Can Orthodox Women Be Rabbis?

People have asked me to write about this topic for quite some time, but I have always hesitated because I knew that the moment I put words onto the screen, I would get complaints from those to the right and to the left of me. It is the perpetual problem of a person who tries to listen to both sides from the center and incorporate the best of each, but as this topic is in the news again, causing much dissent within the Orthodox community, I’d figured that maybe now would be the right time to jump in!

There are the two motivating factors which form the suggestion I’m about to propose in terms of how we handle this question: number one – I’m a lifelong feminist. I don’t mean it in the “women should be exactly like men way.” I mean it in the “I believe all women (and all people for that matter!) should live their lives with agency.” I also believe that women have a tremendous amount to offer the world – some talents that are similar to men and some which are uniquely, and wonderfully, women-specific. With all the ways women are contributing to secular society, it is understandable that Orthodox Jewish women want to have more opportunities to use their talents to improve Jewish life .

At the same time, I am extremely wary of change occurring too quickly and without proper rabbinic backing when it comes to matters of Jewish law and mesorah (tradition). I’m not going to go into a halachic discussion on the merits or problems of ordaining women because I’m simply (like most people) not well enough informed to have a handle on the topic. This is what I do know, though: I am the product of a movement (the Conservative movement) which was supposed to be “religious” but just more open and progressive than those “extremist Orthodox Jews.” What ended up happening to my family and community and really much of the Conservative movement at large is that the “progressiveness” beat out the “religiousness” and there is not too much left in terms of a future for Conservative Judaism. Now does every single Torah law or rabbinic enactment sit easily with me? Definitely not. There are a slew of topics I struggle with. But here’s what I’ve come to realize. The Torah, along with emunas b’chachamim (faith in our sages), is like a game of Jenga. It might seem appealing to start picking out the blocks you don’t like in an effort to “improve” it, but before you know it, the whole thing tumbles.

And that is my dilemma – wanting new opportunities for women, yet realizing that Jewish law is not determined by how many shares (or Likes) you get on Facebook, but rather the same process which has been in place for thousands of years. So this is my suggestion, which is prefaced by a question: Why must a rebbetzin (also known as a rabbanit, in Hebrew) be a position you can only marry into (i.e. by marrying a rabbi)? In our every increasingly complicated world, I know many a woman who is married to a rabbi, but who has a career which is not “rebbetzin.” And I know many a woman (present company included) who is leading and inspiring in the Jewish sphere, but without a rabbi for a husband. Such a model works if you’re the entrepreneurial type, but not every person is. This leads me to wonder, perhaps there could be a rebbetzin (or rabbanit) training program for women who didn’t marry rabbis, but who still want to have a meaningful way to contribute and be a leader within an Orthodox Jewish community.

Women could learn at high levels as they’ve been doing in parts of the Orthodox world for some time and become experts on women’s halahic issues. They could take classes on public speaking, pastoral counseling, speech writing, etc. And then they could get placed in shuls. Shuls could start having rebbetzin positions for hire. Interestingly enough, there was a legal question that came up recently in Oregon as to whether or not a rebbetzin is considered “clergy” with protected privilege status if someone tells a rebbetzin something in confidence, and the court ruled that a rebbetzin is in fact clergy! But here’s the really surprising part – my friends both to the right and to the left of me were all excited about this news!

In my on-going effort to increase unity in the Jewish people and look for ways to stop infighting (four more Jews were stabbed in Israel yesterday!) I wonder if a rebbetzin/rabbanit training program could be a compromise that we could all live with…

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  • Avatar photo Devora says on November 4, 2015

    I think this is a fantastic idea. The idea of a rebbetzin/rabbanit only being the title of the rabbi’s wife has bothered me for a very long time. As a Torah-observant woman who loves learning and is involved with Jewish outreach, I’ve often wished there was a way to get formal Jewish training and some form of licensure as rabbis do, without rearranging halachah to fit myself.

  • Avatar photo Rochel says on November 4, 2015

    I love your “jenga” parable. I will use that myself. It really troubles me when I read so many women and men commenting that not being made into a rabbi, is somehow “sexist” and “wrongfull” for women. I am orthodox, I fully believe in G-d, that the Torah was handed down orally and that it is a tremendous mitzvah to believe and trust in our Rabbi’s. The Torah says women are not allowed to be rabbis. Our rabbi’s are enforcing a Torah ruling. End of story. Why do women have to always try to come close to G-d in ways that they “feel” are right, why can’t they just do it the way that it IS right? Simply because thats part of the evil inclination, even when we are trying to do the right thing, our yetzer harah is persuading us that doing it this way, is the right way. Well, its not orthodox, plain and simple. Its not looking down on women, its not putting them into a small box that they can’t break out of, its very very different than breaking the glass ceiling in the corporate world. Every one has a job, and being a Rabbi is simply not part of a womens job description. Now, being a rebbetzin is a great and wonderful idea. Women have a lot to offer in leadership positions, and creating a rebbetzin school, so to speak, is the perfect way to offer that. However, the women who are crying out to be rabbi’s will never settle for that, b/c they weren’t raised with the understanding that everyone has their own tafkid (role). They were told, you as a women could do everything that a man can. And that is simply not an orthodox torah ideal. Thank you for your erudite and thoughtful comments on this matter, I know a lot of people look up to you, being on the other side and making a transformation. Thank you for your comments!!! It is so heartwarming to see something positive instead of all the negative “rabbi’s are sexist” comments.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on November 4, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Rochel. Just a small point – a woman not being a rabbi is not part of Torah law, but more of a Talmudic/mesorah thing.

