Female Orthodox Rabbis? We Already Have Them


The pressure on Orthodoxy for the ordination of women has been mounting for many years. Nowhere in the Torah does it say that women cannot be teachers of the Law; halacha merely precludes women’s judicial roles. Why is traditional Judaism so steadfastly opposed to women’s rabbinic leadership roles?

The job of a pulpit rabbi is multifaceted. He is a teacher, a pastor, a counselor, a preacher, a political advocate, a halachic advisor, a marketing executive, a shul director, a fundraiser, a life coach. Which of these roles would be a halachic obstacle to women’s involvement?  Many women could fulfill these roles just as successfully as men, if not better. The only role that stands out as a potential cause for concern is perhaps the halachic advisor. And interestingly, Orthodox women have already begun to enter this sphere with relatively minor opposition. The positions of toenet (advocate) and yoetzet (advisor) are fast achieving widespread approval and approbation.

While there are clearly rabbinic roles that are judicial in nature and problematic for women from a Torah perspective, the average pulpit rabbi rarely acts in such a capacity. He is not a dayan (judge), almost never attending to Beth Din (legal) matters. He is not a posek (halachic authority), posing most major questions to experts in the field, or referring the inquirer to the expert. For most rabbis, their halachic rulings extend only so far as the knowledge of basic everyday decisions, the likes of which are accessible to any learned individual with the capacity to open up and understand a Mishna Berura.

Given the apparent lack of halachic difficulty with women serving in a rabbinic capacity, why then has mainstream Orthodoxy not opened the doors of the rabbinate to women? 

The answer is that it already has. Orthodox women have served in the rabbinate for centuries, if not millennia. They have a unique title – rebbetzin, or rabbanit. The role of rebbetzin has traditionally encompassed many of these duties – pastoring, counseling, teaching, advising. In traditional Judaism, the rabbinic role has both masculine and feminine aspects. And that is why no serious shul will employ a rabbi without a rebbetzin. In fact, most shuls today insist on the rebbetzin being present throughout the interviewing and hiring process. She is not merely the first lady; she is an integral part of the spiritual leadership of the community. 

Contemporary viewpoints calling for the complete equality of men’s and women’s roles in every facet of life fail to recognize the unique contributions that women and men have to make. The problem lies not in women’s lack of traditional involvement in the rabbinate; the issue is that many of her traditional roles have been taken over by men.  Women, as nurturers, often have a greater capacity as pastors and counselors. And yet, the institutionalization of the rabbinic role and the contemporary mistaken view that only one person is the rabbi of the shul have pushed men into roles that they may be less capable of performing than women spiritual leaders. This does not mean that men should not be involved in pastoral work. Rather, it means that we must recognize the important contributions that women have to make in this area and never take them for granted.

Which aspects of the rabbinate are closed to women? Not even preaching – most Modern Orthodox shuls today invite female guest lecturers to address the congregation. True, they do not speak in the middle of the service, but that is a minor amendment that could be made – how about both men and women speak at the end of the service to avoid differentiation?  As it turns out, most rabbinic duties not only may hypothetically be performed by women; indeed, they already are.

The big question is how a woman may pursue a rabbinic career, short of marrying an ordained man? There are a number of ways to remedy this issue. One is to extend the limits of the title ‘rabbi’ and recognize that it is not synonymous with rov. A rov is someone who paskens, or determines halacha. While certainly there are some outstanding rabbonim and for certain shuls that is an absolute prerequisite for the position, it is not the realm of most contemporary Orthodox rabbis. A rabbi is not a rov.

The thought of an Orthodox woman ‘rabbi’ probably remains an inadequate solution, given the longstanding association with the title. In addition, despite the usage of the term ‘rov’ since Talmudic times, the fact is that we do find earlier in our history – during the Mishnaic era – that ‘rabbi’ was the title of preference. Thus, a second solution would be to elevate the title of ‘rebbetzin’ and recognize that this has always been a rabbinic designation. The rebbetzin already serves in a rabbinic capacity; she is essentially a female rabbi. If that is the case, then following a period of study and examination, why not qualify women as certified rebbetzins or rabbanits? In a similar vein, a yeshiva day-school first-grade male teacher magically earns the title ‘rabbi,’ independent of ordination status. In contrast, the female teacher is known as ‘morah’ (teacher). Why does she not become ‘rebbetzin’ by virtue of her role? 

Proponents of women’s ordination would probably find the ‘rebbetzin’ solution unsatisfying, given the longstanding association with that title. Thus, the only solution remaining is to invent a new term for women serving in the Orthodox rabbinate. That term might be maharat, it might be rabba, or it might be something else. The point is current opponents to Orthodox female clergy have failed to understand that women have always served in the rabbinate, albeit primarily in partnership roles together with their husbands. In an age when women are encouraged to pursue all manner of career path, independent of marital status, there is no good reason to deny them an independent role in the rabbinic field. We are only depriving ourselves of the potential leadership roles of a significant percentage of our community. 

Would Orthodox communities accept women rabbis, even if they were officially called rebbetzins or an alternative title? Some would, some would not. Many female graduates might end up in more pastoral lines of rabbinic work, such as chaplaincy.   But the first step is that we, as a community, recognize the important contribution that women have to make, and allow them the opportunity to qualify to serve in a rabbinic capacity.

For starters, shuls must openly acknowledge that they are hiring a rabbinic couple, and let the couple determine – in consultation with the synagogue leadership – who is to fulfill which rabbinic duties.  

There is nothing in halacha that excludes women from the rabbinate. Ultimately, however, we need both sides to compromise.  Opponents of women’s ordination must accept that women have always served in the rabbinate; and proponents of women’s ordination need to be sensitive to the psychological, sociological, and historical implications of the rabbinic title. Most importantly, it is high time we recognized the spiritual partnership that leads Jewish communal life and allow rabbinic couples to decide whether he or she will play the more active role.

(This article was inspired by my wife, Rabbanit Batya’s recent participation in the Rebbetzin Esther Rosenblatt Yarchei Kallah, under the guidance of Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter and Rebbetzin Meira Davis of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.)

Daniel Friedman is rabbi of the Beth Israel Synagogue in Edmonton, Canada.