Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


All of the Abrahamic religions define women as inferior in one way or other. None in their Orthodox mode allows women to be clerics, a level of holiness only allowed for men.


Around the edges of the Roman Catholic community women are being ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

Knowing they are breaking the canon which restricts the priesthood to males many of these women, none of them young, all of them well educated, are arranging to be ordained outside the official church.  Sister Trish Fresen of South Africa said last fall, that "only by breaking unjust laws does one change them". Seven women, with a bishop claiming apostolic succession, defied Pope John Paul's II's repeated exhortations, and were ordained on a boat on the Danube River on June 29, 2002. Two of these women, an Austrian, Gisela Forster, and a German, Christina Mayr Lumetzberger, have gone on to become bishops, and are in turn ordaining other Catholic women, while more are preparing for the event.

They have all been excommunicated by former Cardinal Ratzinger, High Inquisitor for Catholic Church, now Pope Benedict XVI.

The movement is 30 years old. The first Women's Ordination Worldwide Conference (WOW) took place in Dublin in 2001 and received massive publicity because Sister Joan Chittister OSB, a well-known Benedictine writer from Erie, Pennsylvania was forbidden by the Vatican, under the threat of "just penalties," from speaking there. She decided to speak irregardless on the consequences (the penalties were then forgiven). Another international WOW meeting was scheduled at Carleton University in Ottawa in July, 2005 entitled, "Breaking Silence, Breaking Bread: Christ Calls Women to Lead".

Sister Joan in a recent article asked a number of intriguing theological questions:

‘Usury was once a sin now we have a Vatican Bank. Plenary indulgences were once for sale promising a remission of sins. Years ago a fetus could not be buried in blessed ground because they weren't fully developed human infants; now even stem cells are protected as potentially privileged human beings.

‘White converts could receive the Eucharist immediately but American Indian converts like St. Kateri Tekawitha had to wait until they had proven that even Indians could control their impulses and so would not violate the host. Prohibition against mixed marriages was once considered an eternal truth; it is no longer so considered.

‘How is it that women, also made 'in God's image and likeness -- according to God, at least -- have their access to God controlled by men?’ (National Catholic Reporter, When Is Conversion not Conversion, July 15, 2005)

Rome usually points out, as one of the reasons why women cannot be ordained is that they lack iconographic likeness to Christ. Yet Rome finds no difficulty in ordaining a Bantu or a Mongol. Can a Jew who chooses not to convert become a Priest; after all the Vatican is aware that Jesus and his disciples were non converted Jews


There is no Orthodox institution yet willing to say it will train women to be ordained as rabbis.

Dr. Rabbi Eveline Goodman-Thau commutes back and forth from her Jerusalem home to teach Jewish philosophy and culture at the University of Vienna. She has stated that ‘Orthodox women found and oversee prayer communities, argue cases in rabbinic courts, advise on halachic issues, and dominate in social work activities that are all very associated with the role a rabbi performs, even though these women do not have the official title of rabbi.’  

In the Orthodox world, the controversy of ordination surrounds the idea of the title of rabbi more than the actual role, and that's because unfortunately, the Orthodox world is very concerned with identifying themselves as separate from the Reform and Conservative movements where the Rabbinate is available for women. ‘This is a shame for Orthodox women, who don't get the titles and then don't get the salaries and respect.’

Women are being trained and certified for public positions that fulfill the roles of rabbis, says Orthodox Jewish scholar Rachel Berkovits, a teacher of Talmud and Women in Halacha at Jerusalem's Orthodox Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Strikovski, a teacher at the Mahanayim Yeshiva and Pardes Institute, was witness to one of the pivotal changes in Israel's Orthodox community, when he was asked in the early 1990s by then-Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Avraham Shapira, to help launch the committee to develop the training program for male and female legal advocates in rabbinic courts that deal with family law primarily divorce.

According to the administration of the rabbinic courts in Jerusalem, 68 women since 1993 have been authorized by the Rabbinate as rabbinic court advocates, all of whom studied at Jerusalem's Midreshet Lindenbaum, a center of Jewish studies for women.  ‘The knowledge one requires to become a court advocate is more than a regular ordination, and now to pass certification is much more difficult than to get ordination,’ admits Strikovski.

Though Orthodox women are taking on many, if not most, rabbinic roles unofficially, they are not officiating at ceremonies like weddings and funerals (although neither is required under Jewish law) nor serving as synagogue heads.  Jewish law, however, does not require congregations to be led by rabbis, and in Israel, many synagogues do not have rabbis. The term Rabbi means teacher and was never meant to officiate in ‘sacraments’. For women, full synagogue participation as rabbi would be hampered by the questions of serving in minyans (quorum), aliyot (making a blessing at the Torah scroll) and addressing the men's sections of the synagogue.

