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July 17, 2020 1:12 pm

Orthodox Judaism Must Embrace Female Rabbis

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Women pray at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo: Yoninah via Wikimedia Commons.

The issue of female rabbis in Orthodox Judaism has come to the fore again — this time through a petition before the Israeli Supreme Court on sexual discrimination in religious affairs.

Putting aside religious politics, the fact is that calling a woman a “rabbi” is not a real issue.

Over time, the nature of who and what a rabbi is has gone through many metamorphoses. There is no mention of rabbis in the Torah. The Torah gave us priests who were men only. But it also gave us judges and prophets who could be female. Religious leadership depended on passing down traditions from one generation to another. But there is no mention of titles.

What is sometimes called “rabbinic Judaism” started with Ezra the Scribe (not Ezra the rabbi). The Talmudic era created a new kind of leadership to rival that of the priests — the Men of the Great Assembly. At that moment, the laying of hands, semicha, took on a formal function. The term semicha comes from the Biblical obligation to lay ones hands on an animal before sacrificing it, and was also used when Moses made appointments.

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Initially, only the leadership of the Sanhedrin was  given semicha by the teachers of the previous generation. But their successors went under a variety of titles such as Rav, Rebbi, Rabba, Rabban. And sometimes they were community leaders too.

Until the medieval era, the emergence of religious leadership in the Jewish world relied entirely on reputation and scholarship. Medieval rabbis were expected to teach, pass on tradition, and give sermons in the synagogue twice a year (before Pesach and before Yom Kippur) and then they were scholarly, not popular.

The function of a rabbi, as we understand it nowadays, emerged as a result of external influence from priests and imams who took on specific communal duties. Judaism did not, and does not, rely on priests for religious functions. You do not need a rabbi to marry or bury.

Many scholars, like Maimonides, earned a living as a doctor — not a rabbi — to avoid benefiting from Torah knowledge. Those who wanted to take up a formal position had to get approval from a major rabbi or Beth Din.

In Europe, the Protestant Reformation introduced new kinds of ministers whose jobs were largely pastoral and ceremonial. This is where our modern idea of a rabbi emerged. Under Christianity, rabbis began to adopt clerical dress and pastoral roles. Rabbinical colleges (in contrast to yeshivot) began to emerge to provide state qualifications. And as Reform Judaism expanded, it too chose to borrow the title.

Eastern European Jewry strongly objected to such moves. For them, study in yeshivot was the only path to rabbinic authority. Many of the greatest scholars and authorities in Judaism today, as then, never bothered to get the “title.” For them, study for its own sake was the only route to authority. Nevertheless, semicha or a ksav rabbanus (a document of appointment) became a requirement — but only for a position in a religious community.

Nowadays, the title “rabbi” bears little resemblance to its origins. It’s like a degree. Many people get it for the kudos and do not use it. Anyone can follow an online course and become ordained in programs where traditional learning is only mentioned in passing.

In Israel today, where rabbis and judges are state appointments and get state salaries, being a rabbi is much prized for all the wrong reasons. The system is open to abuse and political corruption. From this, you gather that I value the person, not the title.

So why does the Orthodox world still balk at giving women the title?

There is a halachic issue. There are specific roles that women in Judaism cannot perform on behalf of men. Some apply only to Cohanim. But women rabbis in the Orthodox world anyway would not perform on behalf of the community those mitzvot which they are not obliged to. Calling a woman “rabbi” would not affect that. These limitations apply mainly to public religious services which, nowadays, play a relatively minor role in rabbinic life. Areas such as the pastoral or educational pose absolutely no such difficulties — and they are what take up most of a modern rabbi’s time.

It is also argued that, thanks to an opinion by Maimonides, women cannot be appointed to positions of authority in the community. This is strange since, as I mentioned above, there were women prophets, judges, and queens. And Maimonides’ judgment is clearly an opinion based on the social prejudices of the time that are now largely disregarded.

The main argument against calling a woman “rabbi” is that it has never been done before. It goes against tradition — masorah. Important as masorah is, there are plenty of examples of old masorot falling out of use and new ones coming in.

There was a time, in every society, that women were not permitted, or expected, to rival the intellectual or religious level of men. But in Judaism today, there are enough women whose knowledge of traditional sources more than qualifies them for semicha of the highest order. Times have changed. It is like saying we cannot drive cars because Moses did not.

In Israel, there are women leaders in religious courts, halachic consultants, and advisors attached to local religious authorities. In more moderate Orthodox communities, women are already performing many of these roles. The only issue is what to call them. Rabbi? Rabbah? Rabbanit? Maharat? Rabbit?

Sadly, everything religious in Israel is politicized — thanks to the catastrophic mixture of state and religion. Like many trade unions, the established Chief Rabbinate fights to preserve a closed shop. If there were no state-guaranteed rabbinic posts (as in the US), each community would be free to establish its own criteria and appoint who they want with whatever semicha the candidate has.

The Chief Rabbinate has responded by saying that, if the petition for no sexual discrimination in religious affairs were to be granted, they would refuse to give semicha to anyone. Perhaps that’s the best solution.

Refusing to give women a title they merit is a gratuitous insult. A storm in a teacup. An example of narrow-minded rabbinic bureaucrats shooting themselves in the foot and cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Or, at the very least, male chauvinism. It is about time we left that behind.

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