Monday, August 29, 2011

Why Can't Orthodox Women be Rabbis?

Received this from a friend of an acquaintance of my husband's.
I don't know the questioner, but I do know she is a woman who has been doing some extensive learning about classical Judaism.
The questioner is referencing the recent controversy around ordaining Orthodox women rabbis and what title might be used therein.
The email is printed with all errors.  Since I don't know the questioner, I didn't want to alter her words at all.

"First of all - what is the big fuss about a woman having a title?? Maybe
it's because I grew up secular and am a grad student, but in my mind if a
woman does the same learning, she should at least be able to have some sort
of title attesting to that. It would be like me going to grad school and not
graduating with a degree. It looks like there are a few "orthodox" female
rabbi type people (Shlomo Carlebach ordained a couple I believe), and I
don't see what the big deal is. They aren't leading men in prayer, or doing
the minyan thing, they studied a long time, and they got some kind of
smicha.....why the controversy? Does it say in the Torah woman can't be
religious leaders?

"I spoke about this with Leah once and she said "well there are female
religious leaders, they are just called Rebbetzins" and also "why do women
need a title? just being learned is good enough to do lots in the
community"....yes BUT first of all, a Rebbetzin is married to a Rabbi and
gets that title through the her relationship not of her own learning merits.
Not to say there aren't great rebbetzins out there, but it is not a title
given due to completion of a rigorous program of study, nor is it something
the wife of a business man has ( no matter how learned she is). For the
second issue, I guess I just don't understand why they wouldn't be given a
title of some sort - they did the learning, they put in the work, why deny
them acknowledgment of that? Sure men learn without becoming Rabbi's, but if
she wants to work with people and be a religious leader full time why not
let her have a title that makes her work easier?

"Personally, I would be stoked to learn from a woman, especially the whole
bedika cloth thing and whatnot - she would be the natural person for that I
would think. I have an acquaintance down here that is a girl rabbi ( not
orthodox obviously ;), she is soooooooo freaking awesome - she has had this
amazing life - daughter of a rabbi from a long line of rabbi's, highly
educated, used to be an electrical engineer, sky diver, all around cool
lady, and super educated on jewish stuff....well educated to the extent she
found teachers to teach her. I just wish there were women teachers like that
in orthodox judaism. Anyways, if you can help me understand all this I would
be very grateful.

"I know I am writing with lots of crazy questions - but I love Judaism and am
soooo grateful to you guys for teaching us!!!! Just trying to understand
things that aren't making sense :)

Dear Friend,

I don't know you, and you don't know me.  But it sounds like you are right up my alley: curious, passionate, respectful, and honest.  I would like to respond to your questions, partially from a place of philosophy, but also from a place of personal experience.  I'm not asking you to like or agree with my ideas.  In fact, if you grew up secular in America in the past 40 years, it would be shocking for you to even be able to stretch yourself to hear me out.  All I ask is intellectual honesty to see that this position has validity.

You ask, "What is wrong with a woman having a title?"  The answer is, nothing, as long as it fits.  So should a woman be called, "Rabbi"?  Let us discover what a Rabbi is.  I am a mom; are you?  The title "Mom" is quite specific.  It refers to a woman who has either biologically given birth to or fostered or adopted a child and is usually raising him or her.  If a man biologically birthed a child (problematic verb right there) or fostered or adopted, is he a mom?  No, he is not a mom.  He can never be a mom.  He can be a dad, an uncle, a friend, but he can never be a mom.  A Rabbi, by definition, is a man.  How do we know this?

The Torah, yes, that very Torah that women want to hold, march with, read from publicly, study, and teach, has some very deep lessons about men and women.  These lessons are both timeless and timely which means that sometimes they may not sync with the trends of the day, but by the same token they will never, ever become obsolete.  In thousands of years of Jewish history, the Torah is still practiced and observed faithfully.