Prominent Orthodox feminist scholars like Blu Greenberg and others have argued that the role of rabbi was always as teacher and halachic guide, before it became popular to be a synagogue leader, and that obstacles in synagogues should not present a hurdle to giving ordination as acknowledgement of women's halachic authority, intellectual Torah qualifications, and for fulfilling most rabbinic functions.

She further wrote ‘a close look at the convention of ordination reveals that it is not a conferral of holy status nor a magical laying on of hands to transit authority. Nor does the process uniquely empower a rabbi to perform special sacramental functions that a knowledgeable lay person cannot. Ordination is the confirmation of an individual's mastery of texts (largely from the Talmud and codes); familiarity with precedents; and ability to reason analogically and apply precedents to contemporary questions’ (On Women and Judaism).

In 1994, Prof. Mimi Feigelson, a Torah scholar who has taught in Jerusalem, is an expert in hassidic thought, and student of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was the first woman ever known to receive an Orthodox ordination in Israel. She has not stated who granted her ordination, although it has long been rumored that Rabbi Carlebach ordained her as Rabbi. She currently teaches in the US and told a Jewish newspaper in San Francisco in 2002 that for many years she had kept her ordained a secret, for fear of alienating her Orthodox peers.

‘I live within the Orthodox world; that is my spiritual community. I did not want to be marginalized for something that is halachically permissible. So in order to honor the community I live within, this is the choice I made,’ she said.

Haviva Ner-David is an Orthodox feminist who has been a leader of some of the most prominent struggles in Jewish women's lives. Just before Passover, she received her PhD in Jewish studies from Bar-Ilan University. And then, on the eve of Passover, Ner-David was ordained as a rabbi in Jerusalem. Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, noted above signed her ordination. He mentoring and guiding her through her process of study. He stated ‘In Jerusalem’, a strong believer in women's capacity for study and he noted her ability ‘to swim in the ocean of the Talmud.’

Strikovsky notes that the ordination that he gave to Ner-David is not the same as the more common ordination given to men. ‘It is more of an official recognition of her achievements in her studies, that covered exactly the tractates and the issues men have to master in order to get an ordination,’ he explained. In the Orthodox world and society it is not acceptable yet to ordain a woman’.  

Ner-David says that she would not define herself as an Orthodox rabbi. ‘I feel strongly that such labels only serve to divide the Jewish people in a time when what we need is unity. Moreover, such labels tend to limit at a time when what we need is a fresh perspective and new voices I call myself a Jewish rabbi, a rabbi of and for the Jewish People’ (In Jerusalem, May 5, 2006).

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a Modern Orthodox commentator and head of the Zevulun Hammer Hesder yeshiva (yeshivot were students spending both time studying and in the armed forces) in Petah Tikva, says talk about ordaining women to be Orthodox rabbis has no Jewish roots or sources.

‘The fact that some women will get ordination will have no effect on the public or on Halacha. In the tradition, there are many ideas that women can't be halachic leaders. The main source for this is Bereshit [Genesis]. In the first chapter of Bereshit, women are totally equal to men. But in the second chapter, there is a big difference between women and men,’ Cherlow says, explaining these differences can't be reconciled.

‘Having women rabbis doesn't make any sense, and the bottom line is that the Halacha will be formulated by the people who keep Halacha and this is the main power of the Orthodox - keeping strict, constant ritual. Halacha is not ideology, principles or even rabbis, but the public. In the tradition, many sources show that men and women have different missions and roles, and I think it will and should continue like this.’ That is an interesting observation suggesting that it is not Hallacha that forbids women being rabbis but rather the Orthodox public. If as in the Conservative and Reform movements the public changes then presumably Orthodox women as Rabbis would become acceptable. In some (small) communities defined as Orthodox that is already acceptable.

Is Orthodoxy ready for women rabbis? Sarit Tehilla Belfer of the Orthodox Matan Advanced Talmudic Institute women have become recognized as Torah scholars and experts on specific areas of Jewish law (In Jerusalem, November 25). She is a Rabbinical Court Advocate who are accepted in Orthodox – even Ultra-Orthodox - Courts for Divorce (Bet Din). Some believe that before women become Rabbis they will become Religious Judges (dayanim). Obviously, women in the rabbinate would pose a threat to the current male rabbis in terms of influence and job competition.

Congregation Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE) in Manhattan, N.Y. has hired Dina Najman-Licht, a scholar of Jewish law with an expertise in bioethics, as its rosh kehillah, or head of community. Jonathan Sarna, a keen observer of American Jewish life, sees the decision as "part of a larger trend in Orthodoxy of pushing the boundaries. In liberal Orthodox circles people are trying to find out what the maximum is that women can do, and that entails narrowing what is the exclusive purview of the rabbi," says Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.

