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Rabbinacal Tradition on the Role of Women by Hayim G. Perelmuter from 'Women and Priesthood: Future Directions'

Rabbinical Tradition on the Role of Women

by Hayim G. Perelmuter

from Women and Priesthood: Future Directions, pp. 111-120.
edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

HAYIM G. PERELMUTER, Chautauqua Professor of Jewish Studies at the Catholic Theological Union, where he offers courses in Rabbinic Judaism and the Early Church, the liturgy of the synagogue, Jewish Mysticism and Messianism. His degrees include M.H.L., Jewish Institute of Religion, New York; D.D., Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati; and D.H.L. (Cand.), Hebrew Union College-Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Rabbi of K.A.M. Isaiah-lsrael Congregation; President-elect of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

It will be useful in looking at the problem of ordination and a religious leadership role for women in the Church, to examine the experience of Judaism in this direction. There is much both faiths have in common on this subject and many areas in which they differ.

For the Church, priesthood was seen as a continuation of the model developed in the Old Testament. It saw itself as the successor to Israel into history in its role as elect of God, with priesthood as a central role of linkage. In scripture, the model for the priest was male, and there was no room for a woman to function in this role.

For the Synagogue, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic experience, an interruption to be restored only by the Messianic era in the end of time. New models for leadership emerged through Rabbinic Judaism. What now became central were the knowledge of the Torah, the capacity to interpret it, and the authority to deal with it that came from ordination.

The emphasis on maleness, nevertheless, was common to both Synagogue and Church, and the role for women was one that needed to be worked out in a painstaking way, with much soul-searching and inner struggle.

For the Church, priesthood was a continuing reality. For the Synagogue, on the other hand, it became a memory, preserved in a sense of awareness of descent from the priesthood. The descendants of the priestly family possessed the right of precedence in being called up to the Torah and blessing the congregation on the three pilgrim festivals: Passover, Tabernacles and Shavuot. They were subject, if they wished to retain their status of ancestral purities, to the same laws as were their priestly forebears.

Yet for Judaism, the emphasis is plainly on the Rabbinate and its role, and it is here that the struggle for the participation of women develops.


Leadership models for women are clearly to be found in the Old Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, but not in sufficient emphasis to qualify for the kind of role which is being sought after in our day.

Certainly Eve plays no minor role as she moves from the role of man’s helpmate to the shaper of his destiny. In a way, the story of the Fall is intended as a corrective to that view. The matriarchs, each in their way, show a sense of creative independence, and Rebecca’s role in achieving primacy for Jacob is a case in point (Gen 27).

There is the mother of Moses, Jochebed (Ex 2:1-10), and his sister Miriam(1) who play significant leadership roles in the shaping of his career. There is Deborah, of course, who acts as leader and judge, clearly a figure of strength and of influence (Jdg 4-5). There is the Queen Mother Athaliah,(2) to say nothing of Jezebel,(3) both of whom play such a crucial part in the affairs of state. There are Bathsheba(4) and Abigail(5) in David’s time, and the former’s role in achieving King Solomon’s succession to the throne would do credit to the best political manipulators of our time. We have the wise woman in the days of Samuel; the prophetess Hulda in Jeremiah’s day (2 Kgs 22:14-20).

In a time of Israel’s history when prophets and judges were central to its national and religious formation, it is of no little significance that women could be recognized as judges and prophets. Not many to be sure, but that there were any at all is worthy of note.

There are, however, clear indications of a polarized view of woman in the infrastructure of the Biblical narrative. In the creation stories the view of woman before the Fall sees her as the equal of man, as his fulfillment. Then after the Fall there is a change in her status because of her sin.

In the Book of Proverbs we tend to find a negative view of woman; in the Song of Songs there is a return to the “prelapsarian view” of woman, autonomous and strong.(6)

The daughters of Zelophehad,(7) who made such a strong plea for woman’s rights in inheritance, emerged in later Rabbinic tradition as experts in the interpretation of Torah. “It was taught:”, the Talmud records, “The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, they were experts, they were virtuous.”(8) Not many women emerge in Rabbinic literature as experts in scholarship. Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir, is perhaps the best known.

