The Role Of Women In Orthodox Judaism

Rabbi Michael Broyde discusses this issue and Jewish law.

Joseph Kaplan comments on Hirhurim: As always. R. Broyde’s clear and rigorous analysis is extremely helpful, certainly to me, in thinking through important issues, and we should be grateful to him for allowing Gil to share this analysis with us.

One question that I have about his analysis relates to the question of motive/sincerity. People are complex and they often do things for complex reasons. In this area, for example, a woman may want to be a shul president (to take a particular issue R. Broyde mentions) because (a) she believes as a general principle that woman should be allowed to perform in the public arena to the best of their abilities on an equal par and in the same way as men, (b) she believes that there is no halachic impediment to her doing so, and (c) her talents are such that her being president will be a true service to the Jewish community at large and the particular halachic community of which she is a part, and will thus be a true part of her avodat Hashem. Is this a sincere motive, non-sincere, or mixed? And if it is mixed, how do we parse out the different elements?

It seems to me that the issue of motive/sincerity is a very difficult and tricky one, and may sometimes say more about the rabbi who is deciding the issue presented than the woman/women involved in it. I would be interested in some additional explanation or guidance of how R. Broyde would deal with this aspect of his analysis.

MYCROFT WRITES: It would appear that Rabbi Broyde is downplaying the importance of tradition. On a purely halachik issue it is atleast possible that a women could lead Kabbalat Shabbat in schul-it is not Tfilah, there is nothing bikdusha so why not? Or onYizkor which also has no minyan required let a women lead the service-there is no halacha against it. Both could be led by a monkey. But I submit that the Rav would not have tolerated such behavior in a schul because of tradition-women leading any parts of what appears to be a service have no place in a schul
One can’t overestimate the importance of minhagim and accepted behavior to the Rav.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: The Rav didn’t seem too thrilled about women wearing tallit and tefillin, which is certainly a mitzvah.

SETH GORDON POSTS: My first reaction to the essay was surprise and disappointment that it even had to be written; why don’t rabbis consider the halakhic angle first as a matter of course? Isn’t that what they were trained to do?

Is this a consequence of the modern tendency for poskim to make decisions that are yotzei kol de’os instead of picking one shita and standing behind it?

FRIEND POSTS: Following up on Joseph Kaplan’s comment, a fairer judgment is that the hypothetical individual’s only MOTIVIATION is "(C)," her belief that "her talents are such that her being president will be a true service to the Jewish community at large and the particular halachic community of which she is a part, and will thus be a true part of her avodat Hashem." Just as this hypothetical individual views item "(B)," the absence of a halchic impediment, as just that — the absence of an impediment, not an affirmative motivation — the fairer articulation of her "feminist" sentiments in item "(A)" is likely also a mere absence of impediment — "she believes as a general principle that there is no reason that women should not be allowed to perform in the public arena to the best of their abilities on an equal par and in the same way as men."

An analogy: I believe that Jews should be eligible for any public office in the United States. If I choose to run for public office, however, my motivation is not to make that point, but, rather, to get elected.

REUVEN POSTS: n my experience it is not the "equality" that many women are looking for, rather it is the notion that they have relatively little to do in terms of active performance in their religious lives. They no longer want to be bystanders, and prefer a more active role.

It is more personal and not motivated by feminine equality.

I line up, usually, on the Right side of the issue, but it just seems that the root of the problem is that many women yearn to have an active, participatory religious life, and many feel our current state does not fulfill that yearning.


I am in the middle of reading David Gelernter’s eloquent new book, Judaism: A Way of Being. From what I understand, the core of this book is in a series of essays the author published in Commentary a few years ago.

One chapter addresses the following questions:

  • Isn’t normative or Orthodox Judaism inherently anti-woman, insofar as its public ceremonies are conducted by males?
  • Assuming we reject the idea that women are in any way inferior, aren’t we forced to make basic changes in Judaism?

His discussion is profound and provocative. Later in the chapter, he addresses specifically the issue of women rabbis. Here are some of his thoughts. Note that his discussion is not about the strictly halakhic issues. They have already been addressed on this blog and in my book, although there is always room for further discussion.

Here is a relevant excerpt from Gelernter’s book (pp. 109-111):

Still, the nonexistence of female rabbis in normative Judaism has unquestionably taken on (for some women) the force of tragedy. Judaism can sympathize but can’t do anything about it: if you create woman rabbis, you not only break the law, you break the poetry. And law and poetry are all there is…

Times change. But people don’t go to synagogue to study social trends… Those who long to keep religion up to date miss the point. Religious practices do change, but must be moved as slowly and gently as a brimful glass of wine. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai tells us in a midrash not to change our ancestors’ customs, and cites: "Remove not the ancient boundary stones, which thy fathers have set up" (Proverbs 22:28). Rabbi Yohanan agrees, and cites a different verse: "Heed the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother" (Proverbs 1:8).

The woman who yearns to be a rabbi resembles the openly practicing homosexual who wants the same thing. Both cases suggest a man who yearns to be a hazzan but lacks the ear or voice for it, or hopes to be a rosh yeshiva (the head of a yeshiva is an honored leader of the community ex officio) but lacks the temperament or brains, or wants to be a poet but has nothing to say. In none of these cases can Judaism wave a wand and make the obstacles disappear. Opportunities and limitations are innate in who you are; accepting that fact is one of the stiffest trials of growing up…

In the end, such issues have little to do with Judaism and much to do with character and personality. In Persuasion, Jane Austen describes a woman who had once been rich, married, and happy but is now, though still young, a poor and ailing widow. She ought to be miserable but isn’t. She has been given every reason but has declined them all. "Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of heaven."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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