Women in Communal Leadership Positions: Shul Presidents

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by R. Aryeh A. Frimer

Download printable PDF. A related article on Partnership Minyanim is available here and a related article on The View of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l on the Ordination of Women is available here.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University.

Editor’s note: This is not a time for divisive discussions. The article below is over 10 years old and no longer available online or in print. On the author’s suggestion, it is being published here so the scholarship is not lost. There is no intent to resurrect debate. Please take the republication of this article in the spirit in which it is intended.

Below is the edited text of a lecture delivered by Rabbi Aryeh Frimer to congregants of the Tiferet Moshe Synagogue – Rabbi Jacob Berman Community Center, Rehovot, Israel on Tevet 24, 5767 – January 14, 2007. These comments were based in part on Aryeh A. Frimer, “Nashim beTafkidim Tsiburiyyim beIdan haModerni;” In “Afikei Yehudah – Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni zt’l Memorial Volume,” R. Itamar Warhaftig, ed., Ariel Press: Jerusalem, 5765 (2005), pp. 330-354 (In Hebrew).  Only leading references are cited in the present manuscript. The lecture was accompanied by a source sheet, available at: 


The present article first appeared June 2, 2010 in the now defunct “Text and Texture” e-Journal of the Rabbinical Council of America. Our thanks to Rabbi Gil Student for his invitation to republish a slightly edited and expanded version in “Torah Musings”.



The Tiferet Moshe Synagogue has had women serving on the board for decades. The question of electing women to the position of Shul President is now on the agenda of the upcoming annual shul meeting. I have been asked by the Shul Board to discuss with the community the halakhic parameters of this decision. In doing so, I will present a spectrum of opinions, including those of poskim with whom I have consulted first-hand – namely, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Nahum Rabinovitch. These are gedolim whose opinions I greatly value, and who understand and appreciate modernity. I asked them for their suggestion of how we should proceed on this contentious issue – and I shall report in course on their insights. 

The more general issue of women’s involvement in communal leadership happens to be absolutely fascinating from both a halakhic and historical perspective.  It has risen up in fury several times in the Halakhic literature of the modern period, but, as we shall see, has not been firmly resolved.  

It should be made very clear that throughout Jewish history, and in fact general history, we don’t really find women in long term leadership roles until the modern period.  One outstanding exception in Jewish tradition is the prophetess Devora, about whom it said: “Deborah was a prophetess, the wife of Lapidot; she judged (shofetet) Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4).The word shofetet is generally translated as judge.  But the role of the shoftim was not necessarily that of a judge. Shofet actually refers to leadership, from the word shfatim, which means one who deals out punishment, or retribution, or protection. The word shofet has many, many implications to it. In the case of Devora, the role of shofetet was a combination of judge – and Devora clearly served as a judge – and a leader. This presented somewhat of a problem for the poskim, as we shall see, and this led to a variety of possible interpretations.  We’ll return to the discussion of Devora in a moment because it’s central to our discussion tonight. 


I’d like to turn now to some fascinating history which took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. If you want to get some of the details of this particular period, there is an outstanding book, “Hevra veDat,” written by Prof. Menachem Friedman (Yad Ben-Tzvi Publications, Jerusalem, 5748). As just noted, even in general society, having women in leadership roles was not that common. It was only after World War I that women began having the right to vote and being elected to public office. This came about in 1917 in Russia; in 1918 in England; and in 1919 in Germany. In the US there was women’s suffrage in 1920; in liberated France, the land of “liberté, egalité, fraternité,” women got the right to vote only at the close of World War II; and in enlightened Switzerland, women had to wait until 1971. In the Responsa literature, the issue of women in public office becomes a hot topic of discussion during the period of 1918 to 1920.  You have to understand that following World War I, Palestine becomes a British mandate and prepared itself for self government, the implementation of the Balfour declaration, and civilian rule. The whole world was talking about women’s suffrage – so why not Palestine?! And there ensued a very impassioned polemic involving the leading poskim in Israel. But not only in Eretz Yisrael – after all, Eretz Yisrael doesn’t belong only to Israelis. Rabbis from around the world espoused a spectrum of views and opinions. We’ll come back to the basic arguments in a moment. The issue of women in leadership roles heated up again in the early 1970’s when women’s lib began to have an impact on the Modern Orthodox Jewess in America and the question of women sitting on synagogue boards became a hot issue.  More recently, in 1986, the question rose again with Leah Shakdiel’s bid to sit on the religious administrative Jewish council – the mo’etza datit – in Yeruham. 

I’ve distributed a source page to everyone which we will be referring to throughout this lecture.  I’d just like to point out that if anyone is interested in further discussion and references, I’ve actually written an article in Hebrew on the subject which is available online [“Nashim beTafkidim Tsiburiyyim beIdan haModerni,” Aryeh A. Frimer, In “Afikei Yehudah – Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni zt’l Memorial Volume,” R. Itamar Warhaftig, ed., Ariel Press: Jerusalem, 5765 (2005), pp. 330-354 (In Hebrew); available online at https://www.daat.ac.il/daat/mishpach/maamad/nashim-2.htm.]


Basic Sources

Let us begin our discussion this evening with the relevant pesukim in the Torah. Look at the source number 1 (Deut. 17:14-20) at the top right hand side of the first page. “כי תבואו אל הארץ אשר ה’ אלוקיך נותן לך וירשתה וישבת בה,  ואמרת אשים עלי מלך ככל הגוים אשר סביבותי. שום תשים עליך מלך אשר יבחר ה’ אלוקיך בו, מקרב אחיך תשים עליך מלך, לא תוכל לתת עליך איש נכרי, אשר לא אחיך הוא.” When you come to the land, you are to appoint a king.  You cannot appoint a non-Jewish king – he has to be from one of your brethren.”  

Hazal’s forté was being sensitive to the language of the Torah. When they looked at the text, they weren’t just interested in peshat; rather, every word, every letter counted [what Prof. Yaakov Kugel-Kadduri called “omnisignificance”]. Therefore, if there were redundancies in the text, the latter come to teach us something.  And if you read through the text, the word ‘מלך’ appears three times. ‘שום תשים’, ‘אשימה’ appears many, many times.  For Hazal these were clues that there are extra halakhot to be derived.  

Now, Halakha is transmitted to us in various fashions.  Most of us are aware of the Mishna and the Gemara. The Mishna is Tanaitic literature codified topically and the Gemara is based essentially on the Mishna. However, there is an organization of Tanaitic material which appears based on the order in the Humash. This is called the Midrash Halakha, the Mekhilta, the Safra, the Sifrei. Again this is Tanaitic literature, but the the jumping board for their comments was the Humash. In source 2, we have a collection from the Sifrei on Devarim.  Let’s see what the Sifrei says.  

First, the verse says ‘שום תשים’.  The Sifrei (ad loc.) at the very top of source 2 notes the redundancy of that formulation – that it says ‘שום תשים’, ‘אשימה’ many times. As a result, the Sifrei derives: שום תשים: מת – מנה אחר תחתיו.””  If the king dies, you have to appoint someone in his place. Next the Sifrei learns, from the fact that ‘מלך’ appears repeatedly in the text totally unnecessarily, that: “מלך ולא מלכה”.  You shall appoint a king – but not a queenHere is the crux of the issue. Next the pasuk says “מקרב אחיך” – that you should pick a king from one of your brethren – a Jew.  And then it says “ולא תוכל לתת עליך איש נוכרי אשר לא אחיך הוא”.  He’s must be from amongst your brethren, which means he has to be Jewish; you can’t appoint a non-Jew – again, a redundancy. All this repetition for a halakhist is quite problematic. From this redundancy the Sifrei derives that not only can’t a king be a non-Jew, he can’t even be a demi-Jew – which means he can’t be an eved – a non-Jewish slave. He can’t even be someone who’s not your brother in the sense that he’s a ger – a convert, or someone whose mother was a convert. Now we have to understand this in light of the fact that Shma’ayah and Avtalion – who were converts and outstanding Talmudists – sat in the Sanhedrin, which is clearly a form of dominion.  They were uniquely qualified, which indeed may be the reason for the exception; but we’ll come back to this point a bit later. 

