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Women, Modern Orthodoxy And Communal Leadership


The latest round in the broader canvas of debates about the approach of Modern Orthodoxy to the role of women in communal life has focused on the issue of learned Orthodox women receiving some form of rabbinic ordination and serving as rabbis or clergy.

This has been coupled with teasing out the appropriate parameters of women serving as spiritual leaders in synagogues, in some way equivalent to male rabbis (without that actual title being used). Those in favor of pushing the frontiers forward on substance and titles have made it clear they accept the limitations of the restrictions of normative halacha, such as a woman not being able to lead the congregation in chazarat hashatz or serving as a witness for a kiddushin at a marriage ceremony.

The most substantive halachic argument generally put forward against women receiving some form of rabbinic ordination and serving as spiritual leaders in synagogues is the import of the Rambam’s famous ruling on serarah. In Hilchot Melachim 1:5, he maintains that not only are women excluded from serving as king in a halachic state, but all positions of serarah – communal authority – are barred to women.

Many commentators have noted that it is difficult to find an explicit source in our standard texts of midreshei halacha and Talmud for this far reaching position. (Such a view is found in one version of the Sifrei discovered in the Cairo Geniza.)

Indeed, as many halachic scholars of the past and present (e.g., Rav Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, YD II: 44) have noted, the Rambam’s position seems to be rejected by a good number of rishonim and is not cited as normative halacha in subsequent halachic codes such as the Shulchan Aruch.

Even if one is careful to work within the Rambam’s parameters, it is still critical to clarify what exactly is included under the rubric of serarah. Should it be understood broadly to refer to almost any communal position of authority or status, whether it involves an appointment by fiat or an elected position, as well as whether or not it involves coercive power?

Many rabbinic scholars have taken that expansive point of view. They therefore would feel that almost any position of communal authority should be barred to women. In this paradigm a woman serving as president of a shul or as a rabbi of a synagogue (or a principal of a girls school with authority to hire and fire male faculty) would raise halachic problems.

Other rabbinic scholars, however, have taken a much more limited reading of the Rambam and maintain that the definition of communal serarah (and thus the subsequent restriction) should be limited to those communal positions of authority that truly mimic the kingship model. In this paradigm, only positions that are imposed on the populace with some absolute powers would fall under the Rambam’s categories of serarah. Therefore, a rabbi of a synagogue hired by election and fired at the will of the congregation and board would clearly not fall into the category of some inappropriate position of authority, even according to the Rambam.

Other authorities of note have pointed to the concept of kaballah – communal acceptance – as obviating the restriction of the Rambam. This view of kabbalah as trumping the restriction of serarah is a position that is adopted by a number of contemporary rabbinic scholars.

Many significant Modern Orthodox poskim (though not all) have taken the lenient position over the last century on issues such as women’s suffrage and election to serve in high office or as president of a shul or a member of a religious council. Indeed, to my knowledge, a number of women have served as presidents of Orthodox synagogues.

Mori verabi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, in a conversation with former students currently serving in the rabbinate and Jewish education, recently discussed this halachic issue. He noted that it is clear the dati-leumi/Modern Orthodox community and its rabbinic elite have clearly come down in favor of a more narrow reading of the Rambam’s restriction.

He pointed to the fact that for the past two decades religious women have run for Knesset as candidates of dati-leumi religious parties across the board and some have served as members of parliament. In addition, a few have served as ministers in coalition governments with the approval (despite an occasional rumble here and there) of the rabbinic leadership of those parties. These have included scholars such as R. Avraham Shapira zt”l, R. Mordechai Eliyahu, Rav Yaakov Ariel and others.

R. Lichtenstein stated that a member of parliament and certainly a government minister are often involved in coercive legislation or votes on budgets involving tens of millions of shekels or issues of war and peace. This position is clearly more of a serarah than any shul rabbi or president. He thus felt that, certainly in Israel, the Modern Orthodox community has taken the position that the expansive reading of the Rambam, limiting women’s roles, is not the normative ruling. (It should be noted that R. Lichtenstein’s own wife, Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, ran for Knesset in 1988 as a candidate for the Meimad party headed then by Rav Yehuda Amital.)

In this context I would also add a question of halachic methodology and consistency that needs to be examined in this as in many other halachic issues. There are many communal voices that, despite the existence of opinions against the Rambam’s view or severely restricting its contemporary application, take the position that we should be stringent for the view of Rambam (in its expansive reading).

I’ve always wondered why, on this specific issue, the “Rambam’s position” is the only one that should be entertained communally.

There are many other opinions of the Rambam’s – some of them quite central to his worldview – that much of the Orthodox community seems to have no problem neutralizing or ignoring because other views exist.

Two examples of the myriad one can cite:

1. Many of the communal rabbis or activists who cite the Rambam on serarah do not hesitate to allow their communities to use standard communal eruvin, in their own neighborhoods and all over the world. According to Rambam’s view, almost all our eruvin are not kosher as they have more than a ten-amot gap between eruv posts.

2. Rambam maintains that receiving money for learning Torah is a chillul Hashem (the worst sin possible in his hierarchy of sin in Hilchot Teshuvah). Yet the haredi, Modern Orthodox, dati-leumi, and hardal worlds not only neutralize the binding nature of Rambam’s position on this matter, they trumpet the existence of various kollelim as the pinnacle of their educational infrastructure.

In all these instances, of course, there are other rishonim who take issue with Rambam, or there are acharonim who limit the Rambam and attempt to show that even he would agree in this or that situation (sometimes more convincingly, sometimes much less so). In many instances, acharonim attempt to show that because of pressing need or another countervailing Torah value, we need to be lenient and not only look to the Rambam’s view as dispositive.

In a word, through the give and take of halacha, the analysis of the social realities and religious needs of the community, and the weighing of other Jewish and ethical values, this or that position of the Rambam’s does not become the final word in the living, practicing reality of the committed community.

Thus, the simple statement that “we should be stringent for shitat ha-Rambam” is far from simple. The question has to be evaluated on a much broader canvas of potentially countervailing legitimate Torah needs, halachic values and spiritual directions that may point us to look to other views besides the restrictive reading of a particular Rambam.

About the Author: Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is chair of the departments of Tanach and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School; is on the faculty of SAR High School; and is spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, New Jersey.


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