Three Approaches to Women’s Issues

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While the Rabba issue has more or less been resolved, it is has revealed tensions in our community that are quickly reaching a boiling point. As people have pointed out, the controversy seemed to be only about a change in title. While I think the title has halakhic ramifications (as discussed here: link), I also think that there was more to the controversy. It was not just about titles.

The Bible (1 Samuel 1:25) writes about Shmuel: “And they slaughtered the ox and they brought the youth to Eli.” What is the connection between the two parts of the verse? The Gemara (Berakhos 31b) fills in the story. Eli, the high priest, had asked his assistants to find a kohen to slaughter the sacrifice. Shmuel, the precocious youth brought to study under the mentorship of Eli, protested that even an Israelite may slaughter a sacrifice. The sacrificial rites that require a kohen begin only after slaughtering the animal. Therefore, Eli did not have to search for a kohen. Eli responded that Shmuel was technically correct but was wrong to offer his opinion in front of his master. This enigmatic story contains, I believe, important lessons about the role of women in today’s Orthodox community.

I see in the community that self-identifies as Orthodox three general approaches to women’s issues:

  1. Status Quo – It ain’t broke so don’t fix it. If there was a communal emergency, then this group would advocate making appropriate changes in order to preserve the tradition. But since we are apparently (thankfully) lacking such a crisis, there is no need to make any changes. Most within this group, however, allow for organic changes that occur without fanfare — e.g. rebbetzins teaching a little more prominently, women gathering on their own to recite Tehillim. These are evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes that lack the agenda and rhetoric of communal upheaval.
  2. Deepening Roles – The search for expanded roles for women who have acquired the knowledge and skills to contribute to the Jewish community. This group is looking for ways in which women can achieve greater spiritual fulfillment and contribute to the community without offending tradition. They try to deepen existing roles and/or create new roles, rather than move women into roles traditionally held only by men.
  3. Halakhic Egalitarianism – The desire to make the roles of men and women as equal as possible within the parameters of halakhah. Some within this group are willing to utilize minority opinions or unusual strategies to set aside specific halakhic considerations in order to reach their goal (e.g. asserting that respect for women — kevod ha-beriyos — overrides rabbinic restrictions).

Why did Eli want to use specifically a kohen for slaughtering the sacrifice? Commentators (e.g. Rashash in his Glosses, ad loc.) explain that Eli certainly knew that an Israelite may slaughter a sacrifice. However, he preferred to use a kohen for a good reason — perhaps he had confidence that a kohen was properly trained or some other reason. Shmuel wanted to change that. In making such a demand, Shmuel committed two errors — 1) he attempted to override a legitimate restriction even if it was not based on the strict law, and 2) he did not recognize his place in the rabbinic hierarchy (Tosafos state that Eli was the Torah giant of his generation, the Gedol Ha-Dor).

Personally, I side with Eli and the Status Quo. That is where my background, temperament and best judgment point me. However, I can understand those who side with Shmuel and advocate for Deepening Roles. Perhaps for some communities, the circumstances render Shmuel’s mistakes inapplicable and it is appropriate to allow women to take on new roles just like Shmuel was arguing that Israelites should take on the role of slaughtering sacrifices.

But nowhere do we find the argument that Israelites deserve the right to slaughter. No credence is given to an argument for Israelite egalitarianism because it is not just outside the halakhic framework, it is against it. Halakhah teaches that Kohanim and Israelites have different rights and responsibilites. They have different roles. Arguing for equalizing their roles is contradictory to the values that halakhah teaches.

Similarly, when it comes to innovations in women’s roles, I am not in favor of anything that is not minor or organic. But I can appreciate the motivations of those who innovate in order to deepen women’s roles. Striving for egalitarianism, however, is, in addition to various halakhic restrictions that depend on the situation, contrary to the values of Judaism. Halakhah teaches that men and women have different roles. What opportunity is there to argue against this? Arguing against this seems to me to be arguing against the Torah’s values, choosing to stretch the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.

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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