She is described as an avid scholar, a perceptive student of Torah, who apparently went through the intensive three year course of study customary for disciples of Rabbis at the time. The Talmud relates how a scholar who came before Rabbi Johanan, asking him to teach him the Book of Genealogies in three months, is rebuked for his presumption with the words: “If Beruriah, who studied three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day could nevertheless not do her duty in three years, how can you propose to do it in three months!”(9)

Nevertheless, into the intertestamentary period and the formative years of the development of Rabbinic Judaism, clearly the role of woman becomes circumscribed and limited. When Josephus, writing about Judaism to the Roman world in the first century, boldly expresses his defense of Judaism in response to the attacks of Apion, he could write:

. . . for, says the Scripture: a woman is inferior to her husband in all things. Let her therefore be obedient to him: not that he should abuse her, but that she may acknowledge her duty to her husband.(10)

Certainly, if we were to apply the criteria of individual human rights, the role of woman in the post-Biblical, formative Rabbinic era would have to been seen as limited, and perhaps secondary.(11) When it came to references to rights and status in courts of law, women were coupled with children and slaves in their ineligibility to testify in a court of law. They could be divorced by, but could not divorce their husbands. They could never marry again if their husband were to disappear or abandoned her. They were not required to study Torah or to perform most of the 613 commandments.

Yet the woman was honored and cherished in the society as Mother and Wife. She was protected by contract. Judaism was basically a monogamous society.

A deeper reason is seen for this special status. Rabbinic Judaism emerged as a force for Jewish survival after the destruction of the Jewish State by Rome. Survival was its goal, through Torah and family. The role of studying Torah was given to the man; of being the central force in developing and influencing the family—to the woman.

In the conflict with Hellenism, in the first pre-Christian century, the stress was on the unity and survivability of the Jewish people. Hence it became very important to ward off outside influences which could blur and dilute that identity and unity.(12) Thus a special status develops for woman to protect her, and to protect the structure of Jewish society.

The central fact is, whether viewed from a negative or a positive viewpoint, the place for woman in a ministerial role was minimal. There were virtually no women scholars, no women rabbis, no women religious functionaires.

What we do find are women playing an economic or business role as the husband concentrates on the study of Torah. We find, for example, the case of an 11th Century woman in Babylonia, Wuhsha by name,(13) who appears in court, makes a will, takes part in commercial transactions, heads a committee for the repair of a synagogue building, and dedicates a Torah scroll.

We learn, that in Renaissance Italy, permission was given occasionally to women to act as Shohet (a ritual functionary, usually male who slaughtered fowl and domestic animals to provide the community with Kosher meat).

In the Response of Isaac di Lattes, a Rabbi in Mantua, we find the formula of permission for a woman to function as a religious functionary in this role. He writes:

Just as man fulfills his role to the highest degree by devoting himself to study [of Torah], searching after wisdom and probing into the causes of all phenomena, so it is the glory and the grandeur of woman to remain in the home to give guidance to her children and to prepare food for the household. Therefore the management of the household devolves upon her. Now since it is the woman’s responsibility to prepare meals for her husband and to care for her flock, her little children, and to raise them as flower beds that they may become strong to serve their Creator, should they desire to eat dressed meat properly slaughtered, she cooks it and prepares the table. Now in order that a stranger may not come into her house [to be with her] in performing the act of ritual slaughter as required by our holy Torah, it has been a practice for the daughters of Israel to study the laws of ritual slaughter. And this worthy and virtuous maiden in Israel, who is not lacking in worth and grandeur has studied the laws of Ritual Slaughter [of permitted animals and birds for food], has mastered the material in the appropriate manuals, and has become proficient in them through instruction from the venerable Rabbi --- who attests to her proficiency and validates her work as acceptable. I therefore give her my support and open the door to her permitting her to perform this holy task to feed others, provided only that she perform in the presence of an expert to determine whether she faints or not (i.e. whether she can really stand the gaff!), she must do this twice a day, morning and evening for the first three months, then once a week for the following year, and thereafter once a month for the rest of her hfe, that she not forget what she has learned. Her deeds will praise her in the gates, she will eat of the fruit of her hands, and she will merit a good marriage, sons who will study Torah and perform good deeds in Israel in the lifetime of her father and her mother, her brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, who will behold the good things that come to her, and will rejoice. Amen.(14)

