You shall surely appoint for yourself a king (Deut 17: 15)
Can a woman be elected as president of a synagogue? Can a woman serve as a judge in matters of halachic dispute? Can she function within a synagogue as a member of the clergy who responds to halachic questions posed by the congregants? These issues have raised some controversy, with the major source of the dispute and its resolution emanating from a verse in this week’s biblical reading.
The great sage and religio-legal decisor Maimonides (1135-1204) concludes his magnum opus Mishne Torah with the “Laws of Kings,” which includes statutes of governance a well as a vision of the period of universal messianic redemption, the goal of our entire religious and national covenantal enterprise. In the very first chapter, where he establishes the importance of a monarchy as opposed to anarchy, he adds: “It is improper to establish a woman as monarch, as the Bible states ‘You shall surely appoint for yourselves a king – a melech [male ruler] and not a malka [female ruler]” (Laws of Kings 1:5, 6).
This particular exclusion of a female monarch is indeed cited by the midrash, but then Maimonides adds a clause which is not to be found in our midrashic sources but which seems to be his own addition: “And similarly any appointment within Israel must be the appointment of a male and not a female.” He then goes on to write, “And we do not appoint – for the position of monarch or as high priest – a butcher, a barber, a bathhouse keeper, or a tanner, not because they are invalid by their very nature but rather because their professions are looked down upon (by society at large), and so the nation will denigrate their authority.”
Now this very last clause in Maimonides, which excludes certain professionals from being appointed king or high priest is cited in the Talmud (B.T. Kiddushin 82), with the reason for their exclusion being because “they do business with women”; it therefore would make sense for Maimonides to have extrapolated that women themselves ought certainly not be appointed to any office of authority since they would not enjoy the respect of the masses which such appointments would require.
From this perspective we can also understand Maimonides’ additions. If women were not respected members of society, then a woman ought not be appointed to any position of authority – not as a monarch, not as a judge, not as a member of synagogue clergy to decide halachic issues, not as an Attorney General, and not as a Principal of a School!
However, five times in the Talmud, the Tosafists (Ashkenazic authorities of the 11th to 13th centuries) bring up historical precedents which would seriously undermine the Maimonidean position: Was not Shlomzion HaMalka, the sister of Rav Shimon ben Shetah, the ruling monarch in Israel during the Second Commonwealth (76-67 BCE), with no recorded objection from the Sages and during a rare period when halacha truly ruled the Jewish state? And was not Deborah a judge in Israel, who sat beneath a tree rendering religio-legal judgments to her people? The Tosafists give various responses, including the position that woman have every right to judge – against the view of Maimonides – as well as the fact that Deborah was accepted by the people, and therefore as long as she was well-versed in the law she could render halachic decisions (see Tosafot Bava Kama 15a and Nida 50a). In fact, at least in one instance, the Mishna rules in accordance with a woman, Bruria, the wife of Rav Meir, against her father, Rav Hanina ben Teradyon.
The Mishpatei Uziel (a book of responsa by the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel) insists that Maimonides himself would accept this latter position. He merely excluded women from appointed positions lest the people not take feminine authority seriously; but were a woman to be elected – accepted as monarch by the people or as a judge by the litigants, she could certainly serve in those positions of authority.
Hence it would seem that there is certainly halachic room to permit a woman to be elected synagogue president and – if truly expert in the law – to be a member of synagogue clergy. Since, however, the main functions of a synagogue are the public prayers and public Torah readings – which women cannot lead in a service with men and women – I do not believe that a woman can serve as the sole rabbi of a synagogue; hence I would not give a woman the specific title of “Rabbi.” After all, in small synagogues the rabbi is often expected to serve as cantor and/or Torah reader, which are functions that a woman cannot halachically perform for the men in the congregation. Perhaps a more acceptable title might be Morah Rabbah, Great Leader, bearing in mind that the permission to give halachic leadership, or direction, is heter hora’ah, yoreh yoreh, from the same root.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.