Friday, March 24th, 2017

The View of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l on the Ordination of Women by Aryeh A. Frimer

June 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Halakha, New Posts


I have been avidly following the recent discussion at the RCA Convention and on the various blogs regarding granting women semikha.  I was rather surprised, however, that in all the active give and take, there is one opinion that has not been placed center stage. I am referring to the view of Moreinu veRabbeinu haRav Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik zt”l, known by his students as “the Rav”.  The reason for this may well be the fact that the Rav never discussed this issue head on. However, there are several solid pieces of evidence which indicate, to my mind, that the Rav would clearly have opposed having women serve as Shul Rabbis and their receiving semikha.

The first piece of evidence is found in the recently published shi’urim of the Rav on Yoreh De’ah.[1] In contradistinction to Rav Soloveitchik’s Talmud shi’urim – which were very lomdish and had a large element of creativity and hiddush – the tone of the Yoreh De’ah shi’urim were halakha le-ma’aseh. The Rav’s primary goal in the latter was to clarify the various views of the Mehaber, Rema and nosei kelim in preparation for semikha exams.[2]  In one the first shi’urim, the Rav dealt with the ruling of Rema to the effect that our custom is not to allow female ritual slaughterer (shohatot). The Rav suggests that the reason for this is that nowadays being a ritual slaughterer requires kabala – the authorization/certification of a recognized scholar testifying to the candidate’s knowledge of both the theory and practice of shehita. It should be emphasized that receiving kabala has community wide repercussions since it generally allows the bearer the right to apply for a position of shohet anywhere.

As a result of this certification requirement, appointment as a shohet is to be viewed as a communal appointment (minui kahal), from which women are excluded according to Maimonides. In the Rav’s words: “It seems that since our custom is to receive authorization from a scholar in order to slaughter, therefore slaughtering is no longer merely a simple matter of permitted or forbidden food – that anyone [knowledgeable] can deal with, but has become an appointed communal position. For this reason, we do not allow women to slaughter based on the Rambam (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 1:5), who wrote that we do not appoint a woman to a communal position. Since a woman may not be appointed to a communal position, and slaughtering has become a communal position, therefore, it seems that a woman may similarly not be appointed to be a town slaughterer.”[3] 

Rabbinic ordination, like kabala, is authorization and certification by a noted scholar or more often by a board of scholars, who verify that the candidate is knowledgeable in theoretical and practical areas of halakha required for rabbinic communal leadership. If, to the Rav’s mind, women are excluded from being appointed a shohetet - because the required kabala certification converts the appointment into one of minui kahal, the same is true regarding her appointment to be a congregational Rabbi which for millennia has required semikha.[4]

Another piece of evidence comes from a ruling the Rav gave on the question of women as synagogue presidents. Between 1983-1984, R. Binyamin Walfish, in his capacity as Executive Director of the R.C.A., met with the Rav in order to receive guidance on a variety of issues relating to women and halakha. During these very important conversations, Rabbi Walfish asked the Rav whether women could serve on shul boards. The Rav responded that he saw no reason why women could not serve as a shul board member. The latter appointment was not serara (discretionary power, vide infra) over the community which Rambam (ibid.) forbids for women, since the final decision was made by the board as a whole – and not by the individual members, which merely had input. The Rav did pasken, however, that women could not be shul presidents. The latter had certain prerogatives that constituted serara. The Rav also felt it unwise – though there was no issur – to have women serve as vice presidents.  This is because such an appointment would imply that women could serve as presidents – which to his mind they could not.[5] [This pesak is confirmed by Rav Hershel Shachter who, quoting R. Zevulun Charlap, cites a similar ruling by the Rav.[6]] The Rav also suggested that women serve as mashgihot kashrut (kashrut supervisor) which the Rav said was perfectly mutar. On the contrary, the Rav felt that women, in those areas, may even be better than men.[7]

We note that the Rav did not rule out a woman from being kashrut supervisors, presumably because this does not require authorization like kabala or semikha, merely bona fide knowledge of the relevant halakhot. Nor did the Rav view being a synagogue board member as a minui kahal. This is because being on the synagogue board is a local position and decisions are made by committee. Regarding the synagogue president, however, the Rav cites another consideration, namely serara – the discretionary power to make decisions with which others need to abide. Each Board member has input into decisions made by the committee as a whole; often, however, the president, as the head of the organization, will make on the spot decisions alone. The same is, of course, true for the synagogue rabbi, who is presumably the final word on religious practice in a community. It is true that the rabbi’s contract can be terminated; but until that time, it is his rulings that the community is bidden to follow. This is the kind of discretionary power which Maimonides maintained was forbidden to women.

