The Orthodox Position on Women Rabbis

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



The Reaction of the Orthodox Jewish Community to the Ordination of Female Rabbis


   While the ordination of women rabbis was at first entirely ignored by the orthodox (straight belief) Jews, who resist women in the clergy, it has been noted and disputed by that community after the conservative movement also ordained women. The reason for this change in perception is that Reform Jews are not considered Jewish at all by the orthodox so that anything they do is given no notice. When, however, the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary ordained the first woman rabbi, Amy Eilberg, in 1985, the orthodox community not only took notice but protested vehemently. The orthodox now accused the Conservatives of seeking to next ordain non-Jews because they believed that the Conservatives had entered upon a path of a gradual movement toward the Reform community. This seems to them to be the case because in 1955 women were first allowed to read the Hebrew Torah (Bible) in public; in 1978 women were first counted as a quorum of ten worshippers. Among the orthodox and earlier among the Conservatives a required quorum for public worship consisted only of men.  Then in 1974 women were allowed to be witnesses before a Conservative Jewish court of law, a practice utterly prohibited among the orthodox.

    The orthodox community denies that women are treated in an unequal manner despite the separation of the sexes during synagogue services in that women must sit in a balcony or behind a partition so as not to be seen by the men on the main floor of the synagogue. The argument by the orthodox community is that women have a different but nevertheless equally important role to play as men.  Household chores, particularly concerning “kosher” of ritually pure food, is such a female issue, and is considered most important by orthodox Jews, as is child rearing and the preparations for the Sabbath.

    Nevertheless, this rejection of women as rabbis and therefore as unequal can be challenged from Scripture itself. First there is Genesis 1:26, which holds that each person, not only the man, is created in the image of God. Then there is Joshua 1:8, which commands that “you shall study it day and night”, meaning the Torah or Bible. By “you” is meant everyone, not only men. Both of these texts can, of course, be negated by pointing to Genesis 3:16, which tells women that their husband shall “rule over you”. Then there is another source of dispute. While orthodoxy denied for centuries that women could study and comprehend the Torah and the Talmud (Learnings) it is now proved that women can in fact be experts in both, as there are female Talmud and Torah scholars in Israel and in the United States.

   The orthodox Jewish community lives by Jewish law, which has traditionally created a number of disabilities for Jewish women. This may be seen in the wedding ceremony, in which the husband places a ring on the finger of the bride or gives her a coin saying: “You are sanctified to me by this ring according to the Laws of Moses and Israel.” The bride makes no such pronouncement in traditional Jewish law but is passive throughout the ceremony. A second example of the disabilities placed on Jewish women by traditional Jewish law is the status of “agunah”. An “agunah” is a woman deserted but not divorced from her husband. According to Jewish law, only men can get a divorce. However, later practice has altered this position, so that  divorce requires the consent of both parties  Therefore neither woman nor man can get a divorce if deserted and therefore cannot marry again. It is true that a man deserted by his wife would be in the same position and could not remarry. Nevertheless, this law usually operated against the interests of women, who were far more often deserted by husbands than vice versa. Furthermore, Jewish law allows a husband to force a divorce upon his wife. A woman cannot force a man to give her a divorce.

   Traditionally, at the death of a husband, the wife does not become the guardian of her children. Instead, a rabbinic court can appoint a man to be the children’s guardian. Also, at the death of a husband, Jewish law does not consider the wife the legal heir, although at the death of a wife, the husband inherits all of her property.  Daughters cannot inherit the property of their deceased fathers because only sons inherit such property.

    Jewish law provides that a man can divorce a wife who has become insane. A wife, however, cannot divorce a husband by reason of insanity. There are numerous other disabilities imposed on women by Jewish law. In sum, all of these disabilities are upheld by “Torah true” Jews, so that the notion of a woman rabbi is abhorrent to those who cling to these beliefs.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Fraud (2007).

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