Najman-Licht, 38, appears to be a beneficiary of the revolution in women's study of Jewish text. She is a former Drisha fellow, a former Torat Miriam fellow, a graduate of Michlalah yeshiva for women in Jerusalem as well as a former student of Nishmat's niddah program training women in matters dealing with menstruation and mikveh. She has also taught at both Drisha and Nishmat, developed halachic source material for the Halachic Organ Donor Society, and has developed and taught classes on Jewish law at two Jewish high schools in the area, Ma'ayanot and SAR.

The position does not include responsibilities that would call for the rosh kehilla to serve as a religious witness, such as officiating at lifecycle events, or sitting on a rabbinic court of law known as a bet din. Also, as in the past, male congregants for the most part will lead the prayers.

The synagogue, has a metzitzah (separation) down the middle of its space, was among the first of its kind to pass the Torah through the women's section, to allow women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday nights, and to permit women to read from the Torah in a separate space. More recently, albeit on rare occasions, the synagogue allows "mixed kriah," with women reading Torah in front of a coed congregation.

Another area were women may be considered applicable for competency is  

Nishmat’s 1,000 hour Keren Ariel Yoatzot Halacha course (began in 1997) and open only to devout, irreproachable candidates who were already well-educated in Judaism. The graduates never called themselves poskot (deciders), but stick with yoatzot (advisers or halachic guides as noted by Greenberg above                                                                                                                               ), and stressed that they deferred to the wisdom of supervisory rabbis. Although there are Orthodox authorities who are worried that the yoatzot are halfway to becoming women rabbis, in Israel most potential opposition has been thwarted by the acknowledgment of how much they were needed.

These days women aren't running to the rabbi either to examine a chicken or - despite the imperative to do so - to discuss aberrant excretions. Uncomfortable and embarrassed, too many women are acting as their own poskot, often unnecessarily postponing going to the mikve for days, weeks or even months for fear of violating religious law (Barbara Sofer, Jerusalem Post, May 12, 2006).

There are now some 40 women who are official advisers. Their clients are Jewish women from around the world, from every ethnic group and from those not fully observant to the ultra-Orthodox, although most callers are modern Orthodox.

Given that the rabbinate in Israel is a governmental institution will someone bring to the Supreme Court the discrimination against women based on gender inequality?  I suspect so; whether the Court will choose to adjudicate the issue is doubtful.

In another case known as the Women of the Wall (WOW), a group of strictly Orthodox women have attempted for more than fifteen years to pray communally and publicly at the Western Wall. The hostility of the Ultra-Orthodox men on the other side of wall that separates men and women were such that violence and injuries occurred. This occurred when metal chairs were thrown over the fence. The violence began when a Haredi woman went to the women side tried to take the Torah away from the women praying. There is no canon law that refusing women to right to pray and in fact there are several synagogues where women can and do pray communally (or singly - they are simply not required) including wearing a Talit (prayer shawl) and reading from a Torah. Many Orthodox and almost all Ultra-Orthodox consider custom as important as the law itself. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has passed a regulation that “prohibits any religious ceremony at a holy place that is not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshipers at the place.”

The women were praying aloud, as men do. However A woman’s voice, like her hair, is considered sexually enticing,” writes Norma Baumel Joseph. “Men might be distracted and tempted to listen to her. Essentially, because of fear of sexual indiscretions and men’s inability to control themselves, women are silenced” (Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut, eds. Women of the Wall.)

In 1996 the WOW went to the Israeli Supreme Court, a three Judge ruled unanimously they the women were to be permitted to pray. The Police refused to enforce this right and simply allowed the violence to proceed. They went back to the Court in 2000 and another three judge Court (including Jutice Menachem Ezra an Orthodox Jew) ruled that the Police were required to enforce this right. The Attorney General, an Orthodox Jew (now a Supreme Court Justice) against the advice his subordinates appealed and a nine Judge Court accepted and ruled on the appeal. Seven of the Judges agreed that the women had the right of access. Five agreed on implementing that right but one agreed that the government could find an alternative site.

The next day legislation was submitted to the Knesset (Parliament) to make women’s praying a crime punishable by seven years in prison. It was never passed.

The government found a site (known as Robinson’s Arch) away from the great plaza where public congregates to view the wall and not visible to that part of Wall. The Supreme Court refused the equality these Orthodox women were claiming as their right and allowed the Ultra-Orthodox to claim their exclusive right to identify the Wall as their own.

Since then some have accepted the Robinson Arch site, other pray once a month on the new moon quietly without Talit or Torah at the Wall.