      • Avatar photo Scott says on May 4, 2021

        Hi.. where in the Talmud is this mentioned? please cite the source..?

  • Avatar photo Vivian Molnar says on November 4, 2015

    There are female Orthodox Rabbis being ordained now in Israel, for quite a few years now. However, I’m rather unclear as to why they cannot be Orthodox Cantors – mind you, most of the rules I have problems understanding from a personal viewpoint, but can work through them on a religious level.

    So, I say YES, women can become Rabbis, at all levels of Jewish observance.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on November 4, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Vivian. But changing synagogue ritual is a pretty big deal in terms of halacha and separate praying is part of the Orthodox landscape of prayer.

  • Avatar photo Ortho Feminist says on November 4, 2015

    How is what your suggesting different than Maharat? Just the lack of the word “ordination”? Also, what do you mean by “women’s halachic issues”? If men can advise women about hilchot niddah, why can’t women advise men about halachot that apply to men?

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on November 4, 2015

      Without ordination – that is one step too far for many. And using “rabbanit” feels like a term we are used to and less innovative which makes it more comfortable for a broader group of people. Also, I have spoken to several rabbis in the RCA camp who would be open to female posekot. So, perhaps that could be an option too – not rabbi but still involved in the halachic process. When I say women’s halachic issues – I’m thinking any halacha a woman deals with. So not bris milah, for instance! 🙂 but broader than niddah.

  • Avatar photo Gideon says on November 4, 2015

    I have always been bothered by the disrespect the traditional female roles are always given in this discussion. Although unsaid, there is a subtext that wife, mother, teacher and sister just aren’t enough; that they aren’t “leadership positions” in the community. What nonsense! I can think of no more important “leadership position” for our community. Where a Rabbi might shape a tiny portion of a community now, a Jewish mother, teacher, wife is entrusted with shaping the entire future generations of Judaism. That is HER unique role and what more important or “leadership” role in our community can their be?

    PS: Loved the Jenga analogy.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on November 5, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Gideon. I agree that female family roles should be valued, but halacha doesn’t actually require a woman to get married and have children (only a man is obligated to do that). Halacha also doesn’t require or forbid a woman to work (she can choose), though a man is supposed to support his family. Being a working mom is complicated and I agree that our society values status above many other important values. But there are many women who don’t want to be leaders for the purpose of status. Many simply want a chance to share something meaningful inside of them with the world. That is how JITC started. So even though I am for tradition and valuing mothers, if someone told me that I could only be a mother and not share my gift with the world, I’d be pretty upset. Just something to keep in mind..

  • Avatar photo Devorah says on November 5, 2015

    I’m from Boro Park, in Brooklyn, NY and all female teachers who taught a Torah subject were referred to as “Rebbitzen ____” , regardless of who their husbands are. The myriad of women speakers out there choose whether they wish to be referred to as Mrs. or Rebbitzen as well. I therefore don”t see women being called Rebbitzen solely based on their husbands’ title. Thank you so much for your excellent website, the work you do for Klal Yisrael and for the kiddush Hashem you create!

  • Avatar photo Miriam Rabin says on November 6, 2015

    What is the cheapest commodity in the world today? A girl. A woman. Compared to a hundred years ago, when women were treated with great honor and respect, today most teenage girls have endured more emotional pain in the hands of men than a prostitute was treated a hundred years ago. Simply turn on the radio. Cars are advertised by comparing them to women. Need I say more?
    The more women try to “move in” on men’s specialties, the more unnecessary and un-special she becomes. And the more men, who now have no specialty as a male, reverse to being nothing but little boys.
    This is not a pretty world we live in nor is the picture you paint of the future of Orthodox Judaism a pretty one. Contrary to the underlying theme of Jew in the City, withal the good it impacts, which is the “image”

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on November 6, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Miriam. While I too am distressed with how women are increasingly objectified and how our society is becoming more and more pornified, unfortunately, I don’t see the past as rosy as you do in terms of women. Women couldn’t vote, there was polygamy way back, they were not respected (in many cases) for their intellect. I’m not sure what you are objecting to exactly: my idea is not for women to “move in on men’s specialities” – it’s for women to strengthen their training in being rebbetzins. This is taking an age old concept and giving women more of a structured way to fulfill this role…

  • Avatar photo Nora says on November 9, 2015

    Isn’t Yeshivat Maharat adressing exactly that topic?

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on November 9, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Nora. In many ways yes, however when they started using the word “ordain” they lost a lot of backing. And, IMO, if the word “rabbanit” or “rebbetzin” would used, it would make the charedi crowd more comfortable as culturally it would feel less foreign. So it’s similar but different in important ways.

  • Avatar photo Beth Jacobs says on December 3, 2017

    It’s slowly changing. There are many women out there who are de facto rebbetzins without having rabbis for husbands (even if they’re not referred to as “rebbetzin” per se). I know of one such woman who is divorced, and another who hasn’t married. We’re getting there! Proof: Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

  • Avatar photo moshe shoshan says on April 3, 2021

    In the DL community this is becoming the norm. Rabbanit is used for learned female educators and leaders regardless of what thjeir husband does. Indeed “Rabbanit” is simple the feminine form of “rav”. they dont have any formal retirements for the title, but the dirty secret is that many people who go by the title rabbi in our community either lack smicha or or have very minimal smichas and dont really have any vast knowledge.


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