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Female Orthodox Rabbis? We Already Have Them
Thu, 01/31/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

The pressure on Orthodoxy for the ordination of women has been mounting for many years. Nowhere in the Torah does it say that women cannot be teachers of the Law; halacha merely precludes women’s judicial roles. Why is traditional Judaism so steadfastly opposed to women’s rabbinic leadership roles?

The job of a pulpit rabbi is multifaceted. He is a teacher, a pastor, a counselor, a preacher, a political advocate, a halachic advisor, a marketing executive, a shul director, a fundraiser, a life coach. Which of these roles would be a halachic obstacle to women’s involvement?  Many women could fulfill these roles just as successfully as men, if not better. The only role that stands out as a potential cause for concern is perhaps the halachic advisor. And interestingly, Orthodox women have already begun to enter this sphere with relatively minor opposition. The positions of toenet (advocate) and yoetzet (advisor) are fast achieving widespread approval and approbation.

While there are clearly rabbinic roles that are judicial in nature and problematic for women from a Torah perspective, the average pulpit rabbi rarely acts in such a capacity. He is not a dayan (judge), almost never attending to Beth Din (legal) matters. He is not a posek (halachic authority), posing most major questions to experts in the field, or referring the inquirer to the expert. For most rabbis, their halachic rulings extend only so far as the knowledge of basic everyday decisions, the likes of which are accessible to any learned individual with the capacity to open up and understand a Mishna Berura.

Given the apparent lack of halachic difficulty with women serving in a rabbinic capacity, why then has mainstream Orthodoxy not opened the doors of the rabbinate to women? 

The answer is that it already has. Orthodox women have served in the rabbinate for centuries, if not millennia. They have a unique title – rebbetzin, or rabbanit. The role of rebbetzin has traditionally encompassed many of these duties – pastoring, counseling, teaching, advising. In traditional Judaism, the rabbinic role has both masculine and feminine aspects. And that is why no serious shul will employ a rabbi without a rebbetzin. In fact, most shuls today insist on the rebbetzin being present throughout the interviewing and hiring process. She is not merely the first lady; she is an integral part of the spiritual leadership of the community. 

Contemporary viewpoints calling for the complete equality of men’s and women’s roles in every facet of life fail to recognize the unique contributions that women and men have to make. The problem lies not in women’s lack of traditional involvement in the rabbinate; the issue is that many of her traditional roles have been taken over by men.  Women, as nurturers, often have a greater capacity as pastors and counselors. And yet, the institutionalization of the rabbinic role and the contemporary mistaken view that only one person is the rabbi of the shul have pushed men into roles that they may be less capable of performing than women spiritual leaders. This does not mean that men should not be involved in pastoral work. Rather, it means that we must recognize the important contributions that women have to make in this area and never take them for granted.

Which aspects of the rabbinate are closed to women? Not even preaching – most Modern Orthodox shuls today invite female guest lecturers to address the congregation. True, they do not speak in the middle of the service, but that is a minor amendment that could be made – how about both men and women speak at the end of the service to avoid differentiation?  As it turns out, most rabbinic duties not only may hypothetically be performed by women; indeed, they already are.

The big question is how a woman may pursue a rabbinic career, short of marrying an ordained man? There are a number of ways to remedy this issue. One is to extend the limits of the title ‘rabbi’ and recognize that it is not synonymous with rov. A rov is someone who paskens, or determines halacha. While certainly there are some outstanding rabbonim and for certain shuls that is an absolute prerequisite for the position, it is not the realm of most contemporary Orthodox rabbis. A rabbi is not a rov.

The thought of an Orthodox woman ‘rabbi’ probably remains an inadequate solution, given the longstanding association with the title. In addition, despite the usage of the term ‘rov’ since Talmudic times, the fact is that we do find earlier in our history – during the Mishnaic era – that ‘rabbi’ was the title of preference. Thus, a second solution would be to elevate the title of ‘rebbetzin’ and recognize that this has always been a rabbinic designation. The rebbetzin already serves in a rabbinic capacity; she is essentially a female rabbi. If that is the case, then following a period of study and examination, why not qualify women as certified rebbetzins or rabbanits? In a similar vein, a yeshiva day-school first-grade male teacher magically earns the title ‘rabbi,’ independent of ordination status. In contrast, the female teacher is known as ‘morah’ (teacher). Why does she not become ‘rebbetzin’ by virtue of her role? 

