For a consensus on rabbas, learn halachah

In the words of the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, ‘When all else fails, read the instructions’.


The most surprising feature of the Office of the Chief Rabbi’s recent statement in the Jewish Chronicle opposing women’s ordination was that it did not mention halachah. Instead it labelled women’s ordination as unacceptable because it lay “outside the consensus”. The Hebrew word halachah comes from the same root as ‘walking’ and ‘going’. We might regard it as an instruction-manual for Jewish life. And, while it often ends in community consensus, it begins with an examination of text, precedent and argument, from the Bible and rabbinic writing in the Talmud to commentaries, codes and responsa — real-life answers to questions posed to rabbis by their communities.

Halacha carries extraordinary capacity for change. In the words of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, the 20th century religious philosopher, it is “the bridge over which Torah moves from written word into living deed”. So what might it say today about women’s ordination?

The story — at least in recent times — begins with a discussion in the year 1919 in Israel about women’s suffrage. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, then Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, ruled that women should neither vote nor stand for office. Like the Office of the Chief Rabbi last month, he did not quote halachic sources but rested his claim instead on a general idea that the domain of women was in the home and that “the duty of fixed public service falls on men”.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, then Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, responded unequivocally that there was no halachic objection of any kind to women’s suffrage and that it was inconceivable that women be denied this personal right — if they were subject to the authority of the elected government, how could they be denied the right to vote? He then investigated the ruling of Maimonides, most-often-cited in discussion of women’s ordination, that all public appointments in Israel are to be made from men (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:5). This ruling is a minority opinion — it lacks talmudic sources and was never incorporated into the Shulhan Arukh — and Rabbi Uziel brought a number of alternative views before rejecting it, ruling that women could not only vote but could also stand for office.

We cannot re-read their correspondence today without noticing that the original controversy is dead and that the consensus is now clear. Today’s women vote. They occupy leadership positions in synagogues, Jewish schools, Jewish universities, and governments of Israel. In Israel and the USA they teach halacha and make halachic decisions. The Office of the Chief Rabbi’s statement itself declares, “our communities are stronger when led by both women and men”. Maimonides’s position has been rejected.

If women may now teach halacha and occupy leadership positions in our communities, might they be ordained as rabbis? Two more modern responsa — one written for the Orthodox Union in the USA and another written by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and the recipient of the Israel Prize for his work on the religious customs of the people of Israel — address this question.

The Orthodox Union’s argumentation parallels that of Rabbi Kook: while it cites the ruling of Maimonides that Rabbi Uziel analysed and rejected, halachic material directly-related to women’s ordination fills less than one of its seventeen pages.

Its focus instead is on the importance of tradition, continuity and gender-specific roles.

And, while it claims that Jewish tradition militates against the ordination of women, it does little to substantiate this claim, cherry-picking Talmudic sayings which follow its line but failing to acknowledge that the authentic tradition carries multiple, diverse voices, some of which disagree with its conclusions and many of which might be characterised today as ‘feminist’.

In contrast, Rabbi Sperber’s contribution reflects the style of Rabbi Uziel, citing dozens of halachic sources and historical precedents ranging from Tosafot, the 12th century Talmudic commentators who discuss Deborah the prophetess’s role as a female judge, to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the foremost American halachic authority of the 20th century who, like Rabbi Uziel, rejects Maimonides’s contention that women may not occupy positions of authority.

Rabbi Sperber’s defence of women’s ordination reads like the great rabbinic responsa of previous eras. While some may disagree, no-one can fail to recognise the gap between the weight of his arguments and those of his opponents.

What next? A new consensus can only emerge through disagreement and discussion, supported by the rabbinic literature. And, with much of the relevant material readily-available online in English (see the on-line version of this article for links), every member of a Jewish community in the UK could participate in the debate: studying the material, asking their rabbis to teach it, discussing it with friends, and inviting guest lecturers to present it in their communities.

In the words of the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, ‘When all else fails, read the instructions’.

Benedict Roth, an informal educator, is a member of Golders Green United Synagogue. His piece is dedicated to the memory of Joyce Gessler.

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