(not in Shulhan Arukh)
Is it permissible for the Bet Midrash to ordain women as rabbis?
Not only is the Bet Midrash permitted to ordain women as rabbis; it is obligated to ordain women who are suitable just as it ordains men who are suitable.
One of the reasons that the majority of the Va’ad Halakhah gave for opposing the ordination of women five years ago was that such a step would cause irreparable harm to the future of the Masorti Movement. But times have changed. The Bet Midrash is already an established fact and is recognized by various sectors of the population. Furthermore, an Israeli woman who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York is already serving as a Masorti rabbi in Israel. Thus it is hard to claim that accepting women will harm the Bet Midrash or the Masorti Movement. Furthermore, it is unfair, anti-Zionist and hypocritical to send Israeli women to study for the rabbinate in New York.
A rabbi is a person who has learned the tradition and is therefore worthy to continue the tradition and to teach it to others. The title does not grant any ceremonial or ritual status. The institution of the rabbinate was a revolution, which allowed any Jewish male to reach the level of teacher and spiritual leader. But that revolution was not complete because sociological conditions were such that no one could imagine that a woman could become a rabbi. But today, when a woman can be a member of Knesset, a Prime Minister or a member of the Supreme Court, it is difficult to justify a position that women cannot be rabbis.
Some say that women cannot be rabbis because they cannot serve as cantors or witnesses. To me that is like saying that a Cohen cannot be a rabbi because he cannot perform a funeral at a cemetery. In any case, we must find a way to enable women to be witnesses either by reinterpreting the halakhah or through a takkanah.
Finally, there is the moral issue. Women make up over half of the Jewish people. Their opinions and abilities can come to the aid of our people in all sorts of ways. To forgo this resource is to forgo a treasure. Furthermore, who are we – the men – to decide if women can be rabbis or not? According to the Torah (Genesis 1:27), women too were made in God’s image. To prevent them from reaching this high position is unethical and unjustifiable.
In conclusion, it is permissible for the Bet Midrash to ordain women as rabbis. We must not send them to the Diaspora to study when there is no halakhic obstacle to their being accepted here. The auxiliary problems are no reason not to accept women. Not accepting them will mean the loss of an important resource for the Jewish people and contradicts the principle that women were created in the image of God.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
In favor: Rabbi Gilah Dror, Rabbi Michael Graetz
It is permissible – and even obligatory – for the Bet Midrash to ordain women as rabbis.
This question should not be treated as a routine halakhic question, for the answer given to this question will determine the nature of our Judaism. Some claim that there are specific halakhic issues, which need to be addressed such as: is it permissible for a woman to study and teach Torah, to decide halakhah, or to serve in public office. These specific issues, however, are not the central issue. The central issue is whether to change received tradition so that women’s Jewishness can be equal to men’s Jewishness.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz writes that the mitzvah of studying Torah “makes the Jew a partner in the cultural legacy and spiritual content of Judaism”. To remove women from Talmud Torah is therefore “a negation of a basic Jewish right: her ‘Jewishness’ becomes inferior to that of a man’s” (Amudim, No. 449, pp. 267-268). We must follow the dictum of Hillel the Elder: “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow” (Shabbat 31a). Men would not accept the halakhic status of women for themselves, which would mean being treated as a subgroup of the Jewish species, so they should not expect women to accept this status.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, the general approach in Jewish tradition has been to see men and women as human beings created in God’s image. The inferior status of women in halakhah has been based mainly on psycho-social arguments rather than on arguments of inherent inferiority. Thus, women are not allowed full participation in public ritual due to social or psychological considerations such as “kevod ha-tzibbur” (the honor of the public – see Megillah 23a), “kol kevodah bat melekh penimah” (“the honor of a princess is to remain at home” – see Psalms 45:14), or “mishum peritzut” (fear of promiscuity).
Depriving women of Talmud Torah is a kind of “inquisition” which uproots many talented, intelligent and sensitive Jews from the nation. The loss to Jewish life and culture of generations of women’s intellectual contributions is tragic. The Jewish people has not benefited from the spiritual qualities of every Jew capable of being a rabbi and infusing Jewish life with spirituality.
