So too, because the Hebrew word for rabbi is hacham, a female rabbi is hachama.

6. Perhaps the question should be rephrased. Others have pointed out that the title “Rabbi” today is basically an endorsement of one’s abilities, or a degree granted upon finishing a course of study. Not all PhD’s are equal. I have been privileged to meet a number of very knowledgeable women who are more knowledgeable and reasonable than many men who have earned the title of rabbi. Instead of asking if a woman can be granted a title, why aren’t we asking if a woman’s halachic ruling is binding? It is often understood that not every male yeshiva graduate with the title rabbi should be ruling on matters of halacha, but we have a hard time defining which of them may.

7. How do we know that any rabbi has halachic authority? What is the basis of rabbinic authority? Rabbi Cherlow explained it this way, using what I call the Moses Model: Moses appointed others to handle the easier questions. The lowest level “judges” were to consult their superiors when they were stumped, and those superiors were to consult theirs when they could not find an answer. Difficult questions not answered along the way got kicked up to Moses himself. Today, if you want to see who the real Gadol is, follow the question trail. Where do real questions go? When your rav has a question, whom does he ask? And when he has a question, whom does he ask? Analyzing it this way, you find that many of today’s “Gedolim” are nothing of the sort because they do not field the real questions, usually because they have no real talmidim. R’ Schachter sits on top of an American pyramid, and men like the late R’ Wosner and R’ Zalman Nehemia Goldberg here in Jerusalem are the real, modern Moseses. Now, if halachically ordained male Rabbis consult with a woman scholar on a matter of halacha, not because she herself has ordination, but because they know she has the knowledge and wisdom, does that place her at the top? If she is even asked the question somewhere along the way, does it give her a form of ordination?

8. There is also the issue of how the community, that is the people themselves, choose a leader. Others have made the following argument in order to rebut the reductio ad hitlerum argument thrown at the OO rabbinate that acts like ordaining women, etc., are acts of the Conservative and Reform movement, and therefore the OO is just as bad as both of those movements, but the claimants fail to acknowledge that the starting points of the Reform and Conservative movements was to seek the permit the forbidden and create a new religious construct that would rubber stamp that which they felt should be, whereas the OO are following the logical conclusion of having raised three generations of fully committed, scholarly women on the same intellectual level as men. More importantly, whereas the Conservative and Reform were working entirely within the clergy, with the laity not caring and not even being represented, the OO is answering the needs of their fully committed community. (“There are no conservative Jews, just rabbis.”) Check it out for yourself. The typical synagogue that seeks an Orthodox but female leader usually has a vibrant and enthusiastic membership. The Conservative movement was an elitist movement that presided over the slow death of the assimilating American Jewish majority, while the OO is a grassroots movement with a growing rabbinate that understand it.

9. Now for a thought experiment. Let’s say that there are two perfectly qualified and ordained rabbis in town. Neither of them is the communal Rav. Both are men. There are two hundred Jewish families in town. Townsfolk know they can go to either rabbi for halachic guidance, but over the course of a few years, Rabbi A seems to get a lot more of the questions than Rabbi B. Eventually, Rabbi B is all but never consulted, and all two hundred families default to Rabbi A, if they can help it. Sometime later, they do not even use Rabbi B’s expertise as plan B. Who, then, has rabbbinic authority?

10. This leads us to an important concept: Rabbinic authority has at least three components: a. the ordination, i.e. the official recognition from previous halachic authorities that the candidate is fit to show others the halacha. It is this component that is subject to controversy now. b. The acknowledged mastery over other rabbis as shown by the Moses model. I do not think that anyone would dispute that an honest, legitimate group of Orthodox rabbis could, l’chat’hilla, consult with a woman scholar in the event that she has expertise. c. The community invests the candidate with authority by voting with their feet. Once again, it is unfathomable that we could declare it forbidden for people to consult with a scholar just because she is a woman, and especially if her words are in line with our traditions, fit the sources, and are appealing to the masses.

11. This, I believe, is based on the model of Deborah. No, I do not wish to make the simplistic argument that she was a precedent for female rabbis. Instead, I would like to point out that the verses that describe her specifically link her with the only other judge of that era who was also a prophet. All the other judges are described as national leaders, usually in times of war, but Samuel is also described thusly, after fighting the people’s wars (I Samuel 7:16-17):

And he went from year to year in circuit to Beth-el, and Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all those places. And his return was to Ramah, for there was his house; and there he judged Israel; and he built there an altar unto the Lord.

The previous verse uses the Hebrew root, shin-pei-tet, shafat or wayishpot, “he judged,” to mean that he served as national leader, the way all the other Judges are described, but in these verses it means he functioned as a rabbinic authority and held court in various locales.

Deborah is described similarly (Judges 4:4-5):

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she sat under the palm-tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in the hill-country of Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.

The first verse describes her as a prophetess, and therefore it was natural for her to assume a leadership role at that time of foreign subjugation, but the second verse adds something critical: the people, on their own, came to her for mishpat, which, as we see from the case of Moses hearing the people’s disputes and their consultations, in Exodus 18, and as Moses would describe the Sanhedrin later, begining at Deuteronomy 17:8, meant that they would bring their questions of Jewish law to her. That is, she, like Moses, exercised rabbinic authority in addition to prophetic authority. Those forms of authority are critically distinct. The halacha can not take into account divine input (“lo bashamayim hi”), but the prophet has the power to temporarily abrogate negative commandments. Deborah may or may not  have had ordination, because she was a woman, but her halachic authority, which did not come from her role as a prophetess, was derived from the fact that the people chose her to judge them.

12. Now back to the question: is a woman’s halachic ruling binding? It depends on whom you ask, and I don’t mean that Gil Student will give you an answer different from that of Seth Farber. I mean that it depends on if those seeking guidance actually brought their question to a woman.

So let them argue about what to call those women, and let them fight over whether women can get some title we made up. From what I can see down here, Jewish history has clearly shown that the answer is that yes, if the people turn to a woman to answer a question of halacha, or other rabbanim consult with a woman, they are by default investing her with rabbinic authority, and her ruling is binding.

13. Many Orthodox synagogues of all sorts of flavors, from blackest Brooklyn to rainbow-colored California, have memberships that seek good male rabbis who come with an active rebbetzin. The rabbi’s wife has to play an important role, and for many pulpit rabbis, a spouse who can carry some of the communal burden is either an asset or a necessity, and often both. Unfortunately, unless the rabbi’s wife is herself learned in rabbi things (usually due to her upbringing or some sort of relevant professional training, e.g., social work, psychology, etc.,) she cannot be of too much use to the congregation. I know of quite a few pulpit rabbis who have kept their jobs because their wives clinch the deal for them, and conversely, I know of some exceptional rabbis who only serve their male parishioners because their wives are not involved whatsoever in the community. Why is it such a stretch to imagine that a committed Orthodox synagogue would not, for whatever reason that is entirely its own, seek a spiritual leader who has a unique, woman’s point of view? They could require that she and her husband both be active, but he does not need to be a scholar. Perhaps it is also time that we begin to consider if all rabbis’ wives are deserving of the title “rebbetzin” beyond reasons of courtesy or grammatical technicality.

14. That being said, there are certain things that no matter how objectively we analyze the halacha, a female rabbi can just not do for her congregation. When I was growing up, the rabbi was the only one who could do things like grow a nice white beard or lead an inspiring n’ila service. By definition, a female cannot discharge the men’s obligations to perform many of the commandments. A rav’s aura is significantly diminished if he/she cannot always take ceremonial charge and show, when it matters most, how to practice the Torah. 


From → halacha, original

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