Now, I think it’s important to note that in pasuk 16 of source 1, the Torah goes on to say that in contradistinction to an ordinary citizen, a king is forbidden to have too many horses, too much money and too many wives. A regular citizen can have as many wives as he wants, but a king is limited. A regular person can be as rich as he wants to be. A king cannot. You can have as many horses or vehicles as you want to.  A king cannot; he’s limited. Furthermore a king has to be accompanied by a sefer Torah wherever he goes, as the Torah says, in pasuk 18: “והיה כשבתו על כסא ממלכתו וכתב לו את משנה התורה הזאת על ספר מלפני הכהנים הלויים. והייתה עמו וקרא בו כל ימי חייו, למען ילמד ליראה את ה’ אלוקיו.”.  The Gemara learns that he has to wear the sefer Torah around him – I assume a small one – wherever he goes. The Torah goes with him to show it is the ultimate authority –  not the king. 

And finally in pasuk 20 – the Torah relates to why he must carry the Torah with him wherever he goes? “לבלתי רום לבבו מאחיו.” – so that he shouldn’t feel himself above his brethren. This may very well also go on why he can’t have too many horses, too much money, and too many wives – so that לבלתי רום לבבו מאחיו””.  “ולבלתי סור מן המצווה ימין ושמאל”  – so that he shouldn’t turn left or right from the Torah. “ולמען יאריך ימים על ממלכתו”  – so  that he will have his kingdom for a very long time – “הוא ובניו בקרב ישראל”  – he and his sons amongst the people of Israel.  Now the peshat in the pasuk is that being a king is a permanent thing – forever, not only for the king – but for his children, as well. We note that ‘בניו’ here means male progeny; if it meant female as well, it would have said ‘זרעו’.  That’s an important halakhic distinction.  En passant, we learn also that kingship is inherited.  

Let’s turn back briefly to source number 2 in the Sifrei: “לא תוכל לתת עליך איש נכרי. זו מצוות לא תעשה. איש נכרי אשר לא אחיך – מכאן אמרו אין ממנים פרנס על הציבור” – you don’t appoint someone for a leadership position over the community – “עד שתהא אמו מישראל.” – until his mother is from Israel.  Now, I want you to notice something very important about this Sifrei. Firstly, “עד שתהא אמו מישראל” requires not only that the appointee not be a convert, but also that his mother not be a convert – she has to be Jewish from birth.  But this source says something more. The language of the Sifrei switched to the use of the terminology ‘פרנס’, which is a leadership position, not kingship

Let’s summarize. What we’ve learned so far is that the following cannot be king: a non-Jew, a demi-Jew – which is a slave, a convert, the son of a convert – and a woman (“מלך ולא מלכה”).  Next we learned that melukha (monarchy) and the serara (dominion; leadership) of a parnas are inherited and of an indefinite duration. (This is only if the sons are worthy; if the son is a rasha, he doesn’t necessarily get it.)


View of Maimonides

Let’s now read the Rambam in source number 3 (Hilkhot Melakhim, Chapter 1).  The Rambam in Halakha Daled reads as follows:  “אין מעמידין מלך מקהל גרים עד שתהיה אמו מישראל שנאמר לא תוכל לתת עליך איש נכרי” – skip a little bit – “ולא למלכות בלבד אלא לכל שררות שבישראל. לא שר צבא” – and this is from a Gemara – “ולא שר חמישים או שר עשרה. אפילו ממונה על אמת המים שמחלק ממנה לשדות” .  Even somebody who has discretionary power to decide how much water allocation you’re going to get for your field – that’s called serara.  “ואין צריך לומר דיין או נשיא  שלא יהא אלא מישראל”  – Needless to say, that a judge or the prince of Israel must be a Jew – “שנאמר מקרב אחיך תשים עליך מלך, כל משימות שאתה משים לא יהו אלא מקרב אחיך”.  It must be from your brethren; it can’t be a non-Jew.  

Halakha hei: “אין מעמידין אשה במלכות שנאמר עליך מלך ולא מלכה”.  And now comes the punch line. “וכן כל משימות שבישראל אין ממנים בהם אלא איש”.  For all leadership positions which are called serara or mesima – we’ll have to define that – all those leadership positions can only be male.  

Now there’s Halakha vav here which I inadvertently skipped so just listen. It actually appears in the Hinukh in source number 4 so let me just read for you what the Rambam says in Halakha vav because I’m going to refer to it later. “ואין מעמידין מלך ולא כהן גדול: לא קצב” – One should not appoint for a king or high priest somebody whose profession is a butcher –  “ולא ספר” – a barber – “ולא בלן” – which is a bath house attendant –  “ולא בורסי” – which is  a leather worker which is a very smelly job. “”לא מפני שהן פסולים – not because they’re inherently pasul – “אלא הואיל ואומנותן נקלה” – since it is considered a low trade – “העם מזלזלין בהן לעולם” people will say: who are you to tell me? You were just a bursi – a stinky leather worker. ומשיעשה במלאכה אלו יום אחד נפסל.””   One day as a leather worker, you’ve had it as being king.  Now most of us would say who cares? But some people care.  Some politicians stake their life on it. 

Halakha zayin:  “כשמעמידין מלך, מושחין אותו בשמן המשחה.”  I’m skipping. “כיוון שנמשח דוד זכה בכתר מלכות, והרי המלכות לו ולבניו הזכרים עד עולם”.  So the Rambam makes it clear – inheritance of kingship is to his male sons. Now towards the end. “ומאחר שמושחין המלך הרי זה זוכה לו ולבניו עד עולם, שהמלכות ירושה שנאמר למען יאריך ימים על ממלכתו הוא ובניו בקרב ישראל.” 

Many mefarshim struggle with the fact that the Rambam throughout sticks in not only kingship but parnas – all roles of leadership.  Now, when the Sifrei introduces parnas, it does so only with regard to a non-Jew who is explicitly forbidden to be king.  Jews can’t appoint a non-Jew as their King as it explicitly says – “לא תוכל לשים עליך איש נכרי”.  Every other exclusion (demi-Jew, convert, woman etc.), however, is a drasha.  On that statement, that a non-Jew cannot be a king, the Sifrei goes ahead and says that he also can’t be a parnas – appointed to any leadership position. But the Rambam seems to learn from that case that everyone else excluded from kingship – which is a convert, and a woman, and someone who’s had an ignoble job – that they also can’t be appointed to any leadership positions in Israel. The poskim search for a reason, a source for this extension, because it’s not in our reading of the Sifrei

Now, I want you to look at source 3b (at the bottom right of the first page). It turns out that there are other editions of the Sifrei. There is an edition of the Sifrei which is called Mahdurat Finkelshtein, and also there is a similar quote in the Aptowitzer edition of the Pesikta which starts off like ours: “שום תשים עליך מלך, מלך ולא מלכה”.  However, it then continues – “אין ממנים האשה פרנסת על הציבור”.  So clearly the Aptowitzer Pesikta and The Finkelstein Sifrei and other cognate texts, like the Midrash HaGadol, actually have a reading similar to that of the Rambam. 

Now, there’s a big debate about these alternate readings, whether they were put in because of the Rambam, or that this is the source of the Rambam. We’re very careful about our manuscripts nowadays, but it’s not clear that they were careful about it all the time. The well-known ‘חרם דרבינו גרשום’ was instituted because people were making changes in the texts of their Gemaras all the time. They didn’t put in alternate readings in the margin; rather, they erased the text they had in front of them and fixed it to their liking, and that got passed on to their children. Rabbeinu Gershom forbade this procedure, and later Rabbeinu Tam saw need to forbid it again, because the practice was still so widespread. So it’s not clear whether people changed their reading of the Sifrei so it would jibe with the Rambam, or that that reading was the Rambam’s source. It seems that it’s probably the latter – the Rambam may have had an alternate reading. We’ll come back to this point a little bit later as well. 


