WRITTEN BY ERIC AIKEN AS CONTRIBUTOR TO LOST MESSIAH, published July 26, 2016
Banning Orthodox female rabbis
The refusal of Agudath Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America to allow brilliant women scholars to become rabbis is something I personally feel is reprehensible.
“These developments (female ordination) represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”
Statement of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Agudath Israel) of America February 25, 2010.
“The Rabbinical Council of America resolves to educate and inform our community that RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not
- Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or
- Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or
- Allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution.” Resolution of the Rabbinical Council of America, October 31, 2015.
The hysterical condemnation of women rabbis by these two major Orthodox rabbinical organizations goes way beyond Jewish law and tradition. To me, it simply smacks of a bunch of powerful male rabbis who don’t want women playing in their sandbox.
You might think by reading the Agudath Israel and RCA statements that ordaining or hiring women rabbis would be some sort of major Torah violation, like eating pork, murder or idol worship.
But there is no prohibition in the Torah or even rabbinic law that prohibits female ordination. It’s for a simple reason – today’s ordination, or smicha, has no halachic significance.
Historically, ordination (smicha), was a transference of halachic authority from Moses to Joshua and on down from generation to generation. But the chain of authority ended in the time of Hillel II around 1,600 years ago. What is called smicha today is just an honorary title given in recognition of reaching a certain level of Torah learning.
There are no rules for who can give smicha and who can get it. Every rabbi or yeshiva that gives smicha makes up their own rules. Usually, you have to pass a test involving some knowledge of kosher food laws, Shabbat, family purity and laws of mourning. But the title is just symbolic.
When you examine the typical function of a congregational rabbi, with very few exceptions, a scholarly, well-trained woman can do everything a male rabbi can within the confines of halacha. She can give sermons, teach classes, counsel congregants and answer questions of Jewish law and custom, just like a male rabbi.
Many women already perform these functions. They just don’t get paid 6-figure salaries and have hundreds of people stand up for them when they walk into a room.
A well-trained woman rabbi can officiate at weddings, funerals and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. There is nothing about any of these life-cycle events in which Judaism requires a male rabbi to officiate or even be present.
The only area in which a woman rabbi cannot participate according to Jewish law would be to lead prayer services for male congregants. As a practical matter, it makes little difference. Male rabbis rarely lead prayer services anyway. Typically, the prayer services are lead by a mourner who takes precedence over the rabbi.
So when Agudath Israel and the RCA vehemently refuse to allow women to become rabbis, it seems that their entire justification rests on their assertion that it would violate Jewish law and Torah tradition. But what tradition?
The Torah has no comment or rules regarding women rabbis. If Agudath Israel and the RCA are referring to historical reality, then yes, historically women have not been rabbis. They haven’t been doctors or lawyers, either. Historically, women have been denied the same religious education as men. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be educated and trained to the same degree as men and that they can’t perform the same rabbinic functions as men.
There is no halachic justification for banning women rabbis. Instead, we should welcome and support women in any Orthodox leadership role that they choose – leadership that is so totally lacking in many male rabbis.
- Miriam was a leader of the Jewish women when they left Egypt.
- Devorah was a prophetess, judge and a leader of the entire Jewish nation.
- Ruth is considered the prime example of a righteous convert and her descendants were King David and eventually will be the mashiach. Ruth merited to have a book in Tanach named after her.
- Esther saved the Jewish nation from complete annihilation in the story of Purim. She also has a book in Tanach named after her.
- Bruria was the wife of Rabbi Meir. Her scholarship was so outstanding that she won halachic arguments with Talmudic sages.
- Rashi’s daughters are similarly noted for their exceptional piety and scholarship.
Nowhere in thousands of years of Jewish history do you see rabbis condemning and banning Miriam, Devorah, Ruth, Esther, Bruria or Rashi’s daughters from religious leadership positions because they are women. Yet if these righteous women lived in America in the 21st century, they would probably all be banned from leadership roles by Agudath Israel and the RCA.