On Shabbos I had the privilege of hearing Rav Shlomo Riskin speak, and one of the topics he addressed was the issue of women’s ordination. Listening to his address gave me a chance to get my own thoughts on the issue a little more in order and I want to share what he said as well as my own reflections. I think the issue can be broken into two or three subtopics, and I’m going to divide the posts accordingly. I don’t want to focus on the narrow issue of ordination alone, but more broadly on women taking a leadership position (Rabbi Riskin lumped them together as well), whether it be as a shul president or in some other capacity. This post will focus mainly on the Rishonim and halacha. The issue begins with the Rambam, who writes in Hil Melachim (1:5):
אין מעמידין אישה במלכות--שנאמר "מלך" (דברים יז,טו), ולא מלכה; וכן כל משימות שבישראל, אין ממנים בהם אלא איש.
Not only does the Rambam exclude a queen from ruling, but he excludes women from being appointed to any position of authority or dominion. The derasha “melech v’lo malka” is not found in the Talmud and the Rambam’ extension of that law to all appointments appears to be his own sevara. Yet, a Rambam is a Rambam, and were that the only source there would not be much to discuss.
However, as Rabbi Riskin noted, the Rambam is not only a tremendous chiddush, but is a da’as yachid as well. The Rishonim ask how Devorah could serve as a judge when the halacha tells us that only someone who can serve as a witness can serve as a judge, and a woman is precluded from serving as a witness. Among the answers:
1) The exclusion of an invalid witness from serving as a judge applies to men, not women (Tosfos Nidah 50).
2) There is a difference between imposed authority and Devorah’s authority, which was a product of consent of the people (Tosfos B”K 15).
3) Devorah taught halacha, but did not offer final judgment on cases (Nidah 50).
4) Devorah served as a leader (manhiga), not a king or judge (Rashba, Ran).
The difference between the first and third answer is that according to the first a woman may serve in any capacity of authority, even as judge, while according to the third a woman may serve in any capacity of authority except judge. Neither view fits with the Rambam’s exclusion of women from all positions of authority. It goes without saying that the fourth answer which reads “melech v’lo malka” and the exclusion of women from serving as a judges in a very narrow sense runs contrary to the Rambam. Finally, we have Tos’ distinction between authority that is imposed and authority based on consent, which the Rambam might agree with, and which practically opens the door to women filling most modern leadership positions – be it shul president or Rabbi – which are based on being elected or chosen by the tzibur. The Mishpetei Uziel (C.M. #6) has a nice review of these sources, and the acknowledgement of the Rambam as a minority view is noted by R’ Moshe Feinstein as well (Igros Moshe Y.D. II #45 ).
Rav Riskin mentioned a sevara of the Mishpetei Uziel that I did not find inside. The exclusion of women from positions of authority is not a psul gavra, but is based on the fact that in ancient society women would not have been accorded the respected deserved by a melech. Were the societal norma to change, the halacha would change as well. Rav Riskin seemed enamored by this sevara. I am less convinced that a nice sevara in the Rambam is enough to shape halacha (as the gemara puts it, mipnei she’nidmeh na’aseh ma’aseh?), but this is just icing on the cake given the previous collection of sources.
Rabbi Riskin concluded that the weight of the sources favors allowing women to serve in leadership roles and even being given a title. His only caveat was that a woman could not serve as the sole Rabbi in a small community where the Rabbi must also often serve as chazzan or ba'al korei. With respect to the question of serving in a leadership role, I don’t see (not that he needs my haskama) how you can argue otherwise, but I’m not sure whether these sources can truly be extended to cover even ordination, as ordination is not a position, but a title conferring a certain status. But leaving the question of title aside, there seems to be little reason (again, considering only the sources) that a woman cannot be hired to give shiurim, teach halacha, render halachic decisions, etc. in a formal capacity as part of a shul leadership staff. Yes, there is the Rambam, and why not be yotzei kol ha’deyos? Indeed, some have written that Rav Soloveitchik denied women the right to serve as synagogue board president based on this Rambam. I think it is unfair to foist such an approach on others. One cannot enforce being “yotzei kol hadeyos” on someone else’s cheshbon. If a tzibur feels that Plonis instead of Ploni would make a better leader and they wish to hang their halachic hat on the overwhelming majority of Rishonim who disagree with the Rambam, the benefit of trying to be “yotzei” the Rambam’s view may be outweighed by the cost to that tzibur in being forced to forgo the better candidate based on gender considerations alone. It seems to me that each situation in this regard needs to be judged on a case by case basis and cannot be covered by a single inflexible policy.
All that being said, I think if we were to stop here our analysis would be incomplete. Rabbi Riskin’s remarks, while halachically on the mark, I think did not fully do justice to the topic because they offer a legal (or halachic) answer to a sociological question, as we will discuss next part. Please hold your fire for now, unless it pertains directly to these sources.