Some raise the question: even if we are convinced by all of these arguments, is there a halakhic way to bring about such a radical change in the received tradition? The solution is to promulgate a takkanah. My opinion is that we must renew the mechanism and procedure of takkanah as a norm. As Prof. Menahem Elon writes: “…The reality of the State of Israel, which once again is the center of the Jewish people, enables us now to return and solve these problems by the use of takkanah both from the point of view of the world and the methodology of the halakhah itself, and as a necessary solution to the wholeness and integrity of the halakhah and the entire people” (Ha-Mishpat Ha-Ivri, 1973, p. 115). We should promulgate a takkanah, which will declare women obligated in all mitzvot in general, and equal as Jews in all of the areas mentioned above. Our belief in a dynamic and developing halakhah, our belief in the centrality of Israel, and our belief in justice combine to obligate us to act.
Even though I favor the general approach stated above, I want to relate specifically to the matter of testimony, which epitomizes the problems surrounding the status of women. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 3:3) does not state specifically that women are disqualified as witnesses. The parallel in Rosh Hashanah 1:8 does add a statement about women, but this seems to be an addendum to the original statement. Even this statement assumes that women are not accepted as witnesses in every case, but it is clear that they are accepted as witnesses in some cases. Thus, it is clear that women are not inherently or on principle disqualified as witnesses, but, as we have seen above, they are disqualified in some cases for specific reasons, which are all connected to the social or psychological status of women. Particularly relevant is the reason the Bavli (Shevuot 30a) gives for a woman’s disqualification as a witness, so that she will not have to appear among men in court (cf. Tosafot ibid. s.v. kol kevodah).
The generally accepted idea that a woman is inherently disqualified and that the sages just permitted her to testify in certain cases, is based on Sifrei Devarim (par. 190), which is from the school of Rabbi Akiba. A close examination of the sources by Rabbi Na’amah Kelman has revealed another tannaitic midrash on Deuteronomy, published by Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, who attributed this source to the school of R. Ishmael. In that source, the same wording on the verse is found, with no mention of women at all. Apparently this school did not feel that women were disqualified on the basis of Deuteronomy 19:15-18. Indeed, there is much evidence that R. Ishmael objected in general to the interpretation that since the Torah speaks in masculine gender, women were excluded from the obligation of the mitzvot (cf. Mekhilta d’Rashbi, ed. Epstein-Melamed, p. 158 and the note there; Yerushalmi Bava Kamma 1:3; Midrash Tannaim, ed. Hoffman, p. 145, lines 8-11). Thus, it is clear that the approach of the Sifrei was not the only one in the Midrash Halakhah. Subsequent tradition showed a preference for the approach of the Sifrei together with its general tendency to limit women’s role in Jewish society. We, however, may rely on the other tradition, since it fits our preference much more closely.
In 1974, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly in North America adopted as a legitimate precedent a minority opinion permitting women’s testimony.
We could take the approach of relying on early opinions, such as those of R. Ishmael, and just expand the areas where women’s testimony would be accepted. But that approach is not sufficient. For even if there were no support from earlier sources, our own basic belief about the halakhah and our own basic religious beliefs about God lead us to the conclusion that women have to be equal as Jews. In Judaism, the highest expression of such equality would be to grant ordination to women. Since this is a question of principle, the Bet Midrash is obligated to ordain women.
We should ask Conservative rabbis throughout the world to sign a takkanah regarding the testimony of women. After 200 rabbis have signed it, the takkanah would be considered a valid halakhic option.
There follows a proposed text for such a takkanah:
For the glory of God, for the glory of his holy Torah, for the glory and honor of the people Israel in every place. Being assembled here in Jerusalem, we the undersigned have reflected and intend to amend the holy Torah of Israel.
We have seen changes in our times which demand of the sages to go out before the people and amend and fix that women are qualified as witnesses, just as men are. Since we have seen that we must do this thing, and that the justice of the Torah demands this amendment from us, therefore we sign this takkanah, and may God prosper our hands.
Rabbi Michael Graetz
In favor: Rabbi Gilah Dror, Rabbi Reuven Hammer
We live in an age of great change regarding the status of women in society. Seventy years ago there was a debate in the Yishuv regarding the right of women to vote. Now this is self-understood. The legal equality of women in Israel is reflected in the Women’s Equal Rights Law of 1951 and the like. One cannot compare the “woman” discussed by the sages with the woman of today. Similarly, one cannot base the status of women today on the status of their predecessors. The sages viewed women as being “enslaved” to their husbands while Maimonides viewed them as being intellectually inferior (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:16 and Talmud Torah 1:13).