According to the Rav, the discussion about whether women can serve as community Rabbis is not merely about titles but about the job description – no matter what you call it! Whether you have semikha or not, whether you are called Maharat, Reverend or Rosh Kahal – if you function as, or have the authority and discretionary power of, the community Rabbi, that is serara and such an appointment is assur for women.


Some might argue[8] that a distinction should be drawn between receiving ordination (semikha) and serving as a community Rabbi; it is only the latter which the Rav would have forbidden, they argue. Furthermore, individuals with the title Rabbi serve in a variety of other capacities: in education, counseling and kiruv, and as hospital chaplains, community organizers, or mashgihim. Why should women be precluded from these positions?

Any answer must begin with a clarification of the purpose of semikha. As already noted above, rabbinic ordination is the authorization by a noted scholar, or more often by a board of scholars, who verify that the candidate is knowledgeable in those areas of halakha required for rabbinic communal leadership. Nearly every ketav semikha (ordination certificate) says just that! If the Rav was of the view that women were precluded from rabbinic communal leadership, would it not mihzei ke-shikra (have the appearance of a lie) to give them certification for just such a role? Would you give a driving license to one who is forbidden to drive?

Yet, as noted above, individuals with semikha serve in a variety of professional capacities, many of which do not require rabbinic ordination – though semikha certainly adds to their credibility and the honor of the role. Nevertheless, one could well argue that if a particular occupation requires the authorization and certification of semikha, then to the Rav’s mind this might well be minui kahal  and forbidden for women. We need to find the proper honorific title to fit the job description. Certainly, titles like Havera, Mora and Yo’etset Halakha are just such steps in the right direction. Perhaps the honorific title Hakhama should be adopted for women of outstanding Torah knowledge. But, in an attempt to answer a real need, we should not distort the true and simple meaning of semikha.


To this one may counter: How can you explain the fact that the Rav permitted gerim to learn for semikha at RIETS? After all, the Rambam (Yad, Hilkhot Melakhim, 1:4) based on the Sifrei forbids serara for a convert (ger), just as he does for women (Ibid. 1:5).

Regarding gerim, there are important distinctions that can be drawn between converts and women. The Rav, in the lecture on Yoreh De’ah cited above, notes the following: “A convert may be appointed to a communal position, but not a position of communal authority over Jews – and it is for this reason that he may judge a fellow convert (Yevamot 102a). Therefore, since slaughtering is an appointment of importance but not a position of authority, a convert may be appointed to be a slaughterer. However, a woman is excluded from all communal appointments, even those with no discretionary authority, and therefore she may not be appointed a slaughterer.”

According to the Rav, converts are only forbidden from positions of serara - discretionary power and authority over Jews, but not from minui kahal – community-wide appointments per se’. Hence, gerim can be appointed shohatim, as charismatic Rashei Yeshiva, even as judges for the convert community,[9] but not as community Rabbis; women, however, are forbidden from all such roles.  RIETS semikha was not intended to allow these ordained converts to serve as community Rabbis[10] – and the handful of rabbinic candidates who were converts could be guided to act in accord with these conditions. 

There is yet another source for a fundamental distinction between converts and women to be found in the Ha’amek Davar.[11]  R. Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin (Netziv) cites the case of King Herod the Idumean convert,[12] who was accepted as the legitimate Jewish regent. Clearly, argues the Netziv, the exclusion of converts and those lacking “good Jewish lineage” from serara is only preferable, if possible, but not an absolute prerequisite (le-mitsva im efshar, akhen eino le-ikuva). The appointment of women was barred even le-ikuva. This is clearly grounds for leniency by converts which is not present by women.


Thus we have shown that the Rav believed that women serving as communal rabbis was forbidden both because it is a minui kahal and because it is position of serara. Logic dictates that he would have also opposed rabbinic ordination, whose primary and declared purpose is to certify the suitability of candidates for such a position.