The Torah states that men and women have different spheres of spiritual influence.  A man's sphere of influence is in the external, public world, and a woman's sphere of influence is in the internal, private world.  This concept is alluded to in the kabbalistic, mystical sources; in the Talmud, in the midrash and the like.  This is the oral law, not the written law (the Talmud and its attendant commentaries).  But everything in the Talmud, et al, has a hook and a source in the written law.

The notion that men and women are hardwired differently is no secret to us married folk.  But in the world of spirituality, people somehow fail to understand that there are laws of physics.  Judaism is not just a warm and fuzzy blanket, full of feel-good moments.  It's not just haroset and matza balls.  Just as science, physics, and the USA have laws, Jewish spirituality has laws.  If you follow the laws you can reach a most exalted spiritual place.

The notion of external/internal spheres of influence affects both how men or women are influenced, and how they influence.  We see this difference in our very biological anatomy.  A man's anatomy, his life force, is external and visible.  A woman's anatomy is internal and private.  She accepts within her body the life giving force, nurtures it within, and creates life thereby.  This is not an accident.  All spiritual realities have their parallel in the physical world.

My friend, the Torah, yes, once again I reiterate, that very same Torah that everyone wants to hold, march with, read from, study, and teach, tells us that a man will find his main spirituality through public and external service, and that a woman will find her main spirituality through private and internal service.  What this means in practical terms in 2011 is that the public place of Judaism, the synagogue, is the place that men will shine, and the private place of Judaism, the home, is the place that women will shine.

Is one better than the other?  What's better, funner, cooler, more prestigious: to shine at the synagogue or to shine at home?

Do you see that the very question is flawed, my friend?  Our goal is not fun, coolness, or prestige.  It's spirituality. What better place to discover our set of instructions for spirituality than the very Torah we seek to disseminate?  Do you see the problem here?  The problem is not that women are lesser for shining in the private domain, the problem rather is that no one values the private domain simply because PRIVATE THINGS ARE NOT VALUED.

In our society, what glitters matters; secrets are freely shared; the moms, teachers, and other unsung heroes are simply under-appreciated and underpaid; and no one wants to be behind-the-scenes.  This is a serious indictment, not of Judaism or Orthodoxy, but merely of where our society's values have run amok.

Say you have a loving relationship with a friend.  The two of you are at a dinner party and you start recounting the funny story of your flat tire, and your friend rudely interrupts you.  This is completely out of character; you're stymied.  But you trust her, and she trusts you, so you are certain there is a good reason and that all will be revealed.

See, God and the Torah are my good friends.  In their company, I have always felt respected, valued, and appreciated as a Jewish woman.  Valued for my intellect and valued for my ideas.  Valued for having seven kids and valued for being a teacher of Torah.  If God is denying me the title "Rabbi," well, I trust Him.  He's never steered me wrong.  I know it can't be disrespect or denigration, because that would be entirely out of character and wouldn't jive with anything else that I know about Judaism.

My friend, I study as much Torah as I can.  I teach Torah and counsel couples in crisis.  I love God and try to bring others to love Him as well.  For all intents and purposes my job quite closely parallels that of a Rabbi.  But if you're not the mom, you're not the mom.  You can call yourself a mom and you can cook and clean and change diapers and volunteer at the preschool and do all the things that moms do, but if you're the dad, you're not the mom.

So what is my title?  Some call me Rebbetzin.  I think that's a funny title, because there are so many women more learned than I.  I don't want a title.  I don't need a title.  Guess what?  Any Rabbi becoming one for the title and prestige ought find a new job.  Glory-seeking and the rabbinate ought to be allergic to one another.

And too, I want to always remember that the God that I am supposedly serving in this whole endeavor has arranged things such that the internal, private sphere is my primary spiritual path.  I pray that I never forget.

With love,




  1. If it were possilbe to site the "hook" in the Torah where the rules about men and women/public and private/rabbi and rebbitzen came from, I would find it helpful. Although I do have an open mind about the idea that men and women are very different, this has really got me questioning why those differences make it such that a woman could not lead, lets say, a funeral.

