Maimonides and Women’s Leadership: Part Ten

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

My discussion of the halakhic sources women’s leadership began with Rav Mosheh Feinstein’s famous reponsum regarding kashrut supervision.  In Part 3 I tried to demonstrate that Rav Mosheh was discussing a widow serving as the equivalent of the rav hamakhshir of a communal kosher agency, not as the onsite inspector of particular establishments.  I also noted that Rav Mosheh in the end decides that the entire issue of women’s leadership could be finessed in his case by making the widow formally subordinate to the halakhic decisions of a local rav.

This teshuvah of Rav Mosheh has become a go-to halakhic source for those seeking to expand women’s leadership, for one simple reason: its argument that Rambam’s extension of “a king – not a queen” to all mesimot is a minority position among the rishonim