A corollary of this is that the halakhah is not a barrier to egalitarianism because, in fact, it never dealt with the woman of today. The only question on the agenda is what should the halakhic attitude be in our time regarding the functioning of women in society and particularly in the rabbinate. As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has said: “the question is to what extent we want to perpetuate the preliminary situation in the halakhah or to change it through legitimate halakhic methods taking into consideration historical developments”.
The function of the rabbinate has gone through many permutations throughout Jewish history, but the common denominator was and is that the rabbi must be a spiritual leader and a halakhic decisor (posek) for his community. Today, rabbis generally fulfill other functions such as performing marriages and divorces, signing as a witness, serving on a bet din, being part of a minyan and serving as cantor, Torah reader, megillah reader, shofar blower and the like. But the initial situation allows women to be rabbis because women are allowed to study Torah and to hold public office.
Halakhic problems will no doubt arise as a result of the decision to ordain women as rabbis, but we have to rely on the women rabbis themselves to deal with those problems. Similarly, the suggestion that women be ordained with the proviso that they agree not to serve as witnesses is not only insulting, but may sooner or later also stand in contradiction to their conscience and their understanding of the halakhah.
Even so, since some claim that testimony by women is a serious obstacle to the ordination of women, I feed a need to deal with this issue now. It is commonly assumed that women are disqualified from serving as witnesses in monetary and capital cases, but that their testimony is considered “reliable” in certain cases such as helping agunot (Hoshen Mishpat 35:14). There is, however, no explicit source for this in the Bible or the Mishnah (see Sanhedrin 3:3 and Rosh Hashanah 1:8). On the other hand, many Mishnayot rule that the testimony of one woman is accepted in certain cases. Some say that the prohibition against women testifying stems from Sifrei Devarim (par.190) to Deutoronomy 19:15-17, but other tannaitic midrashim do not derive that halakhah from those same verses, which may reflect their agreement with the school of R. Yishmael that women may serve as witnesses.
This lack of clarity regarding the prohibition led to a disagreement as to whether it is biblical or rabbinic, and some scholars think it really derives from foreign cultures. Even in the past, women’s testimony was accepted when they were likely to be present and likely to know the facts in question – e.g., a midwife’s testimony was accepted regarding whether a child was the firstborn and women’s testimony was accepted with regard to the possession of seats in the women’s section of the synagogue. Today there is an equal chance that men and women will witness a given event, so there is no reason to prohibit women’s testimony especially since women testify routinely in the civil courts in Israel. Furthermore, many women are lawyers and judges and are even allowed to represent clients in rabbinic courts.
In the United States, some of the rabbis on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly ruled in 1974 that women may testify, and since then many male and female rabbis have accepted their testimony.
The right and the duty to testify are a basic civil right, especially in Judaism where the most basic declaration of faith – the Shema – is testimony regarding a person’s belonging to the Jewish people and faith.
Nevertheless, in order to remove all doubt in this matter, we should promulgate a takkanah regarding the equality of men and women, especially with regard to the testimony of women. In essence, Israeli civil law allows women to testify and, as rabbis, we merely need to adopt it as a takkanah allowing women to testify in all cases.
There is no question that many famous poskim who in the past limited the public roles of women would support today an egalitarian halakhic approach had they been privileged to see the Jewish women of today. But even if society’s attitude towards women had not changed, the principles of justice themselves demand that we determine that Jewish women are spiritually equal to Jewish men. Therefore, we must determine and emphasize that not only is it permitted to ordain women, but it is our duty to do so just as we ordain men.
Some say that if we ordain women as rabbis and accept their testimony, there is danger that Orthodoxy will not accept us as Jews. But we will never gain the public acceptance of the Orthodox establishment. True, we may lose the silent cooperation of certain liberal Orthodox rabbis. But if we don’t ordain women, we will cause alienation from the Conservative movement in the Diaspora, which does ordain women, and if we don’t accept women’s testimony, we will disqualify with our own hands many Conservative marriages in which women signed the ketubah!
Finally, some say that if we support egalitarianism we will increase dissension within the Masorti Movement. But in a pluralistic movement such as ours, we should not be afraid of such a course of events.