Trying to Define Serara

Now, one of the fundamental questions that we have to ask is: what is this serara we’re talking about? It’s not only kingship, at least the way the Rambam understands it. Remember that the Rambam is one of the major pillars of codification – he’s not the only pillar, but he is a force to contend with.  How do we understand what this serara is? How do we define it?  That it includes kings and Kohanim Gedolim, the head of the army – that we all can understand. They had the power over life and death. But one who’s in charge of the distribution of water that went to the fields – why is that serara?  I don’t think that life and death was the issue that concerned them with this job. Also, a different Gemara talks about the person who goes around checking the weights and measures, to make sure the measures are right. That’s also serara

I think the way we can describe serara is one who has discretionary power. That is, a person for whom ‘the buck stops here’. He makes the ultimate decision, and there’s no real appeal after that. And the one who was given the job of distributing the water to the fields – it was an important job. It wasn’t the governor, but it was an important job, and he made that final decision. 

Now if you want to understand how to define discretionary power, there’s a very interesting and important teshuva by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein from his Resp. Iggerot Moshe (Y.D., II, sec. 44). Kindly turn the page over, it’s source number 7. It’s a long teshuva, we’re going to read selections from it – but much of it I’ll talk out. Many of the sources appear on this source sheet, so you could read the entire teshuva yourself. These are fascinating sources, but we don’t have the time to go through it all in depth – time is limited.  (By the way, we’re going to raise a lot of issues that to the modern person seem very, very strange. I ask of you just hold judgment, and hear me to the end, and then you’ll begin to see why it seems that Halakha nowadays has changed. Just bear with me and you’ll understand the Halakha from its source.)

Rav Moshe was posed a very interesting question. A particular rabbi made his living from giving hashgahot. [You see rabbis, generally speaking, could not make a living just being a shul rabbi. They needed to supplement  their income by doing weddings, funerals, unveilings etc. and they also took on hashgahot.] Unfortunately, this rabbi passed away, and his widow wanted to take over the hashgahot. Can she be the mashgiha? It was a question of she’at ha-dehak. The almana wasn’t a young woman, and for her whole life her husband had supported her. Thus, the hashgahot were her livelihood, and, now, she wanted to be the mashgiha. She clearly was capable, and knowledgeable enough to do the job.  Rav Moshe starts the teshuva off by trying to understand the definition of serara and the parameters of this prohibited discretionary power, assuming we follow the Rambam’s position. 

So in source 7A, Rav Moshe says that it’s not clear to him what the source of the Rambam is for forbidding not only a malka but also a parnesset.  Rambam may have analogized from a non-Jew to women, but that isn’t clear. [We now know that there is an alternate reading of the Sifrei, but that’s not our reading.]   In source 7B, let’s see how Reb Moshe defines serara: “והשגחה על כשרות מסתבר שהוא מינוי” – being the mashgiah kashrut, that is a minui – an appointment of serara.”וראיה לכך מקידושין דף ע”ו שאיתא במערבא אפילו ריש כורי לא מוקמי מינייהו”  – that one doesn’t appoint a ger to be in charge of the weights and measures. “ופירוש רש”י: ממונה על המידות”- appointed to be in charge of the measures – “והוא ממש כמו השגחה על הכשרות דמה לנו כשרות המשקולות והמידות לכשרות איסורי מאכלות”.  This is supervision – what difference does it make whether it’s monetary supervision, or whether its kashrut supervision?  “והטעם הוא” – why is it a problem? –”שהחלוק בין להחשיבו לפועל ובין להחשיבו לממונה”. What’s the difference between the one in charge, or the worker? “שהוא שררה” – because being in charge is considered serara, discretionary power. “אינו מצד חשיבות המלאכה” – it’s not because of the importance of the job – “אלא דאם נשכר לעשות רצון המשכירו, הוא פועל אף שהיא מלאכה חשובה.”  If your job is to work by the book – what the boss asks you to do, then you are a worker, and it makes no difference how important the job is. “ואם נשכר לעשות נגד רצון בעל הבית, כהשגחה על המשקלות ומדות, שבעל הבית היה אפשר רוצה שיכשיר לו גם משקל ומדה חסרים, והוא ממונה לפוסלם וליקחם מבעל הבית” –  But, if your job is to supervise the ba’al ha-bayit even against what he wants, that’s discretionary power. That’s dominion, serara.  

To summarize: if you’re working for the ba’al ha-bayit, no matter how important your job is, that’s called a worker. But if your job is to go against, to be critical of ba’al ha-bayit and limit him, that’s discretionary power; that’s serara. “שהוא שררה על בעל הבית, שבעל הבית מחוייב לעשות כמו שהמשגיח אומר. וכן הוא ממש ממונה להשגיח על הכשרות שמלאכתו הוא לעשות אף נגד רצון בעל הבית שלא להניח לבעל הבית שיקנה דברים אסורים. ואם כן להרמב”ם אין למנות על זה אשה.”. According to that analysis, according to the Rambam, says Rav Moshe Feinstein, you can’t appoint a woman to be a mashgihat  kashrut

Then he goes on to note that the Rambam is not the only view, and demonstrates that there are a whole series of Rishonim who disagree with the Rambam and are lenient on parnesset. And then he says that bi-she’at ha-dehak – in a crisis situation, where we are dealing with a woman’s livelihood, certainly these other opinions could be relied on so that she could continue to be a mashgihat kashrut. In other words, he maintains that the Rambam is a pillar of Halakha, and we would generally prefer to be stringent and rule like the Rambam. However, since this a dire situation, and there are major authorities- including, Ramban, Rashbah, Ran, and Rabbeinu Tam – who disagree with the Rambam, we can rely on these other sources to give us the flexibility to allow this woman to be a mashgihat kashrut.

But then Rav Moshe suggests what he believes is a better idea. We will ask some Rabbi to be the the rav ha-makhsir – that is, that the one who will assume the ultimate authority for the Kashrut will be a male. The almana will be the mashgiha and do the actual supervision work. The rav ha-makhshir is the person or the organization who assumes ultimate responsibility for the hekhsher, and the mashgiah is the employee who’s on the site doing the actual supervision. (For example, the OU is the boss – the supervising kashrut organization ultimately responsible; everyone else who works for them, including women, who supervise all the time for the OU, are the mashgihim.) Rav Moshe indicates that if we do it that way, then even the Rambam would agree, because she’s now working for the rav ha-makhshir, and not for the ba’al ha-bayit.   [I’ll come back to the next teshuva, that is סימנים מ”ד and מ”ה a little bit later, since they deal with women as presidents of shuls.] 

Okay, so Rav Moshe has pretty much given us a very good idea of what the parameters are. It would seem that the President of the United States is clearly serara, and the head of the Treasury is clearly serara. However, the income tax auditor may not be serara, even though he forces you to pay, because you can always appeal over his head. And once you’ve come up to the person for whom “the buck stops here,” – that’s serara. Now you can always say, “Look, I can go to the Supreme Court,” but that’s not what we mean. We mean that there’s a person after whom you have to start suing in the courts. 


Rationale behind Women’s Exclusion from Serara

Let’s now try to understand the rationale a little better. Why have women been excluded from kingship – and other leadership roles according to the Rambam? Interestingly I haven’t found any Rishon who really suggests a reason. It might be that they felt it was eminently obvious, but it’s certainly not eminently obvious for twentieth century individuals. Formulations have only been put forward in the modern period. This suggests that the social consensus has changed, and halakhic Judaism clearly finds itself on the defensive and needs to explain its position. 

