Women as Halakhic Authorities (Poskot)

(HM 7 in Birkey Yosef subparag. 12)

May women serve on the Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel or, in other words, may a woman render halakhic decisions and write responsa?

The Mishnah states (Niddah 6:4) that “whoever is eligible to judge is eligible to give testimony”. Tosafot ask (ibid.): but Devorah judged even though as a woman she was ineligible to testify! They reply: perhaps she did not judge herself but rather taught the laws to the judges.

Sefer Hahinukh (no. 158) says that the inebriated may not render halakhic decisions. “And this mitzvah applies in every place and at every time, to males as well as to a wise woman worthy of rendering halakhic decisions.”

Rabbi H.Y.D. Azulai rules on the basis of these two sources ‘that even though a woman is ineligible to judge, she may render halakhic decisions” (Birkei Yosef to Hoshen Mishpat 7, par. 12). Three modern rabbis came to the same conclusion (Rabbis Jacob Levinson, Isaac Halevi Herzog and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron).

The most well known opponent of women rendering halakhic decisions was Rabbi Abraham Gumbiner. After quoting the halakhic opinion of a woman, he dismisses it by quoting Rabbi Eliezer (Yoma 66b): “There is no wisdom for women except for the spindle” (Magen Avraham to Orah Haim 263, subparagraph 12). This approach, however, is quite surprising. Since Rabbi Eliezer strongly opposed women learning torah (Mishnah Sotah 3:4), it is not surprising that he refused to answer the question of a learned woman. Furthermore, at least three halakhic authorities agree with the woman quoted by the Magen Avraham (R. Yosef Yuzpa Falk her son, R. Ezekiel Landau and R. Shem Tov Gaguine). Most importantly, his opinion is clearly contradicted by the historical facts. In practice, women participated in every facet of rendering halakhic decisions from the Tannaitic period until today.

1. Women such as Beruriah (second century) and Fioretta Modena (sixteenth century) studied practical halakhah and were experts in it.

2. women such as Bellette (eleventh century) and Chana (twelfth century) taught practical halakhah to other women.

3. Women such as Miriam Shapira (ca. 1350) and the wife of Rabbi Jacob Mizrahi (fifteenth-sixteenth century) taught practical halakhah to men and boys.

4. Halakhic authorities relied on the word of women such as the sister of Rabbi Shimon be rabi Yannai (third century) and the wife of Rabbi Haim Or Zarua (thirteenth century) who transmitted halakhic decisions in the name of their relatives.

5. Women such as the wife of Rabbi Joseph Treves (fourteenth century) and Chava Bachrach (d. 1652) engaged in learned halakhic discussions with men.

6. Women such as Beruriah (second century) and Beila Falk (sixteenth century – she was the woman referred to by the Magen Avraham) rendered halakhic decisions subsequently adopted by leading halakhic authorities.

7. Women such as Shundlein Isserlein (fifteenth century) wrote responsa in the name of their husbands.

8. Women such as Pomona Modena (fifteenth century) and Flora Sasson (d. 1936) wrote learned questions to leading halakhic authorities.

9. Women such as Tzertel Schwartz (nineteenth century) wrote formal halakhic responsa.

In conclusion, women are allowed to participate in every aspect of learning halakhah, teaching halakhah and rendering halakhic decisions as they have been doing for the past 1,800 years.

Rabbi David Golinkin
In favor: Rabbi Michael Graetz
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Opposed: Rabbi Pesach Schindler