In light of the above, there is no doubt that it is permissible, and even required, for the Bet Midrash to ordain women as rabbis and it is required to determine that women are qualified to serve as witnesses and judges.
Rabbi Gilah Dror
In favor: Rabbi Michael Graetz, Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Many philosophical, sociological and practical arguments have been adduced on both sides of this issue. On the one hand, there are convincing arguments in favor of ordaining women. Today’s woman is not the same woman described in talmudic literature. Practically speaking, there is not much point in preventing women from studying for the rabbinate in Israel if they can do so in the United States. Doing so simply causes them personal anguish and monetary loss. The claims about our target group work both ways. We must rather serve the needs of the community, which already belongs to the Masorti Movement and this community, for the most part, supports this step.
On the other hand, I do not think that egalitarianism is an absolute value, neither in society nor in Judaism. This phenomenon is too new to be judged. For the time being, it can only be said that egalitarianism is an established fact in the western world, and Judaism must deal with that fact. Similarly, I don’t think that there is an ethical imperative to ordain women as rabbis because ethics fluctuate widely according to the time and place. For the time being, we can only say that in the eyes of most Jews in the western world, this is a fair, logical and desirable step. If so, it remains for us to investigate whether this step also is in keeping with the demands of the halakhah.
In order to determine if a woman can be ordained a rabbi, we must define the functions of the rabbi today. Proponents of women’s ordination claim that rabbis are primarily teachers, while one opponent says that a rabbi is primarily a judge. Both sides are skirting the real issues. The rabbinate has changed constantly throughout Jewish history. But the question is not what rabbis did in the past or in the Orthodox world but what they do today in our congregations. The simple fact is that a Masorti rabbi is not just an educator and role model but also serves as a cantor, Torah reader, ba’al maftir, mezamen, megillah reader and shofar blower and performs weddings, serves as a witness for marriages (and divorces) and serves on a Bet Din for conversion. Therefore, we must deal with all of these issues before deciding the halakhah.
Some say we should ordain women as rabbis and they will decide according to their halakhic knowledge if a woman may serve as cantor, witness and judge. But if these activities are forbidden, the Bet Midrash will transgress the prohibition of “you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). This means you should not put a person in a position where he is likely to transgress a commandment (see e.g. Moed Katan 17a). Therefore, we must determine if ordaining women will lead to them transgressing various prohibitions. Therefore, the Va’ad Halakhah decided by majority vote on the 21st of Iyar, 5752 that we must deal with all of the following issues:
1) May a woman hold public office?
2) May a woman study and teach Torah?
3) May a woman decide halakhic issues?
4) May women be counted in the minyan, serve as cantors, read the Torah, read the megillah, blow the shofar, and perform positive time-bound commandments?
5) May a woman perform a marriage?
6) May a woman serve in a bet din and especially in a bet din for conversion?
7) May a woman serve as a witness and sign ketubot and gittin?
1) Those who oppose women holding public office rely primarily on Sifrei Devarim (par. 157): “and one does not appoint a woman as leader of the community” and Maimonides (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:5): “and so too for all appointments in the Jewish community – one only appoints a man”.
However, there are eight reasons to reject this approach: a) it is not mentioned in the Talmud or by other poskim, b) Maimonides apparently inferred the prohibition regarding women from a similar prohibition regarding converts, but we needn’t do so, c) Maimonides may have been influenced by his generally negative attitude towards women (see Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13 and Ishut 13:11), d) Maimonides is opposed by the other early authorities who ruled on this issue, e) the textual reading in the Sifrei is quite uncertain, f) in a similar case, Maimonides rejected the Sifrei as a “da’at yahid” of Rabbi Shimon, g) the Sifrei may very well have been dealing with appointments made by a Sanhedrin while we are dealing with appointments made by democratic vote, and, lastly, h) we know that women in fact served in public office in the biblical and Second Temple periods and we know of fifteen women who served as chassidic “rebbes”. Therefore, women may serve in public offices such as president of a synagogue, gabbai and rabbi.
