By Avrohom Gordimer
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s ambitious program to fill Israeli society with female halachic adjudicators just experienced a significant advance, as R. Riskin appointed a woman, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, to the position of Mahniga Ruhanit (Spiritual Leader) in his city of Efrat. R. Riskin explained that Dr. Rosenfeld will render halachic rulings on questions posed to her, and that there is no bar to women serving as rabbinic judges:
Her sponsor, Rabbi Riskin was very clear about the validity of this role. “The only reason why women cannot be judges is if they are not accepted by the people. When it is clear they are accepted and have halachic knowledge, they can render halachic decisions,” says Rabbi Riskin.
As such, R. Riskin has founded the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership, which aims to create a cohort of female halachic leaders, trained and certified as follows:
Morot Hora’ah: Five-year program training women in the classic rabbinic curriculum of Kashrut, Shabbat, Family Purity, Mourning, and Marriage. This training is complemented by an extensive curriculum of philosophical, social, and psychological training for communal leadership.
Completion of the course and success in written tests leads to Heter Hora’ah – the centuries-old traditional license to issue halakhic rulings.
Dayanut: Ten-year advanced training program launched in 2013 for women who have completed the heter hora’ah program, equipping them with the knowledge base to serve as judges for conversion and divorce. For the first time since Devorah served as a judge, Jewish history will once again see women trained for the task, and their very presence will restore – and ensure the preservation of – women’s rights in areas of personal status.
The first-ever book of halakhic responsa penned by women who were ordained by the WIHL to serve as halakhic decisors was presented to the public on Monday, 23 June, 2014, at a unique symposium promoting female halakhic leadership in Israeli society.
Now, aside from the fact that rabbinic ordination cannot be conferred upon women, as explained in detail here (please click here for the statement of the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA, that reflects this axiom), R. Riskin introduces a new calculus and arrives at an equation that simply does not compute. R. Riskin affirms that, “The only reason why women cannot be judges is if they are not accepted by the people. When it is clear they are accepted and have halachic knowledge, they can render halachic decisions.” Well, yes, the Gemara in Sanhedrin of course states that litigants may voluntarily accept upon themselves the testimony and rulings of those who do not qualify as witnesses or dayanim (judges), such as women and relatives, for a form of binding arbitration (Sanhedrin 24a, Rambam Hil. Sanhedrin 7:2, and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 22:1). However, this does not confer upon the women or relatives whose ruling has been voluntarily accepted the legal status of a beis din. An actual, legal beis din, rather than those unqualified as dayanim but accepted voluntarily as arbitrators to render a decision, is required for geirus (conversion – v. Yevamos 46b, Rambam Hil. Issurei Bi’ah 13:6 and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 268:3-4) and may be necessary for certain aspects of geirushin (divorce). This is why geirus must occur by day, as a beis din, unlike arbitrators, may not convene at night. R. Riskin’s program that provides women with rabbinic training and ordination, granting “the centuries-old traditional license to issue halakhic rulings” and “equipping them with the knowledge base to serve as judges for conversion and divorce”, is illegitimately predicated on an assertion that has no bearing on the matter. Those who do not qualify to form an halachic beis din do not attain the status of an halachic beis din for conversion, divorce and other other proceedings, regardless of voluntary acceptance by the parties. Arbitration and beis din status are apples and oranges; R. Riskn’s calculation does not compute.
R. Riskin presents his sanction for women to serve as halachic adjudicators as a very simple issue:
Riskin insisted that there has never been any aspersion within rabbinic sources against a woman who is knowledgeable in Jewish law having the right to make halachic decisions. “This is not a halachic departure in any sense and it is not a revolution in halacha,” asserted Riskin.
Rabbi Riskin spoke to the reasoning behind what he sees as the value of bringing women into the halachic discourse, positing that a female approach to Jewish law and the challenges facing Judaism nowadays is a required element for religious life. “Women naturally bring to halacha an emotional sensitivity which is a very important aspect of our Oral Law,” he explained. “The Oral Law was given within the context of G-d’s revelation of Himself as a G-d of love and loving kindness and compassion and patience.”
It is as if the millenia of rabbinic practice of women not serving as halachic adjudicators, and the rulings of contemporary poskim that affirm this traditional position, clearly missed the boat, as the issue is so obvious as to its legitimacy, per R. Riskin’s presentation.
Yet alas, the notion that Halacha all along sanctioned the ordination of women and their appointment as dayanot, but that K’lal Yisroel and its rabbinic sages somehow overlooked this glaring fact, hearkens back to the timeless words of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l regarding Mesorah (Torah tradition) and innovation:
First, we must pursue the truth and nothing else but the truth. However, the truth in talmud Torah can be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking, and Torah understanding. The truth is obtained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed down from generation to generation.
The truth can be discovered only through joining the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah. It’s ridiculous to say “I have discovered something of which the Rashba didn’t know, the Ketzos didn’t know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge; I’ve discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new.” It’s ridiculous! One has to join the ranks of the chachmei mesorah, Chazal, rishonim, gedolei acharonim, and must not try to rationalize from without the chukei haTorah, and judge. We must not judge chukim umishpatim in terms of a secular system of values.
Such an attempt, be it historicism, be it psycholigism, be it utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of Torah and mesorah and it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism. No matter how good the intentions are of the person who is suggesting them.
[This article first appeared at CrossCurrents and is published here with the author’s permission.]