  2. Wendy, firstly, the Orthodox funerals I go to are not "led" by a Rabbi, because if everyone is knowledgeable about the laws, it can be lay-led. If you're asking if a woman can eulogize, yes she can. The role of the Rabbi as it has ceremonially developed is largely customary, not law. But you want a source, so here's a source: Genesis 18:9. Angels visit Abraham and Sarah. They ask Abraham, where is Sarah? He replies "she is in the tent." The Talmud states: They asked him to endear her to him, to accentuate her trait of privacy and internality.
    Now dont misunderstand: this doesn't mean women can't leave the tent! Lets not oversimplify. It means their main spirituality may be found within. Within herself, within her family, within a close circle of friends.
    There's a reason the special miracles of their tent were not called Abraham's miracles but rather Sarah. It was she who made the tent shine.

  3. The Talmud source is Bava Metzia 87.

  4. I have actually just been teaching this topic and here are a few sources that really spoke to me. I thought I would share.

    If you look at the story of the creation of man it is all there. G-d created a being that included male and female attributes. This being was created from earth. The most external, physical entity in the world. Then G-d breathed a soul into him. (interesting to note. The word neshama- meaning soul is a feminine noun, it is also the life force with in us that we cannot see).
    Later G-d said it was not good for man to be alone so he created for him a helpmate, against him.G-d wanted to separate out the two different attributes of connecting back to G-d. The external and the internal. His goal were to create different but COMPLIMENTARY human beings to need each other in order to reach perfection.
    G-d then put Adam to sleep and separated out the feminine qualities from his rib (commonly miss translated as his side). The new separation was called Chava-mother of all life, and what as left kept the name Adam- coming from the word earth- the physical.
    It was no coincidence that G-d separated Chava from the rib. The rib's function is to protect and house the vital, life giving, internal organs of the body. The women's role as the mother of all life is to protect, care for and develop the internal of humanity. What is this internality? All things that make up the workings of a human being, the morals, spirituality, emotional well being etc. All that is the responsibility of the women. That is mainly done in the internal sphere- the home.

    There is a verse that we say fist thing in the morning- "Shema beni mussar avicha- Listen my child to the teachings of your father - ve;al titosh torat imecha- and do not reject the torah of your mother" It is telling the child to listen to the customs and teachings of his father. The father sits and learns with the child (or sends him to school to learn the ideology he wants his child to absorb) and the child should listen. But when it talks about the mother it tell the child not to reject/throw away the TORAH of his mother. You can't reject or get rid of something you do not already have. The children learn through osmosis in the home- the primary domain of the mother. And they are learning the TORAH- their belief in G-d, morality, ethics etc. The woman sets the tone and teaches these things through her day to day interactions with her family. By the time the child is old enough to make a decision whether this is what he wants, the teachings of his mother are all ready entrenched and he would need to reject them at this point.

    Just two sources where we see the internal role of women. A role that is necessary as well as complimentary to the external role of man.

  5. One of my learning partners is a Yoetzet Halacha. She specializes in TH. She learned for three years at a special programme in Yerushalayim and is associated with an organization called Nishmat.

    She will still ask a Rabbi with more experience than she has, if there is a question that is beyond her scope, but she knows more than your average Rabbi about her particular topic.

    Personally, I specialize in Kashrut, but sadly there is no official designation for that and what I would really like is to have the qualifications to be able to say that I am a competent mashgiach. Not for my own head or ego, but for my resume.

    The thing is, other than Rabbi's who study kashrut, there really is no designation for people who specialize in hashgacha and work in commerical and organizational kashrut as a living rather than as a specialist in the laws themselves.

    I should be in NYC this very minute taking a course at the OU, but since I am unable to get to the city, I am missing the specialized course for women that only happens once every two years. Bummer.

  6. Rachel: thanks for sharing those beautiful insights. Schwevy, I am familiar with the Yoetzet Halacha title and can certainly understand why women really crave that kind of relationship with a fellow woman. Isn't there a title "Mashgicha"? There was a whole article I read about that. So sorry you are missing your course :(

  7. The shulchan aruch states that when two are drowning, the man is saved first, because he has more commandments. Can you, Ruchi, explain that halacha in light of your assertion that women are not second class citizens simply by virtue of their gender?