2) Those who forbid or limit women’s Torah study rely primarily on Rabbi Eliezer in Mishnah Sotah 3:4 “that whoever teaches his daughter Torah is considered as if he had taught her licentiousness”. Maimonides followed Rabbi Eliezer regarding the Oral Law, but only forbade teaching the written law “lekhathila” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13). Most poskim accepted Rabbi Eliezer and Maimonides in principle, but managed to limit their stringent approach. Some allow teaching women practical mitzvot, while others allow teaching outstanding women such as Beruriah. Some modern poskim continue to forbid teaching women Talmud, but claim that we are required to teach them Torah, Pirkei Avot, ethics and laws which relate to them. And some even allow teaching them Talmud because of “the needs of the hour”. But we needn’t find loopholes in the approach of Rabbi Eliezer and Maimonides. We should rather follow Ben Azzai (Mishnah Sotah ibid.) and rule that “a person is required to teach his daughter Torah” because: a) that is the opinion of the sages (“rabbanan”) according to the Talmud (ibid. 21b), b) Ben Azzai’s opinion is supported by other Talmudic sources and by many historical precedents, c) according to the Lehem Mishneh, when there is a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Ben Azzai, we rule according to Ben Azzai, d) this was the conclusion of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly in North America in 1975, e) times have changed and now (“ha’idana”) it would be absurd for young women to receive a limited Jewish education while they receive a first-rate secular education identical to that of young men. Therefore, Jewish women today are required to study Torah like men and a woman may learn and teach all areas of Torah study without any problem.
3) The Va’ad Halakhah ruled a number of months ago by majority vote that women may decide halakhic issues because that is the opinion of the majority of poskim and that has been the approach actually followed from the Talmudic period until today. (See Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah, Vol. 4, pp. 107-117.)
4) There are two ways to approach the subject of women and prayer and women and positive time-bound commandments. If we check the matter piecemeal, we could prove that women are required to pray thrice daily, may be counted in a minyan, read the Torah and the megillah in public, and are required to recite kiddush and birkat hamazon d’oraita. But this would still not enable a woman rabbi to function in all necessary capacities because women are exempt from all positive time- bound commandments. Therefore a woman rabbi could not blow the shofar or count the omer or recite the blessing for the sukkah in public and thereby fulfill the congregation’s obligation. She would also have trouble serving as a role model for tallit, tefillin, sukkah and lulav when she herself is exempt from them and may, in fact, not practice these mitzvot at all. Therefore, we should adopt the approach of Rabbi Joel Roth that women rabbinical students should accept upon themselves the obligation to observe all of the positive time-bound mitzvot. Then they can perform all of the liturgical functions that rabbis today perform.
5) The Va’ad Halakhah ruled in 5751 that a woman may actively participate in every aspect of the marriage ceremony. (See Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah, Vol. 4, pp. 91-103.)
Until now, we have dealt with issues, which affect the individual or a specific congregation. The last two issues – dayyanut and testimony – however, effect “kelal yisrael” (the entire Jewish people), and one movement in Judaism should not act unilaterally in such matters.
6) There are talmudic sources, rishonim and modern poskim who allow women to judge under certain circumstances, but what would be the point of allowing such a practice? If a woman serves on a bet din for conversion, all of the Orthodox rabbis and the majority of Conservative rabbis will not recognize that conversion as valid. Is such a step for the good of the convert or for the good of kelal yisrael? It will just fuel the fires of controversy and harm the convert. Therefore, women rabbinical students must undertake in writing not to serve on a bet din for conversion.
7) There is no question that our sages considered women disqualified as witnesses d’oraita. In 1979, Rabbi Joel Roth suggested three ways of changing or circumventing this halakhah, but until today nothing has been done. In May of 1992, the matter arose again at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in North America. 50% were in favor of women serving as witnesses and 50% were opposed. In other words, there may be halakhic ways to change this halakhah, but these two facts indicate that the time is not yet ripe. Therefore, women rabbinical students must undertake in writing not to serve as witnesses for divorces or marriages.
In conclusion, it is permissible for the Bet Midrash to ordain women as rabbis on condition that the women undertake in writing to accept upon themselves all positive time-bound commandments and to refrain from serving in a Bet Din for conversion or to witness divorces and marriages.
Rabbi David Golinkin
In favor: Rabbi Yosef Green
There is an absurd aspect to this question, since the mother institution of the Bet Midrash – the Jewish Theological Seminary of America – has been ordaining women for a number of years. As a result, a woman who is ordained by the Seminary automatically becomes a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, which enables her to join the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel if she makes Aliyah, and she can then be chosen as an officer or as a member of any committee, including the Va’ad Halakhah. Furthermore, there is already such a woman rabbi who is the Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and a member of the Va’ad Halakhah.
