Can Orthodox Judaism have female rabbis?

Dr. Israel Drazin ● BooksnThoughts blog

Women have been degraded since ancient history. Scholars debate whether the Torah is pro-women or indifferent to them with some exceptions. The ancient Greeks seemed to use women only for procreation and for taking care of their homes. Even the remarkably wise philosophers Aristotle among the Greeks and Maimonides among the Jews made negative statements about women. Scholars explain that they did so based on what they saw; women were not educated. There were, of course, exceptions such as the Greek Socrates seeking wisdom from a woman.

But those who continue the disparagements make the foolish statement “the exceptions prove the rule.” Women need to take the initiative to resolve this matter. Many Jewish women are doing so by becoming community leaders and even rabbis. But does Jewish tradition allow this? Rabbi Dr. Daniel answers yes, and he encourages more women to do so.

Daniel Sperber is a highly respected Professor at Bar-Ilan University, rabbi of the Menachem Zion Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, PhD from University College in London, author of more than thirty books including the magnificent eight-volume series Minhagei Yisrael about the history of Jewish customs. In 1992, he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for Jewish Studies. In “Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit, Rebbetzin: Women with Leadership Authority According to Halacha,” he examines the legitimacy for women leadership in Jewish law. Rabbi Dr. Sperber has the ability to write in an easy to read fashion with multiple sources to support his views in a manner that is like fascinating short stories.

The book contains ten chapters written by Daniel Sperber totaling 104 pages and includes references to the opinion of Rabbi Hershel Schachter and other rabbis. This is followed by 114 pages written by other rabbis who support Sperber’s views, including the opinion of the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Dr. Sperber quotes his speech during the ordination of female rabbis. “A relatively short time ago such an occasion within an Orthodox setting would have seemed to be impossible, almost hallucinatory. Yet what was so recently a dream has now become a reality. Yet what was once implausible has now become almost a norm, at least within a certain segment of the modern Orthodox community.” He notes that some Orthodox leaders refuse to accept the change, “But this is to be expected, and indeed understandable, given the traditionalist inability to recognize the dynamic nature of halachah. For they are grounded in dogmatism, while we strive after dynamism.”

He tells us that contrary to the mistaken notion of some people “there is no normative halachic bar to women being ordained or functioning as Jewish communal leaders.” Yes, it is true that even among those who support women rabbis, there are those who insist that while functioning as rabbis, they should not be called rabbis but something else, such as Rabbanit, but “hopefully [this notion] will eventually wane.”

He cites highly respected rabbis of the past who speak of wise women “who took upon [themselves] to study Torah in depth, who could be crowned with the ‘crown of Torah,’ and who achieved a standard of learning such that she could give halachic rulings.”  He cites as well the rulings of many rabbis that women can serve in positions of communal authority. “In every case where the community accepts and is satisfied with an appointment, the appointee can judge even on matters of authority and enforcement.”

It is a mistake to think that there were no women in prominent religious positions in the past. We know some held leadership roles in biblical and talmudic times. Among others, there were Deborah the prophet, Beruriah the wife of Rabbi Meir, and Yalta the wife of Rav Nachman who “were learned women who dealt with halacha.” These are just some such women that Rabbi Dr. Sperber mentions of women in positions of authority.

This is a significant book which will change the opinion of many on an important issue.

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