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Orthodox Women Rabbis in Halakha

by Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.

Can there be such a thing as legitimate, halakhically acceptable, ordained women Rabbis in Orthodox Judaism? The answer to this most controversial of modern questions all depends upon two things. The first is how we define the term “Orthodox,” and the second is how we define the term “Rabbi.” You might be surprised to learn that depending on how we define these terms, the answer may possibly be yes!

First, what is Orthodox Judaism? To simply state that the present form of Orthodox Judaism is the original form of Judaism dating back to Moses himself, is an obvious mistake. Some in Orthodoxy might make this claim, and show many proofs to validate it, but anyone with the slightest bit of Torah education can clearly see that the way Orthodox Judaism is practiced today only came into its present form over the last few centuries.

One cannot just point to the Bible, the Talmud, or even the Shulkhan Arukh, and proclaim, “these alone define for us Orthodox Judaism.” There is a lot more to Orthodox Judaism than what is written in the ancient books. There are centuries of traditions (minhagim), opinions (deot), culture, and nuance, that augment the ancient texts, and carve out a definition for Orthodox Judaism that defines it for us today. Orthodoxy is still, nevertheless, subject to interpretation, and its borders are not definitively defined. There are variant practices under the greater umbrella of what we call Orthodox Judaism. Nevertheless, its general parameters are clearly seen, and visible to all who wish to look at them.

Orthodox Judaism has within it clearly defined roles, private and public, for both men and women. Many of these roles are Biblical, Talmudic, and Halakhic in nature, and are, therefore, not subject to change, or challenge. Anyone who embraces Orthodoxy, be it a man or woman, equally embraces, and endorses these roles. These roles are part and parcel of what defines Orthodoxy. Let us review some of these roles that apply to women, and their relationship to the role of Rabbi.

A minyan (prayer quorum) of ten adult men is required for all congregational public prayers. For reasons not to be discussed here, a woman cannot be part of a minyan and, therefore, cannot pray with men. She certainly may not lead the prayers of a minyan of men, even from behind a mehitzah (separation). One may interpret this positively or negatively all that one may wish, but this defines Orthodoxy. Anything other than this is not Orthodoxy. And no practicing Orthodox person, be it male or female would ever challenge this.

Orthodoxy does not allow a woman to publicly read the Torah for a minyan of men. Whether or not there can be a minyan of women, where a woman reads to other women, is a hotly contested practice, however, all in Orthodoxy agree that a woman is not permitted to chant publicly before a congregation, which includes within it men. Again, one's personal opinions about these prohibitions are irrelevant. One may very well decide that one dislikes Orthodoxy because of these views, and thus chose to not be Orthodox. While many indeed do this, and practice as one sees fit, nevertheless, Orthodoxy will not change. There are certainly large numbers of men and women who are totally comfortable with Orthodoxy in its present form, and warmly embrace it.

These two issues alone bring to the forefront the dilemma of having a woman serving as an Orthodox Rabbi. In many western Orthodox synagogues, it is the Rabbi who leads the congregation in prayer, and it is the Rabbi who many times chants the Torah in the public services. Being that these two rabbinic roles cannot be fulfilled by a woman in Orthodoxy, there are those who conclude, unequivocally, that there cannot be women Orthodox Rabbis. For those of this opinion, be they men or women, the issue is clear and obvious. There cannot be women Orthodox Rabbis, period, end of story.

However, the story does not end here at all. What exactly is a Rabbi must be defined, and as we shall see the role of a Rabbi is not limited to, and may indeed have very little to do with congregational prayer. Traditionally, and historically speaking, long before there was the present form of Orthodoxy, a Rabbi was not defined as a congregational leader of prayers (the Hazan, Shaliah Tzibbur, Cantor). A Rabbi was foremost defined as a scholar of Torah. Throughout most of Jewish history, the authority of the Rabbi was not given him by his position of spiritual leadership in a specific congregation, but rather by his mastery of Torah. The Rabbi's authority was in his scholarship. His opinions carried weight simply because he could show how his words were a proper, and correct, interpretation of Torah. The historical Rabbi's leadership was, therefore, in the arena of scholarship.

Today, the term Rabbi is thrown around and used in all kinds of different ways, and is subject to a number of different interpretations. Let us put all of these aside, and address a single modern definition of Orthodox Rabbinic ordination, in Hebrew called, Yoreh Yoreh, Yadin Yadin.