(a) The most common reason given, by Dr. Leo Levy, Rav Aaron Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Meiselman, Rav Judah David  Bleich among others,[1] is that there is definite role-playing in Judaism. The man’s role is more a public, aggressive one, as the Gemara says, “האיש דרכו לכבוש ואין האשה דרכה לכבוש”.  Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik discusses this when he talks about Adam I and Adam II, and their different attributes. And Rav Aaron Soloveitchik also talks about role playing in some length. It’s clear that, from a Jewish perspective, these roles are not exclusive, but there seems to be a general consensus that a woman’s role is a more private, family centered role. This school bases its approach on the pasuk “כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה”. Now it’s clear that “כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה” is a societally determined concept. It’s very clear that what was true in the 17 and 1800s is not true in the twentieth century. Even in Haredi circles, women go out and earn livings, and are in the public thoroughfare. This is something that was almost unheard of 100-150 years ago. Perhaps by limiting a woman’s leadership possibilities, Halakha reaffirms where her priorities ought to be: in the home, and not in the public thoroughfare. 

(b) Another possible rationale may be the social reality. A leader with discretionary powers can only rule if he has the highest respect of the community who is willing to obey and follow. As we saw before from the Rambam, if you had a position as a burski (a tanner), or a sapar (barber), or a balan (caretaker in the bathhouse) dealing with naked people – this was not considered the most respectable position. And, therefore, the feeling was that because of a woman’s lower social standing in the community – people would not follow her leadership. This seems to be the rationale of the R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (Arukh HaShulhan heAtid, Hilkhot Melakhim, 71:9).   And while there have been many changes in people’s attitudes, they haven’t been as wide-sweeping as some people suggest.  I read a recent poll about the success of women in leadership. In 2006, Nancy Pelosi was elected as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and everyone was talking and writing about it.  The fact that there was such a big to-do, suggests that this is not a normative situation. Studies report that voters, both men and women, tend to favor a strong father image than an “Iron-lady”. And this came up with Margaret Thatcher, as well, when she was elected Prime Minister. They polled the voters. It seems that she was an exceptionally unique individual, and therefore wound up as Prime Minister – but that wasn’t standard procedure, even for the British. 

(c) A radically different approach is that of Rav Chaim David Halevy (Shu”t Mayyim Hayyim, 1:70), who in essence says that he’d rather live with a good question than with an answer he can’t accept. It’s his position that the exclusion of women is what is called a gezerat ha-katuv – a Heavenly decree. But he doesn’t know the rationale. He wants to prove his position, however, from Shlomtzion Hamalka and Heleni Hamalka, who were queens under the guidance of Hazal, and who were repeatedly praised by them as righteous virtuous women.  It’s clear, he says, that in each case they received the melukha through inheritance, either from their father, or their husband. They were in the position, and Hazal weren’t interested in moving them out. So, argues Rav Halevy, there’s no problem with her being queen; the problem is being appointed queen. And that can only be, says Rav Chaim David Halevy, because it’s a gezerat hakatuv to appoint a queen, but not if it comes to her automatically. 

Other poskim disagree with him. My Rebbe, Rav Yehuda Gershuni zt”l (Kol Yehuda, pp. 495-507) demonstrates this from the Rambam, who writes that kingship passes in yerusha only to the king’s male children, “הוא ובניו”. Why, then, were Shlomtzion and Heleni so praised by Hazal? Because Hazal knew full well that the person who was supposed to get the position would not be as favorable towards Rabbinic Judaism. Shlomtzion and Heleni were frum women, and they supported Torah Judaism. If they were not in those positions, developments would not have been favorable for halakhic Judaism – and that seems to have been a very real consideration.


Serara for Women in the Modern Period – Sringent School

Now I think it’s time that we get down to the basic arguments pro and con about women’s involvement in the political process. I mentioned to you that much of the literature on the subject was written in the early 1900’s, although there’s a great deal written since then, as well. As I noted in the opening of my talk, if you want to get a wonderful historical summary of this period, it’s in “Hevra veDat,” written by Prof. Menachem Friedman. I’m going to summarize the arguments from the early 1900’s, and then we’ll move to the recent period. There were essentially three halakhic reasons and another three hashkafic reasons given for why women should not become involved in the political process. The issue discussed at that time was not just whether a woman could run for office, but whether she could even vote. 

The first argument against was based on the aforementioned Rambam. Maimonides was clearly rules against allowing women to run for office, based on “מלך ולא מלכה”. To his mind, this derasha not only excluded woman from being a queen, but also from all communal leadership roles with discretionary power. Sources 9a and 9b are some of the arguments that were actually given against women being in leadership roles.  In source 9a, Rav Zev Mintzberg in Zot Hukat HaTorah writes that it doesn’t matter how a woman comes to power. “איסור גמור מן התורה יש למנות אשה לשום שררותא דמתא” – any leadership role in the community is forbidden  “אפילו אם קיבלו כל הציבור אותה עליהם – על דרך האסיפה המייסדת שחקקו חוקה ליתן זכות נשים להיבחר. מבואר ברמ”א דטובי העיר בעירם דינם כבית דין הגדול, ואין לך שררה גדולה מזו מלבד מלכות.”  He said being in leadership roles, making decisions for the community, is clearly serara. It is irrelevant whether the whole community voted for her. If the job is inherently serara, according to the Rambam it’s asur, and that’s it. 

Secondly, the Mahzikei Dat (source 9b), written by HaRav Ritter of Rotterdam, says that in Jewish communities, for centuries, women weren’t in leadership roles. That’s the Jewish way or custom of doing things. What right do you have to change the situation?  

The third argument was that being involved in politics clearly involves a free mixing of the sexes, which was not appropriate from a Jewish perspective, and therefore it should be opposed. 

There are several hashkafic reasons given, and the person who gave these hashkafic reasons that we’re citing from was none other than Rav Avraham Yitshak haCohen Kook zt”l. This was a big surprise since Rav Kook, after his lenient ruling on Shmitta was viewed as a big liberal. It’s very interesting that he doesn’t bring halakhic reasons, but hashkafic ones – why he thinks women’s involvement in the political process is “bad for the Jews.”  [By the way, we know that his daughter-in-law, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s wife, was not happy with Rav Kook’s position. Rav Kook zt”l mentions in one of his letters to his son that his daughter-in-law would regularly write him letters. However, the last couple of weeks, since he gave his pesak on the women’s voting issue, she’s stopped writing. “Is it because she’s not happy with what I said about women’s involvement in the political process?” Probably. That’s just a side line, but it’s very, very telling.] 

In any case, what were his reasons? We’re just going to go through them very, very quickly (see sources 8a-d). (1) He says that the family is extremely important in Judaism, perhaps more so than in other cultures, and that throughout Jewish history the traditional woman has attained both honor and fulfillment within the family. Political activity will lead a women to center interests outside the home, and away from her family. Her interests and energy will become split; she will no longer be as good a mother as she can be, and this will therefore weaken the fiber of the family. (2) His next argument was that political activity in which a woman has an active role will prevent and disturb shelom bayit, because the husband and wife may now be expressing different opinions, and therefore it will lead to a clash in the family. (3) Finally, he posits that politics has a negative moral effect on anyone that is involved or close to it, and he says that at least we should keep the women out of it.

Amongst the scholars maintaining that women should neither run for office, nor even vote – not get involved at all in the political process – was Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld of the Eidah Haredit, Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky, who then was a leading Rosh Yeshiva and posek in Jerusalem, and considered slightly right of center, and last but not least, Rav Avraham Yitshak HaCohen Kook. There were many other renowned scholars, most of them in Europe and the States, who were against women running for office, but had no problem with them voting. These include Rav David Tzvi Hoffman, and Rav Eliezer Priel in the United States.


Something important happened in the 1920’s that changed the course of Jewish history. Most of you know that the Eidah Haredit broke off from Orthodox Judaism and started following its own path. When and why did it do so?  It did so over the issue of the women’s right to vote. It was decided by the Mo’etza haMeyasedet (the mandatory Israeli government in formation) that women would get to vote. The Eidah Haredit said that it wasn’t an issue they could ever agree on. The Eidah Haredit suggested that a man should be able to have two votes, but that proposal wasn’t accepted. So they said: “Look, you’ve left us no options. Our women are not going to vote, they’re not going to be at all involved in the political process, so we will be outvoted every time!. We have no choice but hitbadlut (go it alone) – we’re breaking off.” And so they did at this point in Jewish history, in the 1920’s, over the issue of women’s suffrage. 

