Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 1)

This past week, the Jewish Star updated its article about the maverick Modern Orthodox named Rabbi Avi Weiss, who recently backed down from a confrontation with the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) over his decision to offer ordination to a Sara Hurwitz, as an Orthodox rabbi.

Frankly, I am not surprised at all by the series of events that ensued. Surprisingly, Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran admitted that the issue whether women may become rabbis or not is not a matter of “Torah law,” or not; in his opinion, it is morally wrong. Shafran remarked, “[If] Weiss had the backing of a world-class posek (halachic decisor) he would have a claim that he’s not departing [from the mesorah], but he does not have any such backings on the recognized Orthodox spectrum, chareidi or central. He’s changing the face of mesorah without anyone of stature behind him.”

I am curious: Where does the Torah speak about rabbis in the first place, since “rabbis” did not exist in biblical times?

But wait, it gets more interesting than just that.

Rabbi Shafran further argues that the ordination of a woman ran counter to the concept of tzniut, (modesty). It includes the idea that women are demeaned, not honoured, when they are placed in the public eye,” said Rabbi Shafran, “and that a position like the one suggested here is violative of that concept.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, NJ, expresses a similar position in his blog: “There are two greater objections: the utter disregard of norms of tzniut, with which ModOs generally struggle, and the corruption of the methodology of psak that transmits the Mesora and Jewish cultural norms and societal values. The only way to consider in this context the compelling Jewish value of “the glory of the King’s daughter is within” (kal kevuda bat melech penima- Tehillim 45:14) is essentially to discount it and say it has no relevance in the modern Western world. Thus, this ideal of Jewish femininity – the disinclination to seek a public spiritual role, cited by Chazal hundreds of times – is simply written out of the Torah system. And why ? …”

Both of these men’s argumentation are interesting. For now, let us raise the obvious question: Is the idea of a female “poseket” (Halachic decisor) truly without precedent in rabbinic law?

One of the famous questions asked in the Halachic literature concerns the famous biblical heroine, Deborah, whom the verse explicitly states: “ At this time the prophetess Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel” (Judg. 4:4). The verse clearly says that a woman can serve as a judge, despite the fact this position was normally reserved for men. Faced with the awkwardness of the biblical text, a number of different responses have been offered–which for the most part, prove to be mutually contradictory.

(To be continued)

2 thoughts on “Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 1)

  1. rey says:

    Paul says in 1 Cor 14 that women are to be silent in the church “as also the law says.” I’ve always wondered where the law says that. (I know it doesn’t, I mean.) Is it where Miriam leads the people in song? Is it where Deborah is made judge of all Israel? Is it in Proverbs where Wisdom cries in the street and utters HER voice? Where is this prohibition of women speaking? When I was an orthodox christian I had to think that Paul must be right somehow, so I imagined (as un-orthodox as it was to do so for an orthodox christian) that by “the law” here Paul must mean the Talmud! Of course I have and had no idea if the Talmud says any such thing, but I know the Torah does not.

  2. rey says:

    BTW, as a general rule, if your interpretation of the Torah agrees with Paul, you are wrong. You might want to pass that on to the rabbis! Because seriously, Paul says Abraham was justified by faith apart from works–even a fellow Christian, James, had to call him on that one, “was not Abraham our father justified by works….?” Seems to me just about the only thing they can cite in their favor of silencing women is that Paul says the law says it, and that is very weak ground indeed.

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