Proponents of women’s ordination would probably find the ‘rebbetzin’ solution unsatisfying, given the longstanding association with that title. Thus, the only solution remaining is to invent a new term for women serving in the Orthodox rabbinate. That term might be maharat, it might be rabba, or it might be something else. The point is current opponents to Orthodox female clergy have failed to understand that women have always served in the rabbinate, albeit primarily in partnership roles together with their husbands. In an age when women are encouraged to pursue all manner of career path, independent of marital status, there is no good reason to deny them an independent role in the rabbinic field. We are only depriving ourselves of the potential leadership roles of a significant percentage of our community. 

Would Orthodox communities accept women rabbis, even if they were officially called rebbetzins or an alternative title? Some would, some would not. Many female graduates might end up in more pastoral lines of rabbinic work, such as chaplaincy.   But the first step is that we, as a community, recognize the important contribution that women have to make, and allow them the opportunity to qualify to serve in a rabbinic capacity.

For starters, shuls must openly acknowledge that they are hiring a rabbinic couple, and let the couple determine – in consultation with the synagogue leadership – who is to fulfill which rabbinic duties.  

There is nothing in halacha that excludes women from the rabbinate. Ultimately, however, we need both sides to compromise.  Opponents of women’s ordination must accept that women have always served in the rabbinate; and proponents of women’s ordination need to be sensitive to the psychological, sociological, and historical implications of the rabbinic title. Most importantly, it is high time we recognized the spiritual partnership that leads Jewish communal life and allow rabbinic couples to decide whether he or she will play the more active role.

(This article was inspired by my wife, Rabbanit Batya’s recent participation in the Rebbetzin Esther Rosenblatt Yarchei Kallah, under the guidance of Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter and Rebbetzin Meira Davis of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.)

Daniel Friedman is rabbi of the Beth Israel Synagogue in Edmonton, Canada.


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The more important point is that the married couple--- husband & wife ---serve the congregation together. Neither is complete without the other. We should be encouraging the cooperative strengths of the couple in leadership as we were created to be. As long as it is a "competition" emphasizing equal rights---we are missing the holiness to which we are called.

We have kosher pork too!

Yochanan, many poskim consider cantillation and prayer exempt from the prohibition of kol isha. Additionally, it is not true that "most rabbis lead prayers". Synagogues generally will either have a paid baal tefillah or will use lay volunteers to lead the prayers. This is not the rabbi's responsibility, except in extreme cases in which the entire congregation is ignorant and it falls on the rabbi's shoulders to lead everything, and I can only think of one such synagogue. Finally, women would certainly not be leading services in an Orthodox synagogue in the first place, not because of kol isha but because of kavod ha'tzibbur, tzniut, and other related concerns. This article is not suggesting that we expand women's roles in terms of leadership, but merely that we 1) acknowledge the massive contributions to synagogue life that they already make, and 2) provide them with a forum to continue their important leadership work.

Shockingly shallow article.

For starters "‘rebbetzin’ has always been a rabbinic designation." Does "always" mean in the Mishnah period when Yiddish was the Lingua Franca of the Jewish world?

How about "despite the usage of the term ‘rov’ since Talmudic times, the fact is that we do find earlier in our history – during the Mishnaic era – that ‘rabbi’ was the title of preference" Hmm, going out on a limb here, but 'rabbi' [sic] was a title in use during the period of the Mishnah and early days of the Talmud specifically given to those who received Semikha in Palestine allowing them to serve on the Sanhedrin. It [probably] ceased in the fourth century. Rav was an honorific given to some famous rabbinic figures. Early Mishna period sages had no title (Hillel, Shamai, etc.) The dichotomy between "Rav" and "Rabbi" the author suggests does not correspond to the historical reality.

The European, Yiddish term Rebbetzin means rabbi's wife. Rabbi is a relatively modern title received for academic achievement not matrimony. Some use it today for learned women out of a lack of creativity.

The general point, that women have served clerical functions, is true. But the entire sophomoric tenor of the piece vitiates its message.

One point among others that was not mentioned in the article is the problem of Kol Isha. Most Rabbis lead prayers and need to recite hymns etc. If we are discussing halacha you need to take into account all aspects of rabbinic life.

Services can and often are led by people who are not the rav of the shul. There are many other contours to kol isha as to when it applies and whether the prohibitions extends to sacred texts.