There was another group, led by Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, who said: “All right, we’re not gung-ho about this idea of women voting, but there are poskim who would tend to permit it bi-she’at ha-dehak.” And they became what’s called Agudas Yisrael. The women would not run for office, but they would go to the polls and vote. By the way, the Eidah Haredit did not notify the British they were breaking off, because they didn’t want to place the implementation of the Balfour Declaration in jeopardy, so they kept it private. But that is exactly when the Eidah Haredit and Agudas Yisrael split and became two separate organizations.


Lenient School

In this dispute in the early 1900’s, there was another position, expressed by the MizrahihaPo’el haMizrahi, whose published position read as follows: “המזרחי בתור הסתדרות עולמית, בכל הכבוד והיקר שהוא רוחש לרבנות ובכל שאיפתו העמוקה להכיר בסמכותה בחיי העם – מוכרח בכל זאת להישמע בשאלה זו לדעת הרבנים הגאונים שעמדו בראש ההסתדרות בכל משך עשרות השנים של קיומה ושהנהיגו בשאלה זו היתר למעשה.”  Translation: “The Mizrahi, as an international organization, despite the honor and the esteem which it bears for the Israeli Rabbinate (i.e., Rav Kook), and despite its deep desire to recognize the authority of the Israeli Rabbinate in the life of this nation, must, nevertheless, follow on this issue the ruling of the Rabbinic giants which have headed this organization during the past decades since its inception, and have been lenient on this matter.” You have to understand that the Chief Rabbinate, when it was established was viewed as the forerunner of the Sanhedrin.  They had these great hopes for the Chief Rabbinate, and here comes along the much admired Harav Kook, and doesn’t support women’s right to vote. So the Mizrahi says: we already have Gedolim who’ve poskened for us on this issue. We don’t have to come to Rav Kook’s pesak. For decades we’ve been following the pesakim of other Gedolim who’ve permitted women’s involvement in the political process. 

The lenient school included such scholars as the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben Tzion Hai Uziel, Rav Ya’akov Levinson, and Rav Chaim Hirshenzohn. In the modern period the lenient school has included former Chief Rabbi Yitshak Isaac haLevi Herzog, Rav Tibor Stern, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Dayan Aryeh Leib Grosness of London and Jerusalem, and Rav Elimelech Turk from the United States. 

To understand the lenient school, and how they deal with the various arguments of the stringent school, I think it’s important, first of all, to begin with a brief discussion of what democracy is all about. The government perceived by the Torah and by Halakha is radically different from democracy. Let me elaborate a bit.  In Biblical times, appointments always came from the top.  It was the decision of the navi, or one or more of the elders, the scholars (Sanhedrin), the gibborim, the leaders, or the money-men. Appointments always came from the top. But in democracy the ultimate authority comes from below. 

Democracy is a game of government, with clear and pre-agreed upon rules. The first rule is “majority rule,” which means that everybody agrees to accept the majority’s decision. Even though the minority lost, they agree to accept the majority position or candidate as their own. And I want you to understand what that means. If I vote for A, and B gets elected by the majority, B was picked by whom? Not by the majority – by everybody; everybody has agreed that the winner takes it all. That’s what democracy says: not just the majority picked him – everybody picked him. 

The second rule is that the election is for a limited period, and after 2, 4, 6, maybe even ten years we will have elections again. This means that even though I lost now, I’ll have a chance to win next time around. What’s more, there is the possibility of impeachment or recall if the majority is dissatisfied. 

The last rule is that the election is personal. The elected position cannot be inherited or passed on to someone else. 

Now, with this awareness of the new modern political reality, let us begin our discussion of serara anew with the case of Devora. “ודבורה אישה נביאה…היא שופטת את ישראל בעת ההיא.”    The fact that Devora served as judge presents a double problem. First, the halakhic consensus is that generally women cannot serve as judges. Second, serving as a judge means that your decisions are binding and people are forced to pay. That’s clearly serara. But the Rambam forbade all serara to a woman, not only melukha. So the Rambam will obviously maintain that Devora as a prophetess received divine approval as a judge. It was sort of like a divine hora’at sha’ah. It was a setting aside of Jewish law because she was a prophetess. She was exceptional and no generalizations can be made. 

But the other Rishonim disagreed. Turn to the first page again, source number 5. We’re going to read from the Rashba (Shavu’ot 30), but as pointed out by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Resp. Iggerot Moshe, Y.D., II, sec. 44), it’s not only the Rashba who holds this position. It’s the Rashba, Tosafot in several places, the Ran, and Rabbeinu Tam, and others. Starting from the middle, at the bracket: ואם תאמר הא כתיב והיא שופטת את ישראל””? The Mishna says “ולא לנשים, מכאן שנשים פסולות לדון”, so how is it that Devora was a judge? “יש לומר שלא שופטת ממש אלא מנהגת (מתנהגת) כשופטים ששפטו את ישראל”. Tosafot says that it’s not that she was an actual judge. “שופטת” just means that she was a community leader: she led the people and she gave them advice, but she didn’t formally serve as a judge. Another way of saying it is that it was “charismatic leadership” – a term coined by noted sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). Charismatic leadership means you don’t follow because you’re forced or required to. You follow because you want to. She was a shofetet and a nevi’ah.  She would say: “you really should give the money back.” I’m not forced to give the money back – but she speaks the word of G-d, so of course you give it back! That’s charismatic leadership. I want to do what’s right. She tells me what’s right, but she has no binding power to force me to do it. “ואף על גב דאמרו בסיפרי שום תשים עליך מלך ולא מלכה, התם לא מנו אותה, אלא היו נוהגין בה כדין מלכה, והיו נוהגים על פיה.”  That’s charismatic leadership. They weren’t forced to do it. They wanted to do what’s right, and she told them what’s right, and they did it.  Look, I want you to understand. Who appointed Rav Moshe Feinstein,  Rav Elazar Shakh or Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv – as Gedolim? Anybody? Not that I know of. That’s charismatic leadership. You follow and obey because you feel that they know what the will of G-d is.

 “ואי נמי”, alternatively continues Rashba – and this is a totally different answer – “שופטת ודנה”  Devora judged them, and she ruled over them, “שהיו מקבלים אותה כדרך שאדם מקבל אחד מן הקרובים”. They accepted her like one can accept a relative. The Halakha is as follows. If you have a dispute, and the parties decide to pick three individuals to serve as judges. The latter are not allowed to be related to each other, or relatives of the litigants. However, if the disputants agree that they’ll accept such an individual, then such an individual can judge – even if it’s a relative. That was also true for Devora. Once the people have accepted her as a judge, the litigants were obligated to accept her judgment. 

Klal Yisrael decided that Devora “was the lady in charge,” we’re going to follow her opinion. And with this vote of confidence she could force you, because that’s  .”קיבלו עלייהו”  Kiblu alaihu means we accept her authority upon us, or it can be formulated that the appointment is from below – the people have accepted her as their authority. A democracy is kiblu alaihu. We all accept the outcome. That’s the game of government. We accept; we agree to accept the leadership of the person who gets the majority vote. So, as I pointed out, even though your candidate  lost the election, when you went into the election you knew that the majority would get the position, and that’s what you’re getting into. So, first of all, the appointment comes, not from the Sanhedrin, from above, but from below. Democracy is a form of kiblu alaihu

In source 10a, former Rishon Lezion Rav Uziel writes in Resp. Mishpatei Uziel:  “לא נאמרה הלכה זו אלא במינוי הנעשה על ידי סנהדרין.”  The whole issue of serara is only when the appointment is made by the Sanhedrin.”אבל בשאלתנו, אין כאן מינוי אלא קבלה, שעל ידי בחירות מכריע רוב הקהל את הסכמתו לאותם הנבחרים שיהיו באי כוחו לפקח על כל ענייניהם הציבוריים.”. Rav Uziel says  that democracy is different – even the Rambam would agree. Note that the stringent school, on the other hand, would argue – and this we saw above in source 9a – that serara is serara is serara, and I don’t care how she was appointed. But the lenient school says: no! How one receives the serara is all the difference in the world. This is because the person who’s forcing me to obey is doing so – not because he has the inherent power to force me – but because I asked him to do so. I invested him with the power to force me, so he is my shaliah. I’m the boss. I gave him that power, and the origin of that authority makes all the difference in the world. Rav Bakshi Doron (source 12) says that, Rav Shaul Yisraeli (source 13) says it. He says a few other things as well, but, let’s move ahead. 

