Open Orthodoxy is a Positive Step Backward

Hakham Moshe Firrouz in a recent interview with the Jewish Weekly (photo/david a.m. wilensky)

Hakham Moshe Firrouz in a recent interview with the Jewish Weekly (photo/david a.m. wilensky)

Let me begin with my usual disclaimers: I’m not a Rabbanite Jew. I don’t really take sides in the internal debates within the Rabbinic community. But, given the recent attention on the Open Orthodoxy Movement and its fervent desire to ordain female rabbis within the Orthodox Community – as well as the strong opposition by others who will not accept female rabbis, I thought I’d chime in with some Karaite thoughts.

I’ll start with the obvious place for a Karaite to begin. There is nothing in the Torah that forbids a woman from being a communal leader of the sort that rabbis fulfill today. If someone has a proof to the contrary, I invite you to post it in the comments. In the Torah, we even read of a female prophet (Miriam). In the rest of the NaKh we read of other female prophets, and a female judges and female military leaders.

In that regard, the current Chief Hakham of the Karaite Jewish community in Israel, Hakham Moshe Firrouz, recently stated that he yearns for the day that women are members of the Karaite Council of Sages, because he recognizes that women have different and equally valuable insights on the Torah. Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with the J of Northern California*:

“What about women, I asked — can they become Karaite rabbis? [Hakham Firrouz responded], ‘Certainly . . . It’s important that a woman be involved in the decisions of the Sages, because she sees things differently than a man.’”

Okay, okay. I hear the echoes of “yeah . . . but” across the internet.  Yeah, but Shawn, these are Karaites, and nothing that Karaites do should have any bearing on the Rabbinic movement. Yeah, but Shawn, you Karaites are discussing something at modern times and in relation to modern trends, so this cannot be considered authentic. Yeahbut Shawn, women may not be forbidden from leadership roles in the Karaite tradition, but they are forbidden in the Rabbinic tradition.

The yeah, buts have a point, but not (in my opinion) a strong one.

You see, I have asked at least eight orthodox Rabbis to point me to any source – Scriptural or Rabbinic – that shows a women is halakhically forbidden from being a Rabbi. No one has given me a single source.  Not one. Recently a rabbi affiliated with Agudath Israel told me that it is wrong to say that women are forbidden from being Rabbis. According to him, the most that could be said is that female rabbis are simply “not accepted.”  If you can point me to a binding halakhic ruling that women cannot be rabbis in the Rabbinic tradition, I invite you to post in the comments. 

But the reason I think that Open Orthodoxy (regardless of which side of the debate you are on) is a positive step backward is because there actually was a female religious leader and teacher in the orthodox community about 400 years ago.  Her name was Asenath Barzani and she had mastery of Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah. She led a yeshiva in Kurdistan and she also provided men with rabbinic training. She did *not* have the title of rabbi – rather she was called Ta’anit.

And as I’ve mentioned previously, about 900 years ago, the Karaite community of Spain was led by a woman, who was called Al-Moallema, which literally means “the teacher.” One of the meanings of Rabbi is “teacher.”

We need more female religious teachers and leaders – both amongst Karaites and Rabbanites and all of the movements of the Children of Israel. And every time a women becomes a strong religious leader in the Jewish community, I personally will say chadesh yameinu kekedem (“renew our days as of old”) (Lamentations 5:21).

So, I love the fact that Open Orthodoxy is trying to create more female religious leaders who are educated in the Biblical and Rabbinic tradition. But I’ll leave to the Rabbinic community to decide what to call these leaders.

*    *     *

* Chatting with the Karaites, by Sue Fishkoff, JWeekly.com, August 6, 2015

14 Comments

Filed under Moetzet Hachamim (Council of Sages), Women in Karaism

14 Responses to Open Orthodoxy is a Positive Step Backward

  1. Zvi

    Shawn… the Orthodox love to have you believe that one of the meanings of the word ‘Rabbi’ is “teacher”, but this is not so. The closest it gets to teacher is “master”.

    • Hi Zvi, this is like saying that “mitzvah” does not mean “good deed.” We all agree that the original meaning of the word is “commandment” and that only later did people use it to mean “good deed;” but there is no doubt it has that meaning today (even though I really try not to use it in that context – but I fail every once in a while).

  2. Isaac

    The problem in my opimion of women rabbis is that of ritual purity. If a woman is in niddah how will she interact with the congregation???She cant come to the synagogue rendering her unavailable. she cant make physical contact with the male congregants etc.

