May a woman be a leader in the Orthodox Jewish community?

Rivkah Lambert Adler The Jerusalem Post

“I fully believe that the Halacha [Jewish law] has to respond actively and positively to the burning challenges of the times, and, in our days, high on these priorities is the status of women.”

Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber is a champion of the emergence of highly-educated women taking on leadership roles in the Orthodox Jewish community today. In the acknowledgment section of his newest book, Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit, Rebbetzin, Sperber explains why he supports this change in Jewish life.

“I am not a feminist, but rather a halachist,” he claims. “I fully believe that the Halacha [Jewish law] has to respond actively and positively to the burning challenges of the times, and, in our days, high on these priorities is the status of women in Judaism.”

True to Sperber’s self-definition as a halachist, this book is a dense halachic work, written for students and scholars of Jewish law. In the first 100 heavily footnoted pages, he presents both the arguments of his Orthodox rabbinic colleagues that oppose the trend of women in halachic leadership and his response to each argument, supporting his conclusions using halachic texts.

He addresses separately the issues of women in rabbinic positions and women, more generally, in positions of communal authority such as in financial, political, legal or administrative roles. In his conclusion, Sperber plainly states, “I have tried to demonstrate that a careful study of the relevant sources leads us to the conclusion that there is no halachic impediment to a woman’s appointment to a leadership position.”

Aware that, for all his support, he writes from a male perspective, Sperber includes a scholarly afterword, solicited especially for this volume from Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky.

Tikochinsky serves as the director of Beit Morasha’s Moshe Green Beit Midrash for Women’s Leadership and the Women’s Halacha Program. In that role, she oversees women who are advanced Torah scholars as they prepare for the same high-level tests required of orthodox male rabbinical candidates in Israel.

In her afterword, Tikochinsky writes about how women with halachic education force questions that have heretofore not been considered. She uses the case of the mechitza, the divider between men and women in an orthodox synagogue, as an example.

The issue with mechitza in Halacha has been primarily a discussion about whether the main goal is to obscure women completely so men cannot see them or whether the main goal is to prevent men and women from mingling during prayer. These differences of opinion have led to vastly different halachic solutions.

However, in her essay, translated by Rabbi Shalom Z. Berger, Tikochinsky ably demonstrates that the halachic discussion to date has been framed by questions men ask other men about the experience of men in the synagogue service.

She writes, “At no point is the question asked: ‘How do we ensure that women feel like they are a part of the prayer service and what type of mechitza will best achieve this need?’”

She further challenges, “The consideration that goes unmentioned in the discussion is when and in which situations should women be able to see what is taking place in the synagogue. Even worse, the most fundamental question is not asked. Are women considered to be part of the tzibbur [congregation]? What obligations derive from this, related, for example, to the architectural structure of the synagogue? Is it important to arrange that the women can see the Aron Kodesh [Torah ark] when it is opened? The Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] when it is read or raised up?”

This example, so clearly demonstrated by Tikochinsky’s essay, points to the exact place where the issue of women’s participation in halachic leadership is the most critical. Without knowledgeable women participating in halachic conversations, these questions simply haven’t even been asked, let alone addressed.

The third and final 100 pages of the book are appendices, including a number of primary documents related to the discussion of women’s place in halachic leadership in our day.

This is not a book for the general Jewish reader. However, for those with a halachic background and/or a deep interest in the status of women in Judaism in our day, it is a treasure of sources and arguments, both for and against the issue of women in positions of leadership in the Jewish community.

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