Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
Yet in ancient times women were excluded from “the seven good men of the city” who constituted the community council. We know women were “Mothers of the Synagogue” (probably as leading donors) but they were unheard of in community government. Their capability, recognised in chapter 31 of Proverbs, was not denied, but it was felt that their influence should be behind the scenes because of the modesty principle established by Psalm 45:14, kol k’vudah bat melech penimah – “the whole glory of the king’s daughter is inward”.
Maimonides built on earlier sources to codify the rule that women should not be public leaders. He quoted Deut. 17:15 to say that a monarch had to be male – Melech v’lo malkah – and said, “Likewise with all appointments, only a man may be appointed” (Hilchot M’lachim 1:5).
A number of questions can be asked about this ruling. Does it apply only to monarchical office? Does it apply only to autocratic rule? What if the woman is elected for a limited term and has no coercive power? What if her position is accepted by the community?
These were among the issues examined in an early 20th century controversy in Eretz Yisra’el about women in public office, and Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Uzziel gave a notable permissive ruling.
In synagogues – especially in English-speaking countries – the question of women’s involvement became urgent. The German orthodox leader, Rabbi David Hoffmann, ruled in 1919 that “women may vote but not be voted for”. Six stages of development followed – women as synagogue members in their own right; women as synagogue voters; women as synagogue delegates to other bodies, e.g. Kashrut Commissions; women as non-voting observers at synagogue board meetings; women as synagogue board members with voting rights; and in a few synagogues, women as president/chairman.
Rabbi J David Bleich writes in Contemporary Halachic Problems, II: 1983: “The rabbi who is firmly convinced of the cogency of the arguments of the permissivists is privileged to act in accordance with his views…” (p. 266).
A few Israeli congregations allow women on the va’ad. Hardly any have considered having a woman president.
Going back to the Knesset and Rabbi Aviner, even he seems to recognise the reality that women are integral to the government process. There have been and are women cabinet ministers, party heads and a female prime minister, and a female acting president of the State. Rabbi Aviner’s concern seems to have been the deeper issue of whether women should take part in the rough-and-tumble of politics, in view of Rav Kook’s fear that political life besmirches those who get involved in it, both males and females.
Ed. Note: Rabbi Aviner said that since there are non-observant women in the Knesset anyway, it is necessary to have religious women who can represent religious women's issues and also be role models. He, however, regrets that the meetings till all hours of the night and the need to campaign all over the country, etc., are a problematic life for a married woman.