  8. Anon, I have never, ever heard of that. I asked my husband, who IS a rabbi, and neither has he. Source?

  9. I believe Anon is referring to Yoreh Deah 252:8.

  10. Thank you Anon and Sarah. You are quite the Torah scholars, and you've taught me a piece of Torah that I never knew! In researching this source, it appears that it is part of a list of many situations - in some, the woman is preferenced, and in some the man is preferenced. For a detailed discussion, see here I don't think that if someone is looking for bias, she will be happy with any explanation, but nevertheless. I reiterate my previous statement that if there is something I don't understand about Judaism and women, I will not accept that the intention is to denigrate - it simply contradicts too much of what I know about Judaism.

  11. I read the discussion you link to, but I still think Anon has a valid point. You say in the post that private things are not valued by people nowadays, and that Judaism values the private sphere of women. But then there's this halacha that says that in a life-or-death situation, the man is saved first because of his mitzvot. If what you're saying is true, why isn't the woman saved first because of the importance of her private domain? This halacha seems to imply that a life in the private domain is less important and valuable than a man's public life.

    (I realize that in some non-life threatening situations the woman is saved first, but that doesn't seem like much consolation if in a grave situation she is the one who has to die.)

    By the way, I don't know about Anon but I am not looking for bias. I don't even believe in women rabbis! But I don't see how the "importance of the private domain" explanation can be reconciled with sources like this. If you have ideas I'm happy to hear them, though.

  12. What do you think? Does this law indicate that God loves men more or holds their role in higher esteem?

  13. Sarah, if you were writing the halacha, what would you counsel? Who gets saved first?

  14. I am not trying to change the halacha. I don't know what rule would be better. But if I were writing rules about saving people and I thought men's and women's contributions were equally valuable, I probably would not write a rule that says you always save the man if you have to choose between saving a man and woman. If their lives are equally valuable, the halacha could say to toss a coin or something.

  15. Sarah, if you were writing the halacha, what would you counsel? Who gets saved first?
    Why would we want a halacha for this? If Hashem loves everyone equally why create a priority order at all?

  16. I agree with Larry. If both genders are equally valuable, I would not expect to see one given priority in life-or-death cases.

  17. Just wondering, if the Torah is our guidebook on how to live, and we're looking for guidance in certain situations, why shouldn't it tell us how to prioritize in a life-or-death case? How else would we know what is the right choice? As I think the Torah teaches us there is right and wrong in pretty much every situation, I'd be looking there for direction.

    Saying that-- I think this is a fascinating situation- I am going now to look at the discussion that is referenced, because I can't wait to see what is said!!

  18. Okay - my husband just spent about 2 hours researching the sources on this, and here's what we came up with:

    1. Bohemiandoc is absolutely right. We desperately need guidance on life's major moral and ethical dilemmas. Leaving it to a coin toss sounds kind of barbaric. There's a story of a man who was asked to choose between two of his children in the Holocaust: only one could live, and the other would die. He did not know what to do and went mad from the indecision. God forbid that any of us should ever actually be in a situation of such terrible choice but I find it comforting that even in the most terrible of dilemmas, the Torah is there with guidance - even if my gender loses.

    2. That said, it's highly important to reference the context, as I alluded to above. The triage order mentioned in the source, which is based on a Mishna in Horiyos, lists about 8 scenarios - in about half, the woman is saved, and in about half the man is saved. Example of where woman is saved first: If both a man and woman are taken captive, the woman is ransomed first. Even with the man's money, and even if he's kicking and screaming, protesting this move. If you can explain to me why this is fair, I will explain why the drowning thing is fair.