Dr. Farida Banani, a doctor of Islamic Law, is a Moroccan woman who has delved deeply into Islamic writings, and who challenges the classic interpretation of the status of women. Her work is part of the ‘Ijtihad’ movement meaning ‘independent reasoning’ which is more widespread than realized, given the fundamentalists stand, in various parts of the Islamic world and which calls for religious pluralism.

Until 1998, Banani was subject to a death warrant - under a fatwa issued by clergymen in Morocco that "permitted" her murder on the grounds of desecration of the religion. In the end, however, she was accorded the protection of the new young king. Banani is only one of many female academics in the Islamic world currently engaged in the interpretation of Islam.

The sociologist Hawla Abu Bakr, a senior lecturer at Jezreel Valley College (Israel), notes that in Islam, as in other religions, you can find divergent positions.  Islam preaches in favor of equality between women and men, but also restricts women. People who have not received a proper education are susceptible to the demagoguery of preachers, lacking the tools to distinguish between the opinions of the preachers and what is stated in the sacred writings.

On March 18, 2005, perhaps for the first time in the history of Islam, a woman led a mixed congregation of men and women in Friday prayers. The Imam was Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led Friday prayers and delivered the sermon before an audience of men and women Muslim worshipers. A group of irate demonstrators protested outside.

The main organizer of the event was Asra Nomani, an Indian-born Muslim and an author who initiated the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour project that educates Muslim women and encourages them to demand their rights. Also behind the Friday prayers was the American Muslim organization ‘MuslimWakeup!’, which advocates a tolerant interpretation of Islam. The Friday prayers were held at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in New York City, after several mosques had refused to host it, due to threats by extremists. The call to prayer was also performed by a woman. The service was attended by some 100 men and women.


A week later two prayers were led by women. On Friday prayers in Boston, an American Muslim named Nakia Jackson and later during the week,  Nomani led a mixed congregation in prayers at Brandeis University, and stated that she would continue to organize similar women-led prayers throughout the U.S.


Dr. Wadud's act aroused great anger amongst Muslim clerics, who rejected the possibility that Islamic jurisprudence permits women to lead men in prayer. They stated that doing so was an innovation forbidden in Islam, since no precedent had been set for it by the wives of the Prophet Muhammad during Islam's formative period. Women distract the men from their prayers and from the main aim of their worship, that is, submission to God. For this reason, mixed worship is also prohibited, and it is customary for the men to pray in the front of the mosque while the women pray in the rear. (This is similar to Judaism but not to Christianity.)

‘This is one of the more controversial issues in Islam,’ says Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor at Princeton University. ‘One group feels it is an established norm that men lead the prayer, and Islam shouldn't be singled out, since in Catholicism and [Orthodox] Jewish denominations men also lead.’ Another group believes the segregation of the sexes has moved to the extreme in Islamic theology today, more so than in the time of Muhammad, she adds. "They also feel . . . the inequitable treatment of women has misrepresented the religion to the world, and this needs to be addressed so women understand it is not Islam that is oppressing them."


Leila Ahmed,  Victor S. Thomas Professor at Harvard Divinity School and the author of "Women and Gender in Islam." She notes women can be spiritual leaders in the mosques without leading ritual prayer, or can do so for women, she adds. "In China, women's mosques are part of the larger mosque, and women imams are paid by the community."

The Institute for Islamic Jurisprudence in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, called upon all those who had attended the prayers led by Dr. Amina Wadud to repent and fulfill again the commandment of prayer, because their prayers behind Dr. Wadud were null and void. Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi of Al-Azhar University explained that according to Islamic law women are prohibited from leading men in prayer, ‘whether in Friday prayers, in the five required [daily] prayers, in additional prayers, or in any other prayers.’ He said, ‘It is permitted for a woman to lead in prayer only her own gender - because the woman's body is 'lewdness and pudenda' and it is not proper for men to look at her body before them when she leads them in prayer. Although they see her body in [daily] life, it is not proper during prayer, the aim of which is submission [to God]."

It is rare for an Islamic cleric to tolerate feminism in any form.

Dr. Aamal Karami, Tunisian lecturer and researcher, stated in an article posted on her website ( that there was no jurisprudential basis for rejecting prayer led by women, and that the clerics' opposition was aimed at silencing from the outset any additional demands by women for equality. The source of this opposition lay, she said, in the clerics' aspiration to retain for themselves the positions of influence, control, and honor. She wrote: ‘The Koran is silent on the subject of leading prayer and on the subject of political leadership. Also, the Prophet was, in turn, silent on this matter.’

It all three of the Orthodox streams of the monotheistic religions the role of women is changing, but it will be awhile before true equality is widely accepted.