Even so, there are those who say that despite our close ties to the Conservative Movement in North America, we are nonetheless independent. We are living here in Israel, and we wish to be part of a movement, which wants to be rooted here. Therefore, we must take into account the specific conditions in the State of Israel.
There are three sociological circumstances in Israel which turn every discussion of the role of women in Jewish ritual into a revolutionary question:
1. There is a “status-quo” in Israel regarding religion and state, according to which the Chief Rabbinate has the authority in all matters of personal status. Most Jews in Israel accept that authority. The Masorti Movement along with other like-minded groups is fighting to do away with the religious establishment, but by so doing they also endanger the good that has resulted from the “status-quo”, such as kashrut in the army, public Shabbat observance and the like. Is the Masorti Movement in favor of complete separation of religion and state?
2. In general, the secular majority in Israel is not interested in religion, even if it’s the “liberal” version. They are still willing to accept the rules of the game as defined by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, either in order to reject them or for the life cycle events when they need their services such as weddings and funerals.
3. The Masorti Movement is still small in numbers, in political clout, in financial resources and in trained manpower.
Thus, in light of these three conditions in the State of Israel, our question takes on a more serious nature.
As Rabbi Robert Gordis and others have pointed out, every halakhic question is also a sociological question. That is precisely why Gordis supports the ordination of women as rabbis. Since women can now serve in every capacity such as doctors, politicians, judges and lawyers, any delay in their ordination stems from lack of sensitivity to the change which has transpired in their status or from futile stubbornness. Gordis further claims that the exemption of women from positive time-bound commandments stemmed, according to the Abudraham, from the need for women to serve their families at home. But in modern times, with the invention of timesaving appliances, this exemption is unnecessary. The disqualification of women as witnesses and judges is also rejected by Gordis on sociological and moral grounds.
Rabbi Simon Greenberg explains that the halakhic attitude towards women is based on four talmudic value judgments which are outdated and not in keeping with our sense of morality: a) “women are light-headed”, b) “a woman is subjugated to her husband”, c) “a woman’s body is lewd”, d) “the honor of a princess is to remain at home” (Psalms 45:14).
It is obvious that anyone with an ounce of ethical sensitivity will listen carefully to the sociological-historical claims made by Rabbis Gordis and Greenberg. But it is also obvious that every legal system is caught up in the constant tension between pursuing justice and trying to maintain some sort of legal continuity.
In the case under discussion, there are two reactions to those who demand change in the name of justice as a result of their historical-sociological analysis:
1. There is no question that the four statements quoted by Rabbi Greenberg are embarrassing by abstract ethical criteria and therefore they should be ignored. But as for Rabbi Gordis’s argument, if Judaism in the home throughout the generations was dependent on the division of responsibilities between men and women and if, in modern times, one of the most serious problems is the disintegration of the family, isn’t there room for a much more careful and hesitant examination of blurring the public ritual roles? It is very possible that such an examination interested in strengthening the family will reject the four statements quoted above, yet still arrive at the conclusion that there is a point to the division of ritual responsibilities.
2. Let us assume that Rabbi Gordis’s sociological analysis is correct for North America. Nevertheless, there are aspects of the sociological situation here in Israel regarding radical changes in religion, which require wisdom. Justice is the tendency of the prophets; wisdom is the tendency of the sages. And as mentioned above, there are three sociological factors in the State of Israel, which were not taken into account by Rabbi Gordis and others writing in the Diaspora.
Let us assume that we have the right and the duty to initiate a real religious revolution in Israel. On which pillars of belief and on which mitzvot will we build our new spiritual, ethical edifice? Do we have enough observant people in our congregations who are loyal to the authority of the halakhah that we can be so certain in our success to effect an authentic religious revolution? There are two types of revolutions: a) an ethical revolution which carries out the long-awaited desire of society to change its values and the institutions which reflect them; and b) an irresponsible revolution which reflects the will of a small group of visionaries who are not willing to wait for their vision to be accepted by the majority of the community. Rabbi Louis Jacobs once translated Schechter’s famous term “Catholic Israel” as “the consensus of the involved”. The question is: who are the Masorti Jews involved in halakhic questions who will serve as the pioneers of our halakhic revolution?