I want you to know that this argument, kiblu alaihu, is the basic argument of those who are in the lenient school. But I want you to listen to Rav Mordechai Eliyahu who raises a very strong argument to the contrary. In source 16, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu quotes from the Tosafot. “דיבור המתחיל אשר תשים הביאו תירוץ נוסף: דשמא היו מקבלין אותה עליהם משום שכינה” – because she was directed by the shekhina – the Divine presence. “ובשינוי לשון קצת בתוספות הרא”ש שבנדה: מחמת נביאותה קבלוה עליהם. ויש לתמוה, דאי משום דקבלוה עליהם, הרי לכך אין צורך להוסיף דהוי מחמת נביאותה.”   Why does it say that they accepted her because she was a prophetess? What does that mean? “הרי רשאים לקבל על עצמם גם פסולים לעדות.”  You can accept even people who are not allowed to be witnesses, to be a judge. Skip down to the next paragraph. “נראה שדייקו לאמר כך, שאילולא נביאותה לא היתה קבלה מועילה.” It was a fact that she was prophetess and there was a nationwide consensus that she was the woman to turn to, “דבשלמא יחידים או ציבור מוגדר ומצומצם יכולים לקבל עליהם בהחלטת הכל או הרוב”. If you have a small group – though he doesn’t define how big this group is – but a group in which everyone can be consulted, then you can talk about kiblu alaihu. And he goes on at great length in this article in Tehumin, and asks, what are you going to do with a nation? What percentage of the nation actually voted? If you voted, got involved in the game, you can say kiblu alaihu, the majority won, the minority accepts the decision. But what if 40% don’t get involved in the game at all, can you honestly say kiblu alaihu? That’s his criticism. You can’t say kiblu alaihu when 50% or more didn’t even vote. They’re not even involved in the political game. 

Rav Shaul Yisraeli (source 13) disagrees, however, arguing that a country is set up with certain agreements. Everybody who’s born into the country or joins the country, joins under those conditions. If it’s a democratic government, and that’s how the country was set up, then everybody in the country is bound by that ruling. If you don’t vote, that’s your choice, but you could have voted, and everybody’s involved. I want you to know that this is not a trivial point, and there is some debate about it.  But the lenient position holds that kiblu alaihu is where the authority comes from. 

The scholars of the lenient school also point out that by definition democracy is not serara. (A) Firstly, in serara the duration of the appointment is indeterminate, while in democracy terms are limited. Democracy is for a limited time, it can’t be forever.  

(B) In addition, as we saw from the Rambam, serara can be handed to your children. There are many responsa about a rabbi who is a rav of a shul or city and wanted his son to become the rav after him. The question is whether there is inheritance by rabbanut. But it’s certainly not true in democracy. So there’s a lot of grounds to argue here that by definition democracy is not serara in the way that the Torah viewed it. 

(C) Other poskim note that in democracy most decisions are not made by individuals, but by committees. In fact, Rav Kapah in source number 14, when asked about a woman being a Haverat Knesset says: “עדיין איני יודע שחברות בכנסת נקראת “כיהון בשררה ציבורית” והעוקב אחרי כל פרט מן הנמצאים שם יבין זאת.”  He says that inn being a member of Kenesset, there’s no real discretionary power. He argues that everything is decided by committees and there’s no one individual who makes the decisions. 

(D) Rav Shaul Yisraeli in source number 13 goes on at great length to discuss this. Rav Shaul Yisraeli is dealing with a much tougher question. His article is not about women in leadership roles. He’s dealing with non-Jews. Remember that the appointment of non-Jews is explicitly forbidden in the Torah – “לא תוכל לשים עליך איש נוכרי”.  He wants to know whether you can appoint a non-Jew to be mayor of a city. And he maintains that based on a democratic election there is no halakhic problem, because that’s not serara. He goes on at great length, and suggests that in elections we are appointing a shaliah (messenger). The power comes from below; those elected are our shelihim; they are not authorities on top of us. 

(E) There are also people who are appointed because of their uniquely special talents. Source 11b and 12 deal with Shma’ayah and Avtalion, converts for whom serara is also problematic, who were appointed as heads of Sanhedrin because there was none like them. You have a person who is uniquely capable. Let’s take a woman like Condoleezza Rice, or Margaret Thatcher. These women were uniquely capable for the job that was given to them. The same was true for Shma’ayah and Avtalion – there was nobody like them. It was true that they were converts, and they didn’t have the yihus (lineage) that normally comes with leadership; however, they were uniquely suited for the job. There was nobody else like them and they were, therefore, the best option. In those cases, with those individuals, there’s no problem with serara


Let’s turn now to the hashkafic issues raised. A) The shelom bayit issue we’ll set aside pretty easily, because if you accept its validity, then your children shouldn’t vote, and your brother shouldn’t vote – because it creates dissension in a family. B) Regarding the issue of politics corrupting, then the men shouldn’t get involved in politics either. 

There are a variety of arguments that can be raised to set aside the other hashkafic arguments. But I want to be honest; when I read the teshuvot inside, I have this deep-seated feeling that Rav Kook is not far off the mark. In practice, perhaps we don’t have to worry about these ta’anot (arguments) too much, but it is something we should keep in the back of our minds. There’s no question that in our modern society – and this is not the subject of the lecture – women are now very career minded, and women tend to spend a lot of time out of the home. Everybody talks about quality time with their children, and there’s no question that men should be spending more time with their children – that’s all true. But our children suffer. We want to have our women as personally and spiritually fulfilled as possible. But as women get more and more outside interests, it’s true they contribute to society and communal life, but there’s a cost to the family. As my wise and sainted father, alav ha-shalom, would say, “every important decision involves a sacrifice,” and there’s a sacrifice here. I’m not saying there aren’t ways of partially compensating, but we shouldn’t pooh-pooh Rav Kook’s formulations. This teshuva is from the early 1900’s, but the issues are very real, and we shouldn’t forget that that these issues exists.


Application of Principles; Women as Shul Presidents

Let me now move to several applications of the principles we have seen above, and then on to the purpose of the talk. Rav Grosness in source 17 was asked about a convert being the principal of a school, and his ruling was that there’s absolutely no problem. There’s no serara in being a school principal, even though he hires and fires, because decisions are always made with an educational committee, and therefore there’s no serara. It’s true that he initiates the actions by bringing it to the committee, but he doesn’t make the decisions alone, and therefore it’s not discretionary power. He has to get the approval of the educational committee, and therefore it’s not a problem. I told you that Rav Shaul Yisraeli was asked about a non-Jew as mayor or member of the city council, and he said that there was no problem. Rav Kapah (source 14) was asked about being a member of Knesset, and he also said their decisions were made as a group. 

