“…the question of whether halakhah excludes women from holding specific roles or offices”

…the question of whether halakhah excludes women from holding specific roles or offices. From a feminist perspective, there is no question that any rule which restricts women in that way is immoral, especially if there are no counterpart exclusions for men. The rule “a king” – not a queen” is therefore unacceptable, no matter how limited its application in theory and practice. From a halakhic perspective, however the existence of this rule seems never to be explicitly challenged in the halakhic literature.

There are four overlapping strategies by which a feminist committed to halakhah can cope with this:

1) Arguments from silence – The absence of explicit challenges to the rule need not demonstrate that it was universally accepted, especially if one can find instances in which it is seemingly relevant but not cited. For example, there are various references in Rabbinic literature to historical queens of Judea, and their legitimacy is not challenged by the rishonim on the grounds of our rule. One can therefore argue that the rule is not normative.

2) Eliminating contemporary relevance – there are no kings today. One can resist the extension of the rule to positions other than monarchy. Alternatively, one can argue that the rule extends past monarchy but only to positions in a monarchy, or at least to positions in some hereditary hierarchy, or to positions that are appointed by nondemocratic authorities.

3) Eliminating communal relevance – One can argue that the rule (or a particular extension of the rule) applies only in involuntary communities, or only in communities that see it as degrading for women to play public roles or to exercise formal power.

4) Finding workarounds – One can claim that the rule (or a particular extension of the rule) applies only to positions that are not in any way publicly accountable, or where authority is not shared with anyone else. One can then formally construct modes of accountability or sharing.

The advantage of the first approach is that it addresses the values issue as well as the practical outcome. The disadvantage is that normal halakhic process would suggest that, given a choice, one should prefer candidates who are proper according to all halakhic positions. So even if a convincing argument from silence can be made, one still requires a moral overlay to reach the desired result.

The advantages of the other approaches, respectively, are that they enable one to argue that one is acting in accordance with consensus, that one respects other communities that act differently, or that one is ruling in accordance with the spirit as well as the letter of the law (even while acknowledging great discomfort with that spirit).

The interconnected disadvantages of these approaches are that a) they often seem disingenuous, and b) they require endorsing some exclusions of women. So, for example, the argument that excludes democratically elected officials from the rule would still bind appointees of an authoritarian state from appointing women to other positions.

My own take – which is highly idiosyncratic, and therefore not politically practical – is that we should be able to resolve these two issues by explicitly distinguishing the “is” from the “ought”. It should be legitimate for a halakhist to argue that such-and-such is the law now – e.g. women can serve only in democratically elected offices – but that the law should be otherwise – e.g. properly understood, the Torah allows women to serve as appointed irrigation-canal supervisors.

So long as such an approach is not embraced, we will have disingenuousness, both ways. Antifeminist halakhists will argue that the rule extends further than they believe it actually does, and feminists will appear to accept restrictions that they actually reject.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, “Maimonides and Women’s Leadership: A Multi-part Series”, moderntorahleadership (5 April 2016) [https://moderntoraleadership.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/maimonides-and-womens-leadership-a-multi-part-series/]