I have translated and cited this episode because it reflects the subtle change in attitude to ministry by woman in a male oriented religious culture, and within the legal framework of the accepted tradition. One must remember that the proper preparation of meat for the table was an injunction rooted in the Bible and related to the Temple cult. The animals brought to the Temple for sacrifice, were as we read in the Book of Samuel, slaughtered by the priests, who kept a small portion, returning the rest to the one who brought the offering so that he and his family could partake of it.(15)

This priestly activity became the task of a specially trained religious functionary who had to master a tractate of the Talmud which dealt with this both from a religious and technical point of view. This functionary was usually a male. To permit a woman to do this was in reality a departure from norm, and we must note how this departure is justified by attempting to portray and defend the traditional role of woman!


To take a leap from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century is not as long a leap as the years suggest. For, from the point of view of Jewish history, the middle ages extend from the eighth century when the Talmud was completed, up to the eve of the French Revolution, during which time most of the world Jewry lived under Talmudic law.

It is with the French (and American) Revolutions, that the ghetto walls began to fall, and the opportunities for the entry of the Jew into the world of western culture appeared. The price of the “ticket of admission to European civilization,” as Heine put it, was the acceptance of individual freedom at the price of national identity.

Thus many Jews tended to see themselves a French (or German, or British, or American) Jew of the Mosaic persuasion, and Reform Judaism appeared on the scene, in an attempt to refashion Judaism in consonance with the new spirit of the new times.

Here were new views for emancipation of men and women; new ideals of equal status; new dreams touched off by the Romantic movement. Mary Wollstoncraft Shelley dreamed of the liberated woman in England; George Sand, in France, made her claim for emancipation in men’s garb! Rahel Herz and her Jewish compatriots presided over salons which were centers of literary, artistic and political creativity.

Since Reform Judaism saw itself as a new incarnation of prophetic Judaism, reborn for a new Messianic day, it declared itself emancipated from the “bonds” of Rabbinic law, and could legislate freely for the future.

Early in the nineteenth century it proclaimed equal status for men and women within Judaism. By mid-nineteenth century it had declared that women could be ordained as Rabbis. The first woman Rabbi was so ordained in American Reform Judaism in—1973! That it took more than a century to implement this declaration speaks volumes for the tension between legislation and custom in any religious movement, even the most liberal.

At the present time there are four or five ordained women Rabbis in the American Reform movement. One of them, Sally Priesand, the first to be ordained (16) ( 1973), was elected in June of 1977 as the first woman to serve on the Executive Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Almost one third of the enrollment in the four branches of the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, the American Seminary that trains Reform Rabbis, are women. So in this wing of Judaism, it would appear that the breakthrough for women in the ministry has been achieved.

A closer look at the process will be helpful. For one thing, the first woman known to have filled any rabbinical function in modern times was Hannah Rachel Werbermacher(17) (1805-1892) who was known as the Maid of Ludomir. She became famous as a Talmudic scholar, and was consulted by a great number of hasidim, who regarded her as a saint. She wore a prayer shawl, put on phylacteries, said Kaddish and attended services regularly. But she never received ordination. In the 1930’s Regina Jonas was the first woman to be ordained a Rabbi in Germany. However, she never led a congregation. She died in a concentration camp under the Nazis.

We must note it took almost a century for the first woman to be ordained as Rabbi in the Reform movement. For as early as 1846, the Breslau Synod passed a resolution: that woman be entitled to the same religious rights and subject to the same religious duties as man.... that women are obliged to perform religious acts as depend on a fixed time, insofar as such acts have significance for our religious consciousness.(18)

It stopped short, however, of including ordination.