I’d like to focus now on responsa regarding women being presidents of shuls. Let’s look at Rav Moshe Feinstein’s discussion in source 7. As an introduction to this, I mentioned already that among lenient school there are those who maintain that even the Rambam would agree that under democracy it’s not a problem – because of kiblu alaihu. They furthermore pointed out that, when push comes to shove, the Rambam is not the only posek.  There are other views in the Rishonim, namely the Ran, Rosh, Rashba and Rabbeinu Tam who seem to have disagreed with the Rambam. This cadre of rishonim maintained that “מלך ולא מלכה” was only for kingship but not for other leadership positions, which can be occupied by women. No posek is happy going against the Rambam’s line. Rav Moshe Feinstein – in the case we discussed above of the almana who wanted to be a mashgihat kashrut – was willing to rely on these other Rishonim bi-she’at hadehak, but he also found a way that she wouldn’t have the final word.  Now, Rav Amsel, who was the editor of a Torah journal HaMa’or, wrote to Rav Moshe saying as follows: I read your teshuva, and I have a big problem with it, because the way you presented it indicated that the majority of Rishonim disagree with the Rambam. Therefore, people will come along and take upon themselves all sorts of leniencies, like appointing a woman as the prime minister of the State of Israel, and, they may even appoint a woman as president of a shul. 

Rav Moshe Feinstein, on the issue of women being president of Medinat Yisrael, writes (source 7, סימן מ”ה, on the left column of page  ס”א, at the very beginning): “הנה מה שכתב כבוד תורתו הרב, שמצד תשובתי בזה שהקשיתי על הרמב”ם שפוסל נשים אף לכל משימות, שלא ידוע לי בעניי מקור לדבריו, וגם שמשמע לי שלא כולי עלמא סברי כן – יוצא מכשול שימנו נשים לפרעזדענט במדינת ישראל. אין אנו אחראין להנהגת המלכות דשם, שהיא בעוונותינו הרבים אצל כופרים ומומרים, ואין מתחשבין עם דעותינו כלום.”  He says that nobody from the Israeli government has asked me a she’ela on this, and we are not responsible for their actions. “ולשמא ימנו אשה להבתי כנסיות שבמדינתנו אמעריקע, נמי לא שייך שיוצא מזה מכשול, דהבתי כנסיות והמוסדות שמתנהגים על פי דרך התורה לא יעשו כן בלא הוראת רב מובהק, וממילא סגי לזה גם שיטת הרמב”ם שלא למנות אשה.”  Regarding women as shul presidents, most shuls have rabbis. The rabbis are fully aware that the Rambam is against it, so that it’s not a default position. Therefore, they will not allow women to be president of the shul.

Thus, you can clearly see that although Rav Moshe was fully aware that there are other Rishonim who may disagree with the Rambam, nevertheless, he felt that the Rambam is in a strong enough position that his view has to be taken into consideration. Therefore, women would not be appointed presidents of shuls.  But at the very bottom of the page he was asked the following: “וברור שאם יזדמן באיזה מקום שרוצים למנות לאיזה מינוי רק או איש שהוא כופר ובעל עבירות או אשה כשרה” – What if it is a choice between a frum woman and a man who’s a mehalel Shabbat … [And if you think this is strange, this is because you weren’t in America the 1950s. These are real life scenarios that came up repeatedly, even through the 1990’s – as you will hear shortly] “ואי אפשר לפעול שלא ימנו שום אחד מהן אלא איש כשר, שודאי צריך לסייע שימנו את האשה הכשרה ולא את האיש הכופר והרשע.”  He says that that’s a situation which is a she’at ha-dehak (dire situation), and that you could clearly rely on the other opinions and allow a woman to be elected president. 

Let’s now see Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik’s psak in source 15. Rabbi Binyomin Walfish was sent by the Rabbinical Council of America to Rav Soloveitchik with a whole list of questions about the involvement of women in Jewish life, and Rabbi Walfish shared with my brother Rabbi Dov Frimer the answers that Rav Soloveitchik gave him. One of the issues discussed was women as shul presidents to which the Rav was clearly opposed. [The following summary was approved by Rabbi Walfish as being exact.]

During his conversation with R. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Walfish asked the Rav whether women could serve on shul boards. The Rav responded that he saw no reason why women could not serve as a board member. It was not serara since the final decision was made by the board and not by the member. The members merely had input. The Rav did pasken that women could not be shul presidents. Presidents had certain prerogatives and that constituted serara. While there was no issur, the Rav also felt it unwise to have women serve as vice presidents, because it would imply that they could serve as presidents – which they could not. The Rav suggested that women could serve as mashgihei kashrut, which the Rav said was perfectly mutar. On the contrary, the Rav felt that women, in those areas, may even be better than men.

Summarizing thus far, we now have Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik who are stringent – a least under normative conditions. Amongst the other poskim who assured were Rav Menashe Klein, Rav Katriel Fischel Tchorsch and Rav Moshe Shternbuch, who’s a rabbi in South Africa and also on the Eidah Haredit. On the other hand, amongst those who are lenient on this issue were Rav Shmuel Turk, Rav Shalom Mashash and Rav Gedaliah Schwartz (the Av Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of America Beit Din. [He’s centered in Chicago, and is also the Av Beit Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council). Regarding the latter, I’d like to read to you a letter that was circulated by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, New Jersey in May 1997. It concerns a very capable and experienced frum woman, considered by many to be the better of the two candidates. Many wanted her to be able to vie for the position.) 

In response to numerous inquiries, I write to clarify my halakhic posture on the question of whether or not a woman can serve as president of an Orthodox synagogue. While a full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of a short letter, I would simply present the following points: The primary source is a passage in Maimonides… 

While there is a range of opinion on this matter, my research has left me convinced that there is no prohibition concerning a woman serving as president within our synagogue. I reached this conclusion after extensive review of the halakhic sources and after analysis of the parameters of the presidential role within our community. This review and research was conducted at the request of the nominating committee. I also discovered a number of precedents, i.e. Orthodox synagogues both in America and in Israel within which women have served as president.  As I was uncomfortable relying solely upon my own judgment concerning this important public matter, I presented the issue to two authorities whom I have come to trust in halakhic matters. The first of these authorities, HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel was uncomfortable issuing a halakhic pronouncement from overseas for Englewood, New Jersey. He explained, rightfully so, that only someone more familiar with the actual issues facing our community could properly rule on the matter. 

The second authority with whom I consulted was HaRav Gedaliah Schwartz , the Av Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of America Beit Din. Rav Schwartz indicated to me that he believes that the issues raised by the Rambam are not applicable to the position of synagogue President, and that, consequently, there is no halakhic prohibition. Rav Schwartz further indicated to me that a number of years ago The Va’ad Halakha of the Rabbinical Council of America met on the matter and did not issue a prohibitive ruling. [AAF: In actuality, they didn’t issue any ruling – permissible or not.] On the basis of my own research, and with the concurrence of the Av Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of America, I indicated to the nominating committee, in response to their request, that a woman could serve as President of our congregation.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin concludes his letter by indicating that he is not taking sides, and one can vote for whomever they want.[2] 


Recent Conversations with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Nahum Rabinovitch Shlit”a

Let me tell you about my discussions with two contemporary Israeli Gedolim: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Nahum Rabinovitch. My conversation with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlita took place on December 31, 2006; Eve of 11 Tevet 5767. What follows is my unauthorized summary of that discussion. I began by describing to him the high level of our community, religiously, intellectually and academically. The membership is generally made up of idealistic, highly educated – both secularly and religiously – Modern Orthodox Dati-Leumi families. There were those who were in favor of having a woman serve as president of the shul, while others were adamantly against it. I told him that I was not authorized to ask for a psak, but rather wanted his insights, suggestions and wise counsel of how to practically handle this complicated sugya.  

R. Aharon indicated that the “Rav” (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l) was not keen on this but did not believe that one should “storm the barricades” (“לא עולים בבריקדות”) over this. Rav Aharon said that he himself was less negative. A Rabbi doesn’t need to fight against it if it will affect the cohesiveness of the community. There are shitot le-kan u-le-kan (great scholars on both sides of the issue). We are not a Haredi community and our members would not hesitate to vote for a woman as Rosh Memshala (Head of State) and other positions of serara. It is hard to make a distinction between a shul and other venues. There may well be tsni’ut issues within shul proper, like making announcements during davening, which need to be worked out; perhaps a person other than the President should be appointed to give official announcements.  But running the Shul organization itself does not seem substantially different from other venues.  