The modern-day Orthodox ordination is, first of all, a very modern institution, and has absolutely no Biblical foundation, whatsoever. Although we can point to similarities from Talmudic times, nevertheless, modern ordinations have nothing to do with Talmudic era ordinations either. A modern day Orthodox ordination is based upon learning a very precise course of study. In general, this includes the laws of Kashrut (Issur v'Heter), the laws of Shabat, and family purity laws (Niddah). These three categories of law are the foundational ones requiring mastery. Mastery of these, along with the rest of the first two sections of the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), entitles one today to the Rabbinic ordination called Yoreh Yoreh. This means that one is qualified to address and adjudicate issues of Jewish law having to do with these sections of the Code. Once one finishes a further course of study that includes the laws relating to issues dealing with women (marriage, divorce), and business law, one can receive the second level of ordination called Yadin Yadin, which means that one is qualified to serve as a religious judge.

According to Orthodox Halakha women are not allowed to sit on a court as a judge. Yet, I would hope that no one would ever think that a woman is any less intellectually, or educationally qualified to do so than any man. The above courses of study can be as easily mastered by any qualified woman, as they can be by any equally qualified man. The knowledge, wisdom, and insights of a woman, properly learned and versed in these matters, would certainly not be less than any man, and indeed, due to the fact of her gender, a woman might be able to offer special insights into matters, especially those relating to women, that no man would ever be able to properly understand in the same way. There is no doubt that women are as capable of being trained to receive a Yoreh Yoreh Yadin Yadin Orthodox ordination, as is any man.

With a woman's ability to learn, and discern, certainly above reproach, we are left with the question as to why then can a woman not serve in the congregational capacity as Rabbi, if and when we limit, and specify, the definition of Rabbi to being an expert and arbiter of Jewish Law. Indeed, even without the title, or Halakhic status of Rabbi, a woman can acquire this education, and rise to a level of expertise, regardless of whether or not she has been tested, and approved of, within the present day context. An education is an education, expertise is expertise, with or without, a title. There are numerous women today who have this education, and are in many ways superior to many of their male peers in the realms of knowledge of Torah. They function as religious court advocates, teachers and professors, but according to Orthodox standards, they cannot function as a Rabbi, when Rabbi is defined as a congregational leader. This is the way that the Orthodox community defines Halakha, and anything different from this is, by definition, not Orthodox.

Practically speaking there is nothing wrong with a woman serving as a Torah teacher, or even as an adviser in Halakha. Practically speaking, we already have Orthodox women who are Sages in their own right, and who are thus “Rabbis,” even without the title. Women like these have been in the Orthodox community for quite some time. So, when we define the term “Rabbi,” as a Torah scholar, and leave it at that, we find that the question of whether or not there can be Orthodox women Rabbis is a moot point. It has been answered by reality, and practicality, over many centuries.

Torah is defined primarily by Halakha, and only secondarily by cultural norms (minhag). The acceptance of Orthodox women Rabbis does not necessarily have to rock the boat, and push the boundaries, challenging either Halakha, or minhag. It all depends on how we define what is a Rabbi, and what functions such a Rabbi is to perform. As long as matters are handled within the acceptable context of Orthodoxy, there should be no problems. However, problems do exist, and these problems are, for the most part, emanating from the blurry fringes of the Orthodox community, where Halakha itself is often subject to challenge. Plenty of individuals, both men and women regularly challenge, or even attack Orthodox Jewish traditions on an almost regular basis. Needless to say, such detractors are not Orthodox, be they men or women, and regardless of their alleged affiliations with Orthodoxy.

The conclusion of the matter is simple. Orthodox Judaism is defined by what it is. It is not subject to reinterpretation to accommodate all those who object to its beliefs and practices. In Orthodoxy, women have clear and defined roles. Women can, and do, serve very well as scholars, educators, councilors, and advocates. These are what a Rabbi was originally meant to be. As such, there have always been women Orthodox “Rabbis” of these kinds.

The Orthodox community regularly raises up women qualified to teach, who are in every way equal in qualifications to any man. But Orthodoxy expands the meaning of Rabbi to include performing certain tasks of congregational leadership that a woman who, according to Halakha, cannot fill. Therefore, Orthodoxy cannot, and will not, accept a woman in the role of congregational Rabbi, in the same way as the other non-Halakhic forms of Judaism have been doing for quite some time. According to Orthodoxy, we can, and do, have many women teachers, scholars, professors, and even Halakhic experts. These women can certainly be relied upon to teach and guide, at both the individual and congregational level. They are thus functioning as “Rabbis,” within the permissible context of Halakha, but without such a title (or a made-up one similar to it).

These Orthodox women are wholeheartedly Orthodox, and seek nothing more than to uphold the standards of Orthodoxy. As such, these women, live by Orthodox Halakha, and teach it to others. It is these very same women who should be at the forefront of the fight against the detractors of Orthodoxy. The learned Orthodox woman should be the one confronting the non-Orthodox who are trying to change Orthodoxy merely to accommodate their unorthodox ideas, and practices.

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The Written Works of Ariel Bar Tzadok
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