The Hard Reality of Women Orthodox Rabbis

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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 Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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