It took American Reform Judaism, in the spirit of American liberalism and freedom, to take that step. In 1892, three years after its founding, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (C.C.A.R.), the central body of Reform Rabbis, passed a resolution which repeated the spirit of the Breslau resolution, equal rights for women, but still no mention of ordination.

It was not until 1922 that the question of ordination was confronted head on at a session of the C.C.A.R. Here the question was dealt with directly. Prof. Jacob Lanterbach presented a lengthy responsum on the question, and came to a cautiously negative conclusion on the grounds that it might jeopardize the authority and historic character of ordination. He was opposed in the debate by Prof. David Neumark, who argued:

You cannot treat the Reform rabbinate from the Orthodox point of view. Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy and Reform is Reform. Our good relations with our Orthodox brethren may still be improved upon a clear and decided stand upon the question.

Therefore, a resolution, approving the ordination of women, was overwhelmingly passed, with two negative votes cast by Prof. Lanterbach and Rabbi Barnet Brickner.

So there was the resolution, but still no ordained Rabbis. A few women here and there took full Rabbinic courses hoping to be ordained. Between 1922 and 1932 three or four women were graduated without ordination from the New York and Cincinnati schools of the College-Institute.

In 1935, the daughter of a Rabbi enrolled at the New York School (Jewish Institute of Religion) took the full course, asked for ordination, and after a faculty battle it was denied by a narrow majority. The student received a Master of Hebrew Letters degree but no ordination.

In England, in the early twenties, the Hon. Lily Montagu, one of the founders of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, was elected as “lay preacher” of her congregation and served for many years as its spiritual leader and preacher. She had no ordination from a theological seminary, although in later years she was given an honorary D.H.L. degree from Hebrew Union College.(19)

But still no ordination of women. Finally the man who voted against ordination of women in 1922, came out for it in 1955. In that year, Rabbi Brickner, who had by this time become President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, called for a reconsideration in his presidential address. Acknowledging his opposition in 1922, he added: “But since then our needs have changed and I have changed my mind. Many Christian Protestant denominations have also changed their minds and now ordain women.”

Earlier in 1955, Harvard Divinity School had voted to admit women to qualify for ordination, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church had made a similar decision. He, therefore, recommended the appointment of a special committee to study the matter and to report at the next conference. The following year a report was brought in, giving its approval to the 1922 resolution and suggesting that the time of ordination had come. This report was received, and tabled for further discussion.

No additional resolution seemed needed, for the 1922 resolution was clear enough. All that remained was implementation, and in 1967, a woman was admitted to the Rabbinic program, fulfilled the requirements and was ordained by Dr. Nelson Glueck, who had served as a member of the 1956 committee.

The hand of custom hung heavy even over a movement that had hitched its wagon to the star of change.


In the traditional wings of Judaism (Orthodox and Conservative) the movement toward the religious equalization of woman’s role has moved much more slowly.

The restraints in Jewish law, the paramount role for the male despite a protective role for woman remained. The part assigned to women in synagogue worship remained secondary. They were kept separate in worship service, and in some situations even veiled from view.

Yet as one moved into Western societies, with their tendency to a more liberated view of woman, one saw evidences of changing attitudes.

The Conservative movement, although it saw itself as living under the authority of the Halacha (religious law), nevertheless, conceded some change in religious practice. The elimination of separation of seating in public worship was the major change it made when it first appeared on the American Jewish scene at the turn of the century. Some Conservative congregations (but not many) went so far as to introduce the organ as an instrument of musical accompaniment in worship.

In the Conservative movement there were gradations of subtle change. The faculty of its theological seminary tended to adhere most closely to the Orthodox position; the rabbinate tended to be sensitive to constructive change within the tradition; and the laity was flexible in its own practice while insisting on the maintenance of traditional patterns by its functionaries.

But here, as in the Orthodox world, the pressures for change were constant. Many Jewish women were involved in the woman’s liberation movements. Many women of Conservative and Orthodox backgrounds moved ahead in the academic and professional world, and began to press for more significant roles in their religious lives.

