- Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit, Rebbetzin: Women with Leadership Authority According to Halachah by Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber
Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit, Rebbetzin: Women with Leadership Authority According to Halachah
Afterword by Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky
Jerusalem: Urim Publications–Maharat, 2020. 251 pp.
Two principal questions at hand in Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit, Rebbetzin. First: Can Orthodox women be rabbis? Can they be trained as such? Second, if the answer to the first question is affirmative: Can they serve Orthodox congregations as such? Perhaps more precisely: What is the body of knowledge necessary for the Orthodox establishment to endorse such a reality? What are the precedents and rationales that justify this surprisingly still-controversial move?
Rav Hamnuna opens the famous talmudic excavation of Hannah’s prayer (I Sam. 1:10–13) with the statement: “How many significant halakhot can be derived from these verses of the prayer of Hannah?” (BT Berakhot 31a). As I address the book at hand, I might paraphrase: “How many significant halakhot can be derived from the detailed, endlessly rich and informed discourse in this book?”
As the first female Orthodox rabbi to be ordained post-Shoah, I echo Hannah’s insistence: el hana‘ar hazeh hitpalalti (“for this child I prayed,” I Sam. 1:27)—it is for this book that I/we have prayed since my ordination almost three decades ago.
As Hannah coined the form of Jewish prayer, R. Sperber and R. Tikochinsky assist in forming the future of Orthodox leadership, as women claim their right and rite in leadership roles. Standing together as two strong and decisive voices in the realm of halachic ruling, R. Sperber and R. Tikochinsky reclaim God’s initial vision of “the two great lights” (Gen. 1:27).
R. Sperber’s and R. Tikochinsky’s devotion and commitment to assuring the evolving health of the Orthodox world is unquestionable. Both have penned many a responsum and article on the topic of the roles of women, not only with regard to women as rabbis. To be sure, for all their courage, they do seem to be allergic to using one particular phrase: Orthodox female rabbi (there you are, I have repeated the seemingly bastardized concept “Orthodox female rabbi”). Nevertheless, suffice [End Page 169] it to survey their extensive footnotes and textual references to encounter the richness both of their individual writings and of the rabbinic “paper trail” adduced to support their positions. R. Sperber’s signature and stamp is to be found as well on the ordaining exams and documents of the ordainees both of Yeshivat Maharat in New York and of Beit Midrash Har’el in Jerusalem.
This book is monumental in that it brings together two leading contemporary innovators. As they unpack millennia of rabbinic sources that structure our understanding of the nature of authority, both communal and rabbinic, they offer these sources in a format that enables even those who are not schooled in the skills of rabbinic discourse to dip their feet into this ocean of wisdom and begin to participate in the debate in a rabbinically educated manner.
Notably, this dialogue and controversy are already a decade old in the United States. A few words in which R. Sperber positions himself in relation both to those who have preceded him in the debate, and to those with whom he is in contemporary dialogue, may offer an understanding of the humility with which he and R. Tikochinsky took this task upon themselves, as well as the humility I endeavor to mirror in writing these words. Acknowledging the rich earlier scholarship on the permissibility and desirability of ordaining women (summarized in a concise reading list), R. Sperber explains that the present book arose from a request that he write a responsum on the subject. Offering his rebuttal of the stance of R. Hershel Schachter, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University (Chapter 9), he reflects: “Now I am fully aware that I am taking to task a great Talmid Hacham, one who is of a different order of stature than myself, and that I am as an acolyte before his mentor...