  3. nissim

    Al Mu’allema was wife of Ibn al Taras of Castilia that was born as a Rabbanite but he moved in Holy Land, became the pupil of Yehoshua ben Yehuda and adopted Karaite way of faith. After he returned in Castilia he propagated and spread Karaite judaism among Rabbanites and he attracted a lot of followers.

  4. Isaac s

    There are 2 reasons why women aren’t (can’t) be rabbis: 1. Orthodox Jews don’t want women to mingle with men because it can lead to זנות.
    2. In our communities, women are usually housewives. They take care of the kids, clean the house, make dinner etc.

  5. ilan

    There is the famous Rachel Hannah Verbemacher. Also known as the maiden of Ludomir. She was from a Hassidic family of whom the famous “Twersky” branch originated. Apparently she did everything, Torah teaching, Talmud, KAbbalah, presiding over the Shabbat table with her students. I think that maybe Issac Bashevis Singers short story of “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, may have been inspired or based in part on this incredible woman. Sadly she died in obscurity in Jerusalem and was buried on the Har Hazaytim/Mount of Olives.

    She even married just to get the local male honchos out of her hair but had the marriage annuled soon after and she proved from Talmudic sources that she had the same right as a man to study Torah, any and all Rabbinic areas of Torah and she was very acclaimed at the height of her career, not bowing to the Rabbinic Kvellers who thought this heresy. Seems the common Jew loved this woman and her teaching style very much.

    Chachma would be a good term to use for Women teachers in the Karaite movement.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maiden_of_Ludmir

  6. Katrielncal

    Thanks for the article…Please keep the Karaite tradition alive. I’m kind of sadden, because every article I read on this site, its always comparing itself with the Rabbinic/Orthodox traditions. Please, lets just keep studying, the way the Karaite forefather/mother have been teaching. “The written Torah”, God will keep you and bless you. Thanks again.

  7. Rachamim dwek

    There are tonnes of Halachik rulings against women serving as Rabbis and I find it difficult to believe that you ever talked to any Charedi without finding this out unless they simply disdained talking with a Karaite for whatever reason (and there are reasons, mostly with Ashkenazi rabbis given the Karaite role in the Nazi SS but many Sephardi Mizrachi rabbis have reasons as well).

    So why not women? Aside from Niddah as mentioned by another commenter, women are not bound by time-mandated Mitzvot and so they cannot function as the leaders of men in the spiritual sense. A rabbi is an extension of the role played by the Priesthood before the fall of the sacrificial system in the Second Temple. Were there women Priests? I mean really, such a very simple issue.

    There is nothing barring women from Talmud Torah and indeed all Jews should study it but in terms of spiritual leadership? No, apart from leading other women. And this is all above and beyong Halacha relating to N’giah.

    • The question is whether you can point me to a single, binding halachic ruling that says they cannot hold these roles.

      • Miriam

        Women already have the most important job caring for the children and taking care of the home. It doesn’t matter if a few women in the past were teachers. The leaders and teachers were usually men the priests were men. This sounds like feminism and feminism is destroying the family. There are more divorces now than ever before and children are very disobedient. We need to get back to traditional values were the family was central and women took care of things at home and the man provided. Our society is so messed up right now and I thing feminism has a lot to do with it.

    • Arik

      “So why not women? Aside from Niddah as mentioned by another commenter, women are not bound by time-mandated Mitzvot and so they cannot function as the leaders of men in the spiritual sense. A rabbi is an extension of the role played by the Priesthood before the fall of the sacrificial system in the Second Temple. Were there women Priests? I mean really, such a very simple issue.”

      I think that may well be the crux of why the views of the Bene Mikra and of the Rabbinite on this issue don’t really intersect or impact each other. If you see the Rabbis as legitimately replacing the High Priesthood I can see how it would make sense to apply requirements that derived from the High Priesthood, and certainly there is no precedent I am aware of for a female high priest. (But then again I suspect if you applied that logic consistently most current male Rabbis would also be disqualified for one reason or another.)

      But there is plenty of precedent for females in other roles that many of us would probably see as more analogous to a Rabbi. Tanna’it Barzani has already been mentioned and there are others. The first example to spring to my own mind is always the Judge Dvora. She was one of the first Judges in Israel, she lead armies and she gave true prophecies, yet if she were here today you would not accept her as a Rabbi?

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