At the end of the 19th century, an article was written by a woman who was a member of the venerable Orthodox Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia in which she asked, “Why should women not be ministers?” The reaction was swift and furious.
Fast forward more than 120 years and the Orthodox Jewish community is now fully grappling with that very question, which has already been resolved in the non-Orthodox world. The issue is not only whether to have women clergy, but as the Orthodox Union’s position paper on the role of women in Jewish ritual life notes, what title to give women Judaic scholars. “Steps should be taken to properly recognize women who dedicate their lives and their abilities to serving and educating our community,” the OU report states, “including the attribution of fitting titles that convey the significance of these roles.”
A student of Jewish history understands that this is not a new issue.
In 16th-century Prague, Rebecca Tiktiner wrote an ethical and homiletic treatise in Yiddish called Meneket Rivkah. It is one of the first books written by a Jewish woman, and one that is worthy of reading, we are told by the printer in his introduction. Tiktiner is described as deeply knowledgeable and is referred to as “Haisha hachashuva HaRabbanit HaDarshanit” — an important woman, a “Rabbanit” and a preacher. While we know that her husband was a rabbi, he did not seem to function in a rabbinic role and, in fact, he is not even mentioned in the treatise. It appears then, contextually, as if the writer of the introduction was also struggling to find a way to identify Rabbanit Tiktiner on her own scholarly merit, with a unique title that also reflected her role as a distinguished public speaker. “Whoever heard of such an innovation in years past, that a woman, of her own mind, became an author and read biblical verses and Midrash publicly?” the introduction asks.
Asenath Barzani was the daughter of a rabbi and rosh yeshiva in 17th-century Kurdistan whose contribution to the larger Jewish community went beyond scholarship and into the realm of leadership. Her father made her future husband promise that she would be exempt from all housework so that she could devote her time to learning. When her husband died, leaving her to take care of two children and run the yeshiva that he headed, she did more than serve as administrator and fundraiser. She added rosh yeshiva to her job description and was so respected for her shiurim (textual study sessions) and her learning that the community bestowed on her the title Tanna’it, the female equivalent of the term “Tanna” that is found in the Talmud for our sages.
It wasn’t only in this area of the world that a woman bore the mantle of leadership. Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, the late chief rabbi of South Africa, in his book on chasidism, writes evocatively about “Lady Rabbis and Rabbinic Daughters.” In Eastern Europe, he noted, there were several women who held court as rebbes would. They included the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism, and the daughter of the Belzer Rebbe (her father once quipped “all my daughter Edel needs to be rebbe is a shtreimel”). She distributed sharayim, food from her plate, as rebbes traditionally did to their followers.
The Moid of Ludimir (19th century) held court behind a mechitza, davened with talis and tefillin, and people came to her with kvitlach, notes filled with requests and asking for blessings. And a learned woman, Rebbetzin Baileh Edels Falk (16th-17th century), explained that when women light festival candles, they should make the blessing first and then, from a pre-existing flame, light the candles — the exact opposite of what we do on the Sabbath. (This view was accepted as halachically valid.)
Of course, going further back in time, Miriam and Devorah are major figures in the Bible, as are Ima Shalom and Beruriah in the Talmud. The daughters of the biblical commentator Rashi, who were taught by their father, authored responsa when their father was too ill to do so, with his permission.
When it comes, then, to public spiritual roles for Orthodox Jewish women, Jewish history provides striking examples. We see women in our past who not only were educated themselves, but sought to educate others, opening up Jewish hearts and minds, teaching our mesorah, our tradition and serving as role models and leaders for the entire Jewish community, l’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven. And some of them even did it with titles bestowed of Rabbanit, Darshanit, Tanna’it. A powerful model indeed to embrace, as everything old is new again.
Adena Berkowitz is scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah and the co-author of “Shaarei Simcha-Gates of Joy,” a mini-siddur, and the forthcoming “Jewish Journey Haggadah.”