Maimonides and Women’s Leadership: Part Six

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

In our last installment, we noted a variety of reasons that Ramban’s treatment of the women-as-judges issue is opaque.  We can try to gain insight into Ramban’s meaning by comparing his original formulations to those of his students.  Rashba and RAN to RIF on the sugya in Shavuot each follow Ramban’s structure precisely, but offer slightly different formulations.  Here are the three commentators compared.

רמב”ן =                        פירושו מנהגת,                      שעל פיה ובעצתה היו נוהגין זה עם זה כדין מלכה

רשב”א =                       דלא שופטת ממש אלא מנהגת,      כשופטים ששפטו את ישראל

ר”ן =                             דלא שופטת ממש אלא מנהגת

ר”ן על הרי”ף =              לאו שופטת קאמר אלא מנהגת

רמב”ן =                                                     נוהגין היו בה כדין מלכה

רשב”א ור”ן =                  לא מינו אותה,     אלא היו נוהגין בה כדין מלכה          והיו נוהגים על פיה

ר”ן על הרי”ף =               לא מנו אותה,                                                      אלא נוהגין היו על פיה

רמב”ן =                                                     מקבלין היו דבריה         ברצונם

רשב”א ור”ן =                  שופטת ודנה,          שהיו מקבלים אותה      כדרך שאדם מקבל אחד מן הקרובים

ר”ן על הרי”ף =               שופטה ודנה היתה, שהיו מקבלין אותה        כדרך שאדם מקבל אחד מן הקרובים

None of these formulations is particularly clear either.  For example, both Rashba and RAN remove כדין מלכה from the answer that precedes the challenge from Sifri, but RAN removes it from the answer following that challenge as well.

For our purposes, the key question is: What possibility is being challenged on the basis of Sifri?

Rav Mosheh (and other great 20th century figures) appear to have understood Ramban as follows:

  • He responds to the question from Deborah by claiming that she did not judge but rather served as מנהגת.
  • However, to be מנהגת raises a new problem (not raised by either of Tosafot’s first two formulations, and not generated by Deborah being sh.p.t.) of מלך ולא מלכה.
  • This problem is resolved by saying that they were נהג but she was not מנהגת. (It is not clear whether in this reading קבלו אותה is sufficient to resolve the challenge from Sifri.)

Rav Mosheh argues that Ramban, Rashba, and RAN all disagree with Rambam’s extension of מלך ולא מלכה to other משימות.  As I understand it, the argument is as follows:

  • Ramban does not challenge the position that women can judge on the basis of the Sifri, but rather introduces the Sifri to challenge the possibility of מנהגת.
  • This must mean that, unlike Rambam, he does not see serving as a judge as a violation of Sifri.
  • But other than being queen, what could be more a violation of Sifri than serving as a judge? Nothing!  So Ramban must reject any extension of Sifri. His first answer must mean that Devorah was a מנהגת, meaning that she was a queen.  Then, in response to Sifri, he backtracks and says that the people were נוהג בה but she was not מנהגת.

Rav Mosheh acknowledges that Ritva to Shavuot cites the extension to mesimot.  He takes this to mean that Ritva disagrees with Ramban, Rashba, and RAN.

I find this reading very unconvincing, for many reasons.  Here are six:

  1. It depends on translating מנהגת as a noun (director) rather than as a verb (she would direct), even though this answer is responding to the Biblical phrase היא שופטה, where שופטה is clearly a verb.
  2. It ignores Ramban’s use of the phrase כדין מלכה in both answers.
  3. It claims that Ritva disagrees with every other member of his school, including his teacher Rashba, without even mentioning their positions.
  4. It assumes that the equation שופט=מלך is so obvious and unchallengeable that it need not be mentioned.
  5. It downplays Rashba and RAN’s formulations, which indicate that what changes between the first and second answers is מינוי = formal appointment.
  6. It seems to require saying that Ramban’s alternate answer, that Devorah’s authority was accepted voluntarily, does not resolve the challenge from Sifri, since accepting authority voluntarily is how a king is appointed.