    3. Man vs. woman is hardly the only triage dilemma referenced in the source. We also encounter Kohein vs. Levi, Kohein or Levi vs. a Yisrael (non Kohein or Levi), an illegitimate child who is a Torah scholar vs. a legitimate ignoramus... This is not a gender issue per se. There are many, many factors when it comes to triage and gender is but one factor among many. Are Levites denigrated, then? Illegitimate children? Of course not. Everyone has a role to play in the big picture. Again, the burden of proof is upon he who cries foul. So I challenge Anon, who mentioned this source, to explain why it is fair to triage a Kohein or a woman in other instances.

    Finally, I'd like to say that I think it is awfully cool that we are having this conversation with no vitriol and with respect. Woohoo!! We rock, people! We disagree, possibly vehemently, yet no vehemence is expressed. I think we belong in the Guiness Book of World Records.

    Thanks for helping me achieve my goal of meaningful, respectful, and honest conversation between Jews with different beliefs. :)

  19. The woman is only ransomed first if heterosexuality is the norm. This is the case because there is a fear that she will be raped. However, if homosexual norms are in place, the man is still ransomed first.

    A kohen is saved first because he has more commandments. This halacha (stemming from a mishna in Arachin) shows that the value of a person in Judaism is based on how many mitzvos he has. A kohen has more than a yisroel, so he is saved first. A man has more than a woman, so he is saved first ( except for one's mother). An adult is saved over a child.

    There's really no way around it. Women, in this analysis, lose out. They are not considered as valued as men.

    Lest you think that this halacha is antiquated, I have it on good authority that these rules are followed by first responders in crisis situations in Israel.

  20. Parenthetically I don't think halacha is ever antiquated.
    Anon, thanks for your response. Would you extend your logic then and agree with the following statement?
    "In Judaism, based on this teaching, children are less valued than adults."
    Do you not know many indications that children are incredibly special and precious in Judaism?
    My point? You are taking a leap of faith in assuming that the triage rules are connected to the private/public thing (they aren't) or that they are indicative of inherent worth in other arenas (they aren't).

  21. Ruchi, surely you agree that children can be incredibly precious and special, but still be second class citizens. And they most certainly are, not only in Judaism but in general society as well. I am not familiar with any system in which children are treated equal to adults.

    Similarly, even if women are precious and special and loved and valued, I do not think it is a myth that they /we are second class citizens in Judaism.

    Also, when I wrote antiquated, I meant "no longer applicable."

  22. In secular America, children are NOT second-class citizens. They run the show. :)
    Perhaps, Anon, we can... agree to disagree? As I do not believe we shall convince one another?

  23. Let me put things a little differently. The orthodox Jewish approach to gender takes as a given that just as there are physical differences between the genders there are spiritual differences as well. The consequences of these spiritual differences result in certain responsibilities (e.g., time bound mitzvot), roles (e.g., dayan (judge) and cohen (priest)), and lifestyle choices (e.g., full time torah study) being either optional or actually forbidden to women while they are available to men.

    As with all spiritual matters (IMVHO) these assertions are not subject to proof by logic alone, without the aid of revelation (through the Torah, both written and oral.) While they cannot be proven by unaided reason, they can be shown to be true to some people via life experience.

    Please note that men as well as women are restricted by the confines of these roles. Even if I am a stay at home single dad raising 3 kids, I still have to find time to daven 3 times a day, wear tefillin, live in a sukkah, hear the shofar, and so forth when a woman in exactly the same situation may skip all these things if she needs to.

    In conclusion I think that it is undeniable that Orthodox Judaism is a religion in which a person's gender plays a major role in defining who they are and what they can do. That in itself seems very odd and even unjust to 21st century western morality. But the typical Orthodox Jew gives 21st century western morality at best a voice, and not a very loud voice at that. It certainly does not have a veto.

  24. I just love, love, love your response! I have read a lot of good responses and explanations, but yours is the best! So well written and the explanations are just beatiful! As an Orthodox Jewish woman I can so relate to what you said. I also get a lot of questions from my non-orthodox friends and I have tried my best to explain. Thanks to your blog I will be able to do a better job :)


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