Maimonides and Women’s Leadership: Part Three

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rav Mosheh’s responsum on woman and serarah seems at first glance to use a cannon to shoot a flea.  Would anyone before Rav Mosheh have thought of a mashgiach as a figure of authority?

The answer, I think, is yes, but only if they recognized what sort of mashgiach R. Mosheh was discussing.  Understanding the facts of the case is a prerequisite for understanding his concept of the serarah that he believes Rambam forbids to women.

At the end of the teshuvah, R. Mosheh asserts that the serarah problem can be solved by the simple expedient of having a rabbi take responsibility for the hashgachah, with the widow doing the actual inspections.  Employees, R. Mosheh says, cannot have serarahSerarah requires autonomy; it is not enough to have authority over others if one is exercising that authority because someone else is paying you.  So the position in question was not what we call mashgiach, rather parallel to what we call rav hamakhshir.

But our understanding is still insufficient.  Rav Mosheh also argues that serarah requires the capacity to make decisions that affect someone else against their will.  The two Talmudic examples (Kiddushin 76a) of forbidden serarah (for converts) are “inspector of weights and measures” and “controller of an irrigation stream.”  R. Mosheh focuses on how the inspector of weights and measures exercises serarah by excluding worn-down measures even when the owner of those weights and measures might have preferred otherwise.

The question this raises is:  Does an employee whose job is quality control exercise serarah?  I think not.  If Company X hires Company Y to do its quality control, is Company Y exercising serarah over Company X?  I again think not.  But isn’t this exactly what a kashrut agency does?  So in what sense does a rav hamakhshir exercise serarah?  The company being certified can simply fire him if they don’t like his decisions!

Rav Mosheh therefore must have been discussing a situation in which the certifying company could not fire the certifiers.  In other words, he understood the late husband to be serving as a public kashrut inspector on behalf of the Jewish community.

Now Rav Mosheh makes clear at the very end that the job was not being formally appointed by the community, but rather “falls under the purview of the Rav.”  I suggest that what he means is that the Rav of the community is given, as part of his job description, the responsibility of ensuring the availability of kosher food.  He can outsource that task, but it fundamentally remains his responsibility.  If he chooses to have that task funded by a fee on the certified parties, that is his choice, and if he has hired someone else to do the task, likely their wages will suffer if a company ceases to be kosher.  But fundamentally he conceived of kashrut certification as a communal service.  It is very likely – perhaps someone who knows Pittsburgh? Jewish history can tell me – that local kashrut was officially the province of a Vaad, with the late husband in practice doing the work and collecting the fees.

Hashgachah nowadays is usually structured very differently, and there is serious competition among certifiers in the same geographic area.  My contention is that Rav Mosheh would not have thought of even Rabbi Genack, Chief Executive of the nonprofit OU or Rabbi Senter, owner of the Chof K, as exercising serarah over their corporate customers.

Several more notes before we turn to Rambam:

  • Rav Mosheh states that the inspector of weights and measures is appointed by beit din, but not carrying out a task delegated by beit din. This is a very delicate distinction.  One possible formulation is that someone can have serarah while being accountable to others for one’s work, so long as one has primary responsibility for the work.  This would mean that accountability to the board or general membership of a community does not prevent a serarah relationship with that community.  I tend to think it also means that serarah can exist at various levels of an organizational chart.
  • Rav Mosheh generally believed that all workers have a chazakah on their position, and can be fired only for sufficient cause. If someone explicitly signed an at-will contract with a community, and we assume that contract is halakhically effective, Rav Mosheh might have held that the relationship cannot be serarah.
  • Rav Mosheh does not address the question of whether serarah requires exclusive responsibility, or rather multiple people can share a serarah.
  • Rav Mosheh does not discuss whether serarah requires authority over particular individuals, or rather authority over a communal task is sufficient. For example, it is not clear whether he would permit women to be appointed as lighthouse keepers.  I suggest tentatively that he addresses the issue of serarah but not the issue of mesimah.  But to see whether those issues are distinguishable, we need to turn to Rambam.

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