I confess that then I first saw this reading in Rabbi Jeffrey Fox’s recent article on women’s ordination I thought he had simply erred.  In this I wronged him; he was following Rav Mosheh, and there are no better footsteps to walk in.  But I cannot agree.

I have not yet provided an alternate reading, however.  To develop one, we need first to look at texts from Ramban’s school that do not follow the precise structure of his comments, and see if we can develop an integrated approach.  Here are those texts, summarized or cited:

  1. Rashba to Bava Kamma 15a and RAN to RIF to Gittin 49b follow Tosafot, although they leave out the answer that Devorah judged al pi hadibbur. They do not cite Sifri.
  2. Nimmukei Yosef to Shavuot does not cite Sifri, but answers the challenge from Devorah as follows:

לאו שופטת ממש, אלא מנהגת בלא שום מינוי, שהיו נוהגין על פיה

Thus Nimmukei Yosef used מנהגת and still didn’t raise the challenge from Sifri.

  1. Ritva Niddah 49b raises the challenge from Devorah and then sends you to his commentaries on Kiddushin and Sanhedrin for answers. (We do not have his commentary on Sanhedrin, but perhaps he meant Shavuot, where he does treat this topic. Or perhaps he raised this issue on Sanhedrin 19a.)
  2. Ritva to Kiddushin cites Tosafot as concluding that women are valid judges, on the basis of the proof from Devorah. He then says the following:

ויש שפוסלין אותה לדון ומפרשים שופטה את ישראל כלומר מנהגת ודברית

Thus he uses מנהגת but does not raise Sifri.  Moreover, he does not rule out Tosafot’s conclusion that women are valid judges.

  1. Here is the full text of Ritva to Shavuot, with the unique elements bolded:

“מתני’: “שבועת העדות נוהגת באנשים ולא בנשים

‘פירוש: לפי שהאשה פסולה לעדות, כדמוכח בגמ

,ומכאן דן דין ר”י ז”ל שהיא פסולה לדון

“דהא תנן בפרק יוצא דופן: “כל הכשר לדון כשר להעיד, ויש שכשר להעיד ולא לדון

.ואילו היתה האשה כשרה לדון, היתה כשרה להעיד, דההוא כללא דוקא הוא

,(ואף על פי שמלכי בית דוד דנין ואין מעידין (סנהדרין י”ט א

.התם לאו משום דפסולים לעדות, אלא מפני הכבוד

“.וכן אמרו בירושלמי (שבועות פ”ד ה”א): “אשה לא דנה ולא מעידה

,”ומה שאמר הכתוב על דבורה “והיא שפטה את ישראל”, וכתיב נמי: ויעלו אליה בני ישראל למשפט

זה שהיו מתנהגים על פיה לא בתורת מינוי

,דהא אמרינן בספרי “שום תשים עליך מלך” – ולא מלכה

,והוא הדין לשאר משימות

,אלא שמתנהגים על פי עצתה

,או שקבלוה עליהם לדין

.שהמקבל עליו לדין ולעדות קרוב או פסול דינו דין ועדותו עדות, כדאיתא בפרק דיני ממונות

This paragraph is unique in that it

  1. Introduces a second verse regarding Devorah, one which makes clear that the problem was the act of משפט rather than her status as שופט
  2. It uses Sifri as evidence for its first explanation of Devorah, rather than as a challenge to it
  3. It explicitly cites Rambam’s extension of Sifri to other mesimot.

Taking all these sources together, it seems to me that Ramban’s school does not think that the challenge from Sifri changes anything; they can cite it or not, as they please.  This is true of each of Rashba, Ritva, and RAN. (We have only one relevant Ramban.)  There is no difference between מנהגת and נוהגין על פיה.

I therefore contend that Ramban, Rashba, Ritva, and RAN all agree with Rambam that Sifri bans women from serving as judges.  Ritva’s citation of כל משימות in Shavuot merely makes explicit what is implicit in the others.  He does not need to cite it in Kiddushin because the answer of מנהגת ודברית resolves the challenge from Sifri as well as the challenge from Devorah.

All this begs the question: What does נהג mean in this context, and how does it answer both challenges?  We will try to answer this in our next installment.


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