Responding to this pressure in the Conservative movement, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Law and Standards ruled that women could be counted as members of the quorum (minyan) for group prayer.(20) This has not yet won widespread acceptance in the movement, yet it is indicative of a process of change that is not likely to be stemmed. Just over the horizon, demands that women serve as cantor and as rabbi are surfacing. Women have long been students in the Teacher’s College of the Jewish Theological Seminary, but some are now knocking insistently upon the doors of the Rabbinic division for admission.

Philip Sigal of the Law Committee put it succinctly, after giving the full measure of legal arguments for the inclusion of women in the religious quorum when he wrote:

To disqualify women from sharing in the right to constitute an assembly or a worship community is to offend them without reason. Even if we categorize the disqualification of women to constitute a quorum as minhag (custom) it is a minhag which has lost its reason and its appeal .(21)

The issue has surfaced and keeps reappearing. It is a constant theme in scholarly and popular journals; it emerges at assemblies and conferences of religious and law bodies across the spectrum of Jewish life.

Not even Orthodoxy is immune from these stirrings. Here, however, the emphasis is more on removing certain disabilities in legal status and in participatory roles in the synagogue. Orthodox women who have made their way in the professional and academic world are leaders in this advocacy for their advancement in religious status.

Particularly symptomatic of this is the very sober and penetrating analysis by the Dean of Stern College, an Orthodox sponsored woman’s college in New York.(22) That the article was written at all is evidence of the stirrings on this question within the Orthodox camp.

Writing in Tradition, A Journal of Orthodox Thought, Dean Saul Berman deals with the problem in all its complexity. He examines the discontent with the role of women in traditional Judaism, analyzes the legal components which Jewish law assigns to women, evaluates the justice of complaints, and makes some “modest proposals.”

The issues as Dean Berman sees them involve: a sense of being deprived of opportunities for positive religious identification; disadvantages in civil law, especially in the role of the abandoned wife; and the rabbinic perception of the nature of women and the role to which they are assigned.

There ought to be a moratorium on apologetics and a determination to do something about the most serious problems, Berman believes. He very clearly suggests a direction for Orthodoxy:

It is vital for us to examine these laws and social practices which seem to be unjust to women. When all is said and done, those laws were the total preoccupation of centuries of Jewish sages and scholars through whose interpretative skills capital punishment was virtually abolished: through whose legal authority the task of transformation and eventual elimination of slavery was accomplished; and through whose social awareness a Jewish welfare system came into existence, which is unmatched to this day for its sensitivity to the feelings of the poor.(23)

Reform could proceed de novothough it was not immune from the pressures of custom. For Orthodoxy, he sees the response to the problems in the slow and steady working out of the situation, by bending, without breaking the law to meet new situations.

What this portends for the ministry role for women, especially ordination, in the development of Orthodoxy is not promising in the long run. But what can be expected is a facing up to and gradual change of some aspects of the legal role of women, and a gradual freeing up of women for more of a role in public worship. At the very least, it may be said that the problem is beginning to be faced and discussed.


One thing is clear, and it would seem to be operative not only in the experience of Judaism, but in the experience of many other religious and cultural movements.

It has to do with the delicate balance between custom and law and their development. Accepted customs sometimes harden into and find their expression in law. Law, in its turn, comes under the constant pressure of newly emerging customs.(24)

You do not make a law, a Rabbinic maxim once observed, unless a consensus of the people is willing to accept it! (25) And when the law is in existence, if consensus rejects it, it becomes ultimately necessary to change the law.

When Rabbi Joseph Karo wrote his code of Jewish law in the sixteenth century, he did not take into account the folk practices of Polish and German Jewry. It became acceptable to them only when Rabbi Moses Isserles (1526-1571), a great Rabbinic leader of East European Jewry, included them.(26)

There are now women rabbis in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, women ministers in many Protestant denominations. As one observer wryly put it: “While women ministers are getting the pulpits with less status, less money, and less hope for advancement, they have nevertheless made it to the bottom rung.”(27)

How many palm trees await how many Deborahs to sit under them and judge, we do not know. But what we do know is that the process moves forward, the pressures are irresistible, and law and custom in their interaction will create situations where woman’s drive for ministry will ultimately find its fulfillment.


