It’s time for Orthodox women rabbis, scholar contends

Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a Talmudic studies professor at Bar-Ilan University, said nothing in Jewish law prohibits women from serving as rabbis. Photo by Dan Schere.

If Orthodox Jews could welcome the use of electricity in the 19th century, why can’t they allow women to become rabbis in the 21st?

It was a rhetorical question Rabbi Daniel Sperber pondered last week at Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, in Washington. Sperber, professor of Talmudic studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, argued that Orthodox women rabbis should become as common as the incandescent lightbulb because rabbinic Judaism has always embraced changing norms of society.

The essence of Halachah, or Jewish law and tradition, “is one of continuous innovation,” he told 70 people at the Modern Orthodox synagogue on June 21. “And it has to be because no one is living 2,000 years ago or 1,000 years ago.”

Sperber, a longtime advocate for allowing women serve as Orthodox rabbis, spoke three days after attending the ordination ceremony at Yeshivat Maharat, which ordains women as Orthodox clergy.

Ohev Sholom is one of four Orthodox Union-affiliated congregations in the United States to employ a female clergy. The OU has several times upheld a ban on female rabbis, but ruled earlier this year that OU-member synagogues already employing female clergy are exempt from penalties.

Jewish tradition never explicitly bars women from being rabbis, Sperber said. But there is a verse in the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:15) that states a community may appoint a king if it sees fit, and rabbinic authorities have interpreted that to mean only men, due to the word “king.”

The medieval scholar Maimonides later expanded the concept of a king to include any male leader that had authority over the community, including a spiritual leader, Sperber said. Since then, Maimonides’ ruling has served as the template for a section of Jewish law that states only men may serve as rabbis.

But Sperber said that argument is irrelevant, because Jewish law does not forbid any ritual simply because it was not done in the past.

“We are not breaking tradition [by ordaining women],” he said. “We are not undermining tradition. We are enriching tradition.”

Sperber pointed to the use of electricity and the more recent support for stem cell research as examples of advances that Orthodox Jews have embraced through the years. A similar welcoming should be extended to female clergy, he said.

“There can’t be a mechitzah between what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in our small halachic ghetto,” he said, referring to the separation barrier between men and women in Orthodox synagogues.

So why the resistance in the Orthodox community? asked a congregant.

Because, Sperber said, people for whom tradition is important have a hard time adjusting to change. That’s particularly true of male rabbis, he said. Putting women in the same positions of power as men, he said, can make some male rabbis feel their authority is being undermined.

“Suddenly you have the [male] establishment, which is no longer the unique authority,” he said. “That is something very troubling” to some male rabbis, “and it is very understandable” that they are troubled.

Listening to Sperber was Maharat Ruth Friedman, the congregation’s female clergy. Friedman was in the first
graduating class at Yeshivat Maharat. She said Sperber’s outspokenness has opened doors for Orthodox women to serve in clergy positions, adding, “Without him I wouldn’t be here.”

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