This in no way contravenes the fact that a large cadre of leading poskim have disagreed to varying extents with the Rav’s sole reliance on the Rambam, his analysis of serara, and his distinction between serara and minui kahal. Furthermore, many poskim accept the efficacy of democratic elections (kiblu alayhu) as a means of circumventing serara considerations in other communal leadership positions (such as shul presidency and elected political positions), and they may well feel the same about Rabbinic positions.[13]. Others have invoked a variety of additional factors (inter alia custom, modesty and communal cohesiveness) in the latter case. As a result of all these considerations, it will not be a simple matter to come to a final ruling on the issue of women’s ordination. But despite this controversy between gedolei ha-poskim, as talmidim of Moreinu veRabbeinu haRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, we owe this gadol ha-dor the honor and consideration of involving him in our deliberations.

יהי זכרו ברוך – ויהיו שפתותיו מדובבות בקבר.


*Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University.



Notes and References

  [1]. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Shi’urei haRav al Inyanei Shehita, Meliha, Basar veHalav veTa’arovot, ed. R. Elyakim Koenigsberg

  [2]. R. Dov I Frimer, personal communication, June 18, 2010.

  [3]. Supra note 1, sec. 1. R. Dov I. Frimer and R. Shalom Carmy were present when this shi’ur was given and confirm the accuracy of its content. Our English translation is that of R. Gil Student, “Women Slaughterers,” Hirhurim, June 18, 2009 available online at: In note 7 to Shi’urei haRav, the editor R. Elyakim Koenigsberg indicates that the Rav did not consider women’s leadership over women’s organizations as a problem of serara.

  [4]. This argument has been made by R. Gil Student, supra, note 3.

  [5]. R. Binyamin Walfish, interviewed by R. Dov I. Frimer; March 10, 1996.

  [6]. R. Zvi (Hershel) Schachter, “miPeninei haRav: Kuntres beInyanei Pesak Halakha,” Bet Yitshak, 38 (5766), pp. 21-28, at p. 28;

  [7].  Cf R. Moshe Feinstein, Shu”t Iggerot Moshe, Y.D., II. Sec. 44.

[8]. My thanks to Rabbis Michael Broyde and Shlomo Brody for helping clarify the challenges to this thesis.

  [9]. As to whether a convert can sit on a Bet Din for conversion, see: R. Michael J. Broyde, “May a Convert be a Member of a Rabbinical Court for Conversion?” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Number LIX (Pesach 5770/Spring 2010) pp. 61-78.

[10]. See the related comments of R. Hershel Shachter and R. Aharon Ziegler:  R. Kenneth Brander, “Setting The Record Straight: Rav Schachter’s Comments At The RCA Convention,” Hirhurim, May 09, 2010; available online at:; R. Aharon Ziegler, “Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, II,” Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 2001, pp. 159-160

[11]. R. Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin, Ha’amek Davar, Devarim 17:15, s.v. lo tuchal.  We thank R. Aharon Lichtenstein Shlit”a for bringing this source to our attention.

[12]. Josephus Flavius, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chap. VIII, parag. 9, indicates that Herod was the second son of Antipater the Idumaean and Cypros an Arabian. In The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 14, Chap. 15, parag. 2, Josephus refers to Herod as a half-Jew and hence unworthy of being King. However, later in Book 15, chapter 7, section 9, he notes that the Jewish leader Hyrcanus had made the Idumeans “receive the Jewish customs and law.”  The Netziv clearly assumed that Herod as an Idumaean was a convert or the descendant of converts. The Encyclopedia Judaica (“Herod I”)

[13]. For further discussion, see: (a) Nashim beTafkidim Tsibburiyyim beIdan haModerni (Women in Community Leadership Roles in the Modern Period),” R. Aryeh A. Frimer, In “Afikei Yehudah – Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni zt’l Memorial Volume,” R. Itamar Warhaftig, ed., Ariel Press: Jerusalem, 5765 (2005), pp. 330-354. (b) R. Aryeh A. Frimer, “Women in Community Leadership Roles – Shul Presidents” “Text and Texture,” June 2, 2010.  

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