The President of the Yeshivat Har Etsion Alumni Association outside Israel is a woman – who also speaks at dinners – and nobody at Har Etzion has a really strong objection. However, an alumni organization is not a shul organization. There are a lot of sensitivities: what the shul membership views of itself, how it’s going to affect the shul membership. Fundamentally, it is a public policy decision, which is very important. And there’s no question that there are those who want to be prohibitive, and they have the poskim to rely on, and there are those who want to be lenient, and they have solid poskim to rely on, especially in a shul situation. The cohesiveness of the community should be a major consideration in how to rule in practice. 

I said, “Rebbi, you haven’t given me any clear guidance.” He responded: “No, but I’m trying to give you a direction.” 

So I said: “Let me try to summarize your view. If you were to walk into a shul, and discover that a woman was the president of the shul, you wouldn’t walk out; nor would you have a problem being a member of the shul.” He said: “That’s correct.”  And then I continued: “But you would prefer if it weren’t that way. You would prefer that the membership had not elected a woman.” He said: “Yes.”


Rav Aharon believes that the Halakha on this issue is not clear cut; there is no clear hakhra’a (decision). However, he does strongly believe that whatever decision the community makes should be a broad consensual one. Both positions pro and con are firmly based. Great poskim like Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik were strongly against it, while others like Rav Gedaliah Schwartz, and Rav Turk were willing to support women as presidents of shuls. The critical question is how the community perceives itself. Is this the direction the community wants to go in? Is it going to add cohesiveness to the community or is it going to create fissures in the community? When Rav Lichtenstein spoke to me about “not storming the barricades” on this issue – it was because he felt that the unity of the community was more important than making an issue over whether a woman was president or not. These are public policy decisions that have to be made wisely. The importance of holding a community together cuts both ways – whether you decide pro or con –  and that’s the central issue that we have to deal with. 


Three weeks later, I spoke with Rav Nahum Rabinovitch Shlita (January 24, 2007, 6 Shevat 5767). Again, what follows is my unauthorized summary of that discussion. 

Rav Nahum felt that there was good reason to allow a woman to serve as a Shul President, since to his mind serara is the right to exercise discretionary authority. This does not exist in Shul presidencies (every decision is reviewed by the Board and balabatim). He also noted that Rabbenu Avraham ben haRambam in his commentary to Shemot 18:22 indicates that Shofet often means leader, not necessarily Judge. R. Avraham brings proof from Devorah who – as a woman – was forbidden to be a Judge.  R. Nahum found it noteworthy that R. Avraham didn’t seem to think it was assur for a woman to be a leader – parnas al ha-Tsibbur.  If he felt he was disagreeing with his father he would have apologized profusely.  

However, Rav Nahum too was concerned about the cohesiveness of the community.  In the 50s, 60s and 70s there was a real justified fear of the slippery slope, of the in-roads made by Conservative Judaism. But in 2007, things have, to his mind, changed radically. Orthodoxy is vibrant and the Conservative movement is weak. Nevertheless, one can’t dismiss the fears and concerns of those who want to be stringent.  But these fears and concerns may well dissipate in 10 years from now.


It’s time to close this lecture. The mandate I was given by the board was not to resolve this issue, but to make you aware of the halakhic parameters, so that you know that this issue has a wealth of halakhic literature, and is not a trivial question. And what really complicates it is how you, the community, want to proceed on this issue. The board does not have an easy choice on this issue. Hopefully, we will be able to work this out together


Questions and Answers

[Question from audience regarding the rationale of the stringent school.] They’re convinced by the Rambam – and by the alternate readings in the Sifrei which are consistent with the Rambam’s analysis and iindicate that our Sifrei is incomplete. They accept as authoritative the reading of the Aptowitzer edition, which is the Rambam’s reading, which excludes not only “מלך ולא מלכה” but parneset as well. The argument of the lenient school is that it does not contradict the Sifrei or disagree with the Rambam. It maintains that the position of Sifrei and Maimonides does not apply to the modern democratic situation. The strict school says serara is serara is serara. It’s what we scientists call a “state function”, a property of the position you are in – and it’s irrelevant how you got there. 

[Follow up question about the definition of a community?] From the halakhic literature it’s clear that a shul is a community, and that the rules of serara apply to a shul community as well. There are also teshuvot in the haKibbutz BaHalakha about a kibbutz. Any large group is considered serara.  How you define that large group, I don’t really know. But I guess you know it, when you see it.

[Comment: A shul is part of the larger community. And the shul has to be very careful about breaking away from the view of the general community.]  That could be, but I think that now we’re moving away from Halakha and moving more into the public policy situation.

[Question: If there would be a substantial split in a community if a woman were accepted as president, would Rav Lichtenstein say the rabbi should step forward and object.] I definitely think that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein would say yes. As I said above, the importance of holding a community together cuts both ways. For Rav Aharon, since there are poskim on both sides, the divisiveness within the community is a very important consideration. 

[Question: If the shul elects a woman as president, what will be next? What direction will we be going in?] That’s beyond the mandate that the board of the shul gave me and I’m not a prophet. 

[Question: I read that in later years Rav Kook regretted his ruling on the women’s right to vote.] Presumably this is what he expressed to Rav Maimon. Rav Kook zt”l felt that his original considerations were right, but, the way things turned out, there were other counterbalancing value judgments – perhaps more important. As you would imagine, there’s a lengthy discussion about what Rav Kook meant when he said he was sorry that he wrote what he did. He may have felt that he should have kept quiet, that other people were going to battle and he didn’t have to get involved. As I noted in my shiur, Rav Kook didn’t talk about halakhic considerations, only hashkafic ones. The latter can change with the times. When you make a pronouncement you have to be very careful about the later repercussions, especially since history has its own magical way of playing things out. Sometimes what you say in 1905 may no longer be valid in 1925.  Somehow he regretted that he had gotten involved in this controversy. 


Historical Note

At the subsequent annual shul meeting of the Tiferet Moshe Synagogue – Rabbi Jacob Berman Community Center, the question rose regarding a revision in the organization’s bylaws to allow women to run for the office of shul president. The membership overwhelmingly decided to table the question for the time being, and maintain the status quo, so as to limit communal dissension.



[1] See, for example: Leo Levi, Man Woman – The Torah Perspective, Jerusalem, 1979, p. 17; R. Ahron Soloveitchik, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, Jerusalem: Genesis Jerusalem Press, 1991, pp. 92-97; R. Ahron Soloveitchik, Major Addresses, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations – 1969 Midcontinent Conclave, pp. 21-32; Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, New York: Ktav and Yeshiva University, 1978, pp. 14-15 and 140.

[2] We should note that an earlier 1989 Teshuva has been published (Hadarom, 76, Kislev 5782 – Nov 2021) in which Rav Schwartz was stringent on the grounds that appointing a woman Shul President would be a breach of tradition. In a personal communication (Sept. 11, 2023), R. Goldin indicated that he was unaware of the 1989 Teshuva, but Rav Schwartz expressed no reservations. He may have been lenient in the 1997 Engelwood case because the woman under discussion was the best person for the job. It seems to us more likely though, that Rav Schwartz changed his mind over the years following his earlier responsum, since, as noted, his lenient 1997 ruling included no reservations. Indeed, seven years later (in 2014), Rabbi Benjamin Hassan asked Rav Schwartz the same question and received the same permissive answer, again without reservations; see: http://askrabbihassan.blogspt.com/2014/12/can-woman-be-president-of-synagogue.html and personal communication (Sept. 11, 2023). 

In 2015, the noted Posek Rav Asher Weiss released a responsum indicating that women are permitted to serve as a shul president. There may well be some tsni’ut issues within shul proper, like making announcements during davening, but these can be worked out. The Teshuva was published on the English Tvunah website of Rav Weiss, but is no longer available online.

About Aryeh Frimer

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