Berman, Saul J., ''Status of Women in Judaism," Tradition, Vol. 14 No. 2, Fall 1973

Central Conference of American Rabbis, Year Books, Vol. LXV, 1955 and LXVI, 1956.

Goitein, Shelomo Dov, "Middle Ages,'' Hadassah Newsletter, October 1973.

Greenberg, Blu and Irving, ''Equality in Judaism,'' Hadassah Newsletter, December 1973.

Hyman, Paula, "Jewish Theology: What's In It For and Against Us?," Ms., July 1974

de Lattes, Rabbi Isaac b. Imanuel, She'elot Uteshuvot (Responsa), Friedrich Foerster Verlag, Vienna 1860.

Priesand, Sally, Judaism and the New Woman, Behrman: 1975.

Rainey, Anson, "Woman," Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 16, 62.

Sacks, Bracha, ''Why I choose Orthodoxy " Ms., July 1974.

Sigal, Philip, "Women in the Minyan,'' Judaism, Spring 1974.

Starkman, Elaine, "Women in the Pulpit,'' Hadassah Newsletter, December 1973.

Swidler, Leonard, Women in Judaism, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976.


1. Miriam interceded with the daughter of Pharaoh that the infant Moses could be returned to his mother as a nurse (Ex 2:4, 7-8). Upon the crossing of the Sea of Reeds she is called a ''prophetess," leading the women in the victory refrain (Ex 15:20-21). Later she was connected in a revolt against Moses (Num 12). Along with Moses and Aaron, she was mentioned by the prophet Micah as one sent by the Lord (Mic 6:4).

2. Cf.,2 Kgs 8:18, 26-27; ch 11.

3. Cf., 1 Kgs 16:31-33; 18-19; 19:1-3; 2 Kgs 9:30-37.

4. Cf.,2 Sam 11; 12:15-25; 1 Kgs 1:5-40; 2: 13-25.

5. Cf., 1 Sam 25; 27:3; 2 Sam 3:3.

6. Leonard Swidler, Women in Judaism (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976) 25, 33.

7.Cf.,Num 27:1-11, ch 36; Josh 17:3-6.

8. Babylonian Talmud,Baba Batra, 119b (Soncino).

9. Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim, 62b.

10. Josephus, Against Apion, Whiston edition (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1895) Vol. 2, 515.

11. Earlier chapters in this book by Robert Karris and Carolyn Osiek have noted a similar decline in the status and rights of women from that in the ministry of Jesus and the early Church to that in "Early Catholicism" and the Patristic Age.

12. Women in Judaism, 54.

13. Shelomo Dov Gotein, ''Middle Ages," Hadassah Newsletter, October 1973.

14. Responsa, by Rabbi Isaac ben Imanuel de Lattes, Vienna 1860, 140. Italics added.

15.Cf., 1 Sam 2:12-17.

16. ''Woman in the Pulpit," Hadassah Newsletter, October 1973.


18. Year Book, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Vol. LXVI 1956, 91. See also the CCAR Year Book for 1955, 13, the Presidential Address of Rabbi Barnet Brickner which placed the issue on the agenda.

19. Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol.7, 626.

20. Philip Sigal, ''Women in the Minyan," Judaism, Spring 1974.

21. Ibid., 182.

22. Saul Berman, "The Status of Women in Halakhik Judaism," Tradition, 14, No. 2 (Fall 1973) 5ff

23. Ibid., 10.

24. The force of custom within Roman Catholic Canon Law is discussed in ch 5, sec 1 of this book by Dismas Bonner.

25. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama, 79b: "You do not make a decision for the community unless the majority of the community can endure it."

26. Chaim Tchernovitz, Toledot Ha-Poskim (New York: 1947) Vol. 3, 47.

27. Efthalia Walsh, "Ever-more Women in the Pulpit," New York Times, Sept. 27, 1977.

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