Monday, July 26, 2010

Rabbi Riskin on women's ordination

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.


  1. As I recall, he suggested a slightly different title than rabba. I think it was Morah Rabba or something like that, which would stress recognition as an authority of knowledge and teaching.

    The Brisker terms and a bekisha -- almost enough to win you over!

  2. I didn't catch the title clearly. I heard something-Rabbah also.

  3. Anonymous8:03 PM

    Wait he wears a bekisha!? not a frock?

  4. In your answers you forgot that Devorah was a prophetess. So if G-D tells you that she is the leader, then she is the leader for however long G-D declares it for. And if you want to tell me lo bashamayim hee. The Rambam tells us that a prophet, or prophetess, has the ability to suspend a halacha for a time, as long as it is not a permanent suspension. See the Rambam's introduction to the Mishnayos for this idea.

  5. I don't really see the area for discussion - the reason we don't eat giraffe is because we don't have a mesorah for it - that's all (quoting Rabbi Reisman).

    If the lack of a mesorah is enough to declare treifus, (or at least abstinence,) why is this any different? (me)

  6. 1. Definitely a bekeshe.

    2. One of Tos. answers is that Devorah was appointed by the Shechina.

    3. There are halachos that are dependent upon mesorah. For example, the Beis haLevi did not wear techeiles because techeiles must be identified through a mesorah, not logical or empirical proof (See the essay on Mesorah by R' Soloveitchik in Shiurum l'Zecher Aba Mari). The halacha of who can serve as a leader does not fall into this basket. Lo ra'inu eino ra'aya.

  7. Anonymous1:40 PM

    Rabbi Riskin's presentation is a bit inaccurate. The View of the Rambam is preumably based on a Sifrei with a different Girsa. It turns out that there are other editions of the Sifrei. There is an edition of the Sifrei which is called Mahdurat Finkelshtein, and also there is a similar quote in the Aptowitzer edition of the Pesikta which starts off like ours: "שום תשים עליך מלך, מלך ולא מלכה". However, it then continues – "אין ממנים האשה פרנסת על הציבור". So clearly the Aptowitzer Pesikta and The Finkelstein Sifrei and other cognate texts, like the Midrash HaGadol, actually have a reading similar to that of the Rambam.

    The Rambam is not a Da'at Yahid and the Ritva rules like him as well.

    It is true that a community does not have to go le-khol ha-de'ot, but it should think twice before it seriously risks creating fault lines and cleavage in klal yisrael.

  8. Aryeh Frimer1:51 PM

    The Reader is referred to two recent related articles:
    “Women in Community Leadership Roles – Shul Presidents,” by Aryeh A. Frimer, "Text and Texture" of the Rabbinical Council of America (June 2, 2010) - available online at

    “The View of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l on the Ordination of Women,” by Aryeh A. Frimer, "Text and Texture" of the Rabbinical Council of America (June 26, 2010); available online at

  9. 1. On the sources for the Rambam, to cite the Frimer article you refer to, "Now, there’s a big debate about these alternate readings, whether they were put in because of the Rambam, or that this is the source of the Rambam." In any event, this is a theoretical question. A sevara of the Rambam itself is enough of a source to tilt the scales halacha l'ma'aseh were there not other views.

    2. Which Ritva are you referring to?

    3. Two notes on the Frimer piece regarding the Rav's position: A) With respect to the Rama in Y.D. 1:1, others learn pshat differently (e.g. see GR"A on the spot); B) With respect to the general issue, the fact that the Rav took the Rambam seriously is unsurprising, but his decision does not bind others to follow suit.

    4. As for the issue of machlokes, see next post. That falls under the heading of political/sociological concerns. In this post I was looking at the issue purely through the lens of gemara/rishonim. I don't mean to minimize the seriousness of the point; it's just how I organized things.

    5. Question which I think needs careful thought: All things being equal, there is a fair argument to be made that deference should be paid to the Rambam's view. That being said, can one really castigate a congregation/Rabbi who chooses to act otherwise (on the basis of the other views) as being beyond the boundaries of Orthodoxy?

  10. Anonymous3:57 PM

    Point 1. Correct, as as Rav Moshe points out, though most who cite him ignore this comment.

    Point 2. Hiddushei Ha-Ritva, Shevuot 30a s.v. shevu'at. He cites the Sifrei exactly as does the Rambam: ve-khen li-she'ar mesimot

    Point 3. See last Paragraph im Frimer article.

    Point 5. One can castigate a community for attempting to irresponsibly push the envelope. Klal Yisrael is not yet ready for this change. Nor are the Gedolei Yisrael. As you point out, the establishment of the Beis Yaakov schools was a totally different story.