Why United Synagogue women can chair their synagogue

A look at the halachic issues behind the United Synagogue’s decision to let women become chairmen of congregations


Many years ago, my elderly aunt was desperate to know why so many of her friends were abandoning the United Synagogue and defecting to Reform communities. Hearing that the head of the Reform Movement would be speaking at a public meeting, she went along to pose her question: “How are you enticing so many Orthodox Jews to join your movement?”. The speaker did not hesitate; “We don’t offer them anything”, he said, “We just sit back and wait for the United Synagogues to send them over to us”.

In those days, the US was often perceived as anachronistic, insensitive and unspiritual. This was most apparent in its exclusion of women, which drove many Jews away from Orthodoxy and in some cases from Judaism altogether.

Since then, much has changed. The US is headed by a Chief Rabbi who is universally recognised as a brilliant religious leader, it has invested in outreach and revamped its educational provision, creating a powerful religious movement.

Old halachic questions are also being revisited, most dramatically in last week’s announcement that women will now be able to stand for election to the highest positions of local lay leadership.

The idea that women were not eligible for high office was based on a biblical verse discussing the type of government that the Jewish people should establish when they conquered the Land of Israel. The Torah tells us “You shall surely set a king over yourselves” (Deuteronomy 17: 15). A midrash suggests that the text is deliberately gender specific : “You shall set over yourselves a king, but not a queen”. This position was adopted by Maimonides, who extends the prohibition to include any other position of
power (Laws of Kings I: 8). For generations, this remained the mainstream position of traditional Jewish communities, but with the rise of feminism, there was pressure for change.

When in 1918, the Jewish Agency granted women the right to vote and hold office, many leading rabbis such as Rav Kook, Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen and Rabbi Grodzinski opposed the decision. At a time when the Western world was adopting women’s suffrage, our religious world was still largely opposed.

But among scholars, the discussions continued. In October 1931, Rabbi Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg, one of the great rabbinic authorities of the 20thcentury conceded that there was no halachic bar to women being elected to the heads of communities, but since there was a consensus that it was not modest or appropriate, he felt that there should be no change in public policy. In a later response of 1960, he suggested that the matter must be left to work itself out. His pragmatic response followed a private letter in which he pointed out that while the scholars of the ultra-Orthodox world opposed women’s suffrage, in Israeli elections even ultra-Orthodox women vote.

Since then, the debate has centred on what constitutes a position of power. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein pointed out that while one might think that kashrut supervisors carry the power to decide what we can eat and drink, ultimately they are subservient to their employers. Once a person is answerable to others, they no longer hold “forbidden power — serrara”. On this basis, he permitted a woman to serve in that role.

Similarly, Rabbi Uzziel, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, of Israel argued that while female dictators may be prohibited, such cases have no relevance to our times. A woman can be democratically elected to any position. This idea finds precedent among medieval scholars, who argued that Deborah the Judge was able to exercise power because she was acceptable to the community.

The great challenge of religious leadership is balancing the need to clasp firmly to timeless religious principles with ensuring that our religion is relevant to the lives of its practitioners. Making changes to this sensitive equilibrium requires people of stature with the scholarship and courage to weigh up the competing claims of gung-ho modernisers and stubborn conservatives.

Feminism was once seen as a revolutionary threat to traditional societies but now many of its arguments have been adopted by the mainstream of the western world. Injustices still exist, but the principles that women should be educated to the same degree as men, hold equally high level positions and be paid an equal wage are normative and non-negotiable among our congregants.

Twelve years ago, the London Beth Din ruled that women could stand as vice-chairmen of their synagogues. My community of Radlett became the first to elect a woman under these new regulations. I had the privilege of working with two outstanding vice-chairmen, Gill Stella and Anne Marie Cooklin, each of whom brought exceptional professionalism, commitment and dynamism to the community. Common sense, halachah, and integrity ensured that the highest standards of modesty were preserved at all times.

No one is imposing women chairmen on our synagogues and different communities can vote for different styles of leadership. Still, the recognition by the Chief Rabbi, the Beth Din and the president of the US that excluding women from community leadership drives people away from traditional Judaism is surely correct. They also point out that for a woman to chair a local US community does not involve the sort of “serrara, forbidden power” that would contravene halachah. In these circumstances, even those who are ambivalent about the changes must agree that it is right to follow halachic opinions which will empower women to express their talents within our communities and secure the future of mainstream Orthodoxy in Britain.

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