“On Women in Rabbinic Leadership Positions” by Daniel Sperber

Reference: Meorot


There are those who argue that our whole halakhic system is skewed by overwhelming bias towards males: it is wholly “androcentric.” As a consequence it should be completely deconstructed and then reconstructed in an egalitarian fashion given the contemporary status of women. I find this view unacceptable. I have always though in terms of the normative tradition of classical halakhah, and believe that we have a sufficiently rich legal heritage to be able to confront the majority of challenges that modernity present and find solutions within the parameters of classical halakhic  thinking.1 And even when it appears that we may have to reject hallowed precedent and tradition, a careful examination of the relevant sources will demonstrate that this is not necessarily the case. Rather we may circumvent and/or reinterpret so that the apparent precedential sources actually present no threat or contradiction to contemporary needs. I believe that all this may be done without straying beyond the parameters of the normative halakhic process. In this essay I shall try to demonstrate this by examining the question of the possibility of granting women elements of rabbinic status and communal authority.

The issue has recently become a cause célèbre and triggered an acute controversy when a women was given a form of ordination and a title suggestive of rabbinic authority. I am referring, of course, to the highly publicized episode of Ms. Sara Hurwitz, who, after exhaustive examination by a number of rabbinic authorities, was granted the title of “Maharat”–a Hebrew acronym denoting a position of halakhic, spiritual and Torah leadership.2 Shortly afterwards her title was changed to “Rabbah,” which sparked an even more vehement and acrid response on the part of the Ultra-Orthodox Agudath Yisrael and the Moetzet Gedolei ha-Torah of America, and also the centrist Orthodox Rabbinic Council of America (RCA). Many contended that the RCA buckled under to the extreme right-wing pressure.

Be that as it may, the juggernaut of opposition forced a partial retraction from the title of “Rabbah”, which in any case was probably ill-advised. But while the title seemed to be the main source of the controversy, the actual function was largely ignored. For there had already been women in similar functional positions, but under different titular definition, such as “intern”, “educational director”, “Rosh Kehilah”, or “Scholar-in Residence” but on a more or less permanent basis. And so Sara Hurwitz continues, and will continue, in her authoritative function, while the title controversy rages but will eventually wane.

At the time when the issue of some sort of ordination for a woman was being raised, I was asked to write a responsum on the subject. I readily consented to do so, and did not really make any significant innovation, since the subject had been carefully discussed by a number of prominent authorities and scholars.3 I was perhaps able to add some additional elements, and here give a somewhat expanded version of the argument that I put forward in my responsum. It was entitled, “Question as to whether a woman make give halakhic decisions,” which is one of the important functions of a rabbi, though of course not the only one.

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