It is clear that the decision to ordain women as rabbis will drive away those Masorti Jews who are involved – who pray every day, who keep strictly kosher, who observe Shabbat – as has already happened in North America. Furthermore, the same principles of justice and egalitarianism will lead to the demand for other changes such as accepting patrilineal descent as a sufficient criterion for Jewishness.
Among those who already ruled on the matter in question, Rabbi Joel Roth has written a detailed responsum, which assists us in relating to this question. As opposed to Gordis, Greenberg and others, Roth permits the ordination of women while remaining within the four ells of halakhah, so if, in the end, we disagree with him, it will strengthen the position opposing women’s ordination for halakhic reasons.
The questions of women and Torah study and women and public office do not require our attention because “the consensus of the involved” has allowed these activities for quite some time. For us, the two main questions are: 1) May a woman serve as a witness and as a dayan? And 2) May a woman be counted in a minyan, serve as a cantor and accept upon herself positive time-bound commandments? Rabbi Roth suggests three solutions for solving the problem of women as witnesses which is prohibited “mid’oraita” but prefers the radical solution of “actively uprooting something from the Torah” and doing away with the prohibition. But Roth himself points out the dangers of such an approach including 1) opening up the dams to uproot all sorts of biblical prohibitions and 2) lack of agreement as to whether rabbis today have the right to actively uproot something from the Torah. This last point is critical. While we may have such power in North America where the non-Orthodox movements are the overwhelming majority of the community, here we are a tiny minority and the Chief Rabbinate possesses all of the actual power. Thus the ordination of women as rabbis vis a vis women’s testimony is a question, which from the point of view of reality is being asked in an almost total vacuum.
There remains the question of women in the minyan, as cantors and with regard to positive time-bound commandments. Rabbi Roth has shown that women can obligate themselves to observe positive time-bound commandments. One can strengthen his approach by stating that, according to Shabbat 88a, God originally forced the entire Jewish people – both men and women – to accept the Torah while in the days of Ahashverosh the entire Jewish people – both men and women – accepted the Torah of their own free will. So we see that the exemption of women from certain mitzvot originally occurred in the framework of obligation, so what is the problem if in a certain generation the women choose to give up that exemption?
In modern times, however, we have the Kantian approach, which says that moral autonomy must be entirely divorced from outside influence, versus the Jewish approach, which says that personal autonomy must be within the framework of the covenant made by God – a transcendental and heteronomous force – and the Jewish people, who accepted the covenant. Will the self-obligation by women in positive time-bound commandments be according to the Kantian model or according to the covenant model begun at Sinai and concluded in the days of Ahashverosh? The question is whether the Masorti Movement is willing to relate to such a serious question.
Rabbi Roth does not suggest that we should rule that all women are now obligated to perform all of the mitzvot, because this would transform most Jewish women into sinners. But his solution is not practical because he has created two categories of women – those who are obligated and count in the minyan etc. and those who do not. But the larger problem refuses to go away. Instead of expending so much effort in solving the problem of a few women who want to become rabbis, why not use the opportunity to obligate all women? And if we are already preparing the women for obligation, why not prepare the entire Jewish people including all the men for renewing the religious covenant in our day, since most men today do not feel obligated in the covenant of mitzvot? Without such a general halakhic renewal and obligation to perform mitzvot, there is no meaning to ordaining women as rabbis in Israel other than to draw a bit of attention from society at large.
Therefore, we need a period of an entire generation to prepare ourselves to obligate ourselves and our congregations – men and women – to the covenant. In order to execute this religious-educational process, we will need male and female spiritual leaders of the first caliber. The Bet Midrash will prepare these leaders for at least six years granting the degree of “Doctor of Jewish Theology”. As a gesture of historical continuity, men will also receive ordination along with their doctorate. We will wait another generation to see whether the Masorti community is really ready to bring about the religious revolution required. And if the situation then requires women rabbis, we can add the honorary title of “Rabbi” to the female leadership, which will already exist. To the women who do not have the patience to wait another generation to receive a certain title, it is worth mentioning the saying from Pirkei Avot: “it does not devolve upon you to finish the task…”
Rabbi Avraham Feder
In favor: Rabbi Pesach Schindler