Should Orthodoxy Oppose Women Rabbis?

I would like to candidly discuss this difficult topic.  As a man I have been privileged to live in religious comfort, albeit aware that half of my coreligionists may feel alienated and ostracized by rulings that limit their involvement. This week an RCA resolution voted to condemn institutions that seek to promote the status of women by conferring upon them rabbinic ordination.


I would like to grapple with this idea that was never discussed in my youth, and attempt to understand and clarify.  Are women working as clergy really an anathema to orthodoxy? Was there ever a specific halachic ruling that prohibits a woman from being a rabbi? I have been to shuls where the rabbi was a Cohen and unable to officiate at funerals. I have even been to shuls where the rabbi wouldn’t make a l’chayim and even that was not problematic. A woman rabbi would have certain limitations, but why should that be reason enough for it not to be allowed? Why can’t a woman be conferred with a rabbinic (or rabbinic-related) title, albeit with certain limitations? Most rabbis receive an ordination that has limitations. For example, only a select few have the qualifications to serve on a Beth Din for financial litigation or ritual matters. Similarly, doctors have limitations; a top cardiologist can’t practice oncology and vice versa. If my accountant, lawyer, and dentist have limitations, why can’t my rabbi?


This week’s Torah portion appears to contradict the pervasive negativity towards women often associated with Orthodox Judaism. After the death of our matriarch Sarah, she is mourned, lauded, praised, and catapulted to an almost angelic status. During her lifetime she attains a level of divine ruach hakodesh and n’vuah. She is noted as being a spiritual giant and prophet.  She is the very first person in the Torah to gain an almost saintly posthumous notoriety.


Regardless of the Torah’s attitude towards Sarah, it would be naive to imagine that gender inequality is not a challenging subject for an orthodox rabbi.  As an Orthodox Jew I am unable to ignore or modify that which is a divine principle or law. Thus empathy alone is insufficient. Either there is valid legal justification for maintaining the status quo or it is imperative to do our utmost to find the political will to modify laws that ail half of our people. The time for blindly following Talmudic or Midrashic references that use antiquated scientific reasoning to legitimize a second tier status of women should be overturned. When it comes to medical care, we no longer accept halachic decisions derived from a limited understanding of science and health. The rabbis of the Talmud were not anti-woman, they just had no reason to question the prevailing attitudes found in the secular society. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women were uneducated, and as a result were unable to perform many of the positions held by men. Hence women were considered inferior.


The Talmud uses a similar reasoning to exempt a deaf mute from being obligated in mitzvot. The Torah didn’t rule as such, but the rabbis of the time erroneously posited that the deaf mute was incapable of being educated. As a result, they remained uneducated and the rabbis were proven to be correct. We can infer that a similar mindset led to the determination that women were less capable, and as a result, women received less secular education and were exempted from the study of Torah and Talmud. Thank God during the past 200 years many rabbinic authorities have altered the rules concerning a deaf mute and now treat them as completely able bodied and they are therefore obligated in all mitzvot. Maybe there is hope?


How can I, a card carrying member of the Rabbinical Council of America, accept their recent vote against woman taking positions of authority in an orthodox shul? Even though I personally voted against the decision, am I guilty by association? In a Talmudic statement we find that women may not only be equal to men but in some cases far superior. The Talmud in Baba Batra states: that comparing mankind to our matriarch Sarah is like comparing a monkey to man. In other words, the greatness of Sarah far exceeds anything we can comprehend and any analogy is ludicrous. Even in relationship to her husband Abraham, the sages maintain that her spirituality was on a higher level than his.


In reality it may take a collective of scholarly professionals to address the hurt that many women feel. Their continued exclusion from certain rituals and the issue of the agunah are merely the tip of the iceberg. There are rules that are problematic and need to be looked at through modern lenses. Some laws will remain regardless of social difficulties but others could be addressed with a determined focus to address the needs of today’s women. Young girls today are light years ahead of their great grandmothers. They are no longer destined to a life of cleaning and cooking and they are free to choose any profession. They may become doctors, lawyers, and even Talmudic scholars. While last century any profession was considered immodest, the educated woman is a mainstay of orthodoxy. Today’s Jewish women have opportunities that were never before imagined. Is it enough? Absolutely not! And sadly there are still certain groups within orthodoxy that want to curtail any forward progress and would prefer that we revert back a few millennia. There is much more that has to be done.


Yet the question remains unanswered: why does the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) oppose ordination for women? Perhaps they are kowtowing to more right leaning authorities both in Israel and the USA. They already proved they were spineless when they failed to stand up to Israeli Rabbinical authorities on conversion. If so, it has little to do with Halacha and more to do with politics. Some give them more credit and claim that they want to keep our mesora – our long standing tradition of not ordaining women. This is a mockery of the truth. Our mesora was to elevate anyone deemed worthy. The Gemara in the Megillah states that since the beginning of time there were only 55 nevi’im – prophets. There were hundreds and thousands of ordained rabbis but only a handful were ever deemed worthy of prophecy. Yet included in that select group were seven, yes seven, women. That means that almost 8% of all prophets were women. One of these prophets also had the illustrious title of Shofet – Judge. But Devorah wasn’t an ordinary judge, she was akin to the chief rabbi of the Jewish world. Her rulings were binding on all, including the rabbis, and her power was absolute. If the RCA cared about being the torchbearers of the Mesora then then they would find a means to reintroduce the sacred traditions that are on the verge of extinction.


Furthermore, much of what we imagine to be factual is often far from the truth. Contrary to public perception, no rabbis have been ordained in the past 1800 years.  The power to ordain a rabbi was limited to the Sanhedrin and upon their demise all ordainment ceased. Thus, in my humble opinion, and for the sake of shalom bayit – harmony in the Jewish world, I suggest removal of all rabbinic titles. The Jewish world can follow the lead of Malcolm Turnbull, the new Prime Minister of Australia, who a few weeks after being appointed as prime minister, abolished all of the old English titles that were conferred due to privileged ancestry. I would use our mesora to show the fallacy of current ordination and preferably allow all people to be given any and all meaningful titles with the exclusion of using the term rabbi. There should be no objection from the right and Orthodox Judaism can continue to make genuine changes in furthering gender equality. A mere fifty years ago it would have been inconceivable for the subject of women clergy to be on an orthodox agenda. It may not have passed, but it’s a promising start to an arduous journey. Today we find women serving as yoatzot halacha – legal advisors for Jewish courts, or acting as kashrut supervisors shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. Yes, it may be only a small step, but hopefully it will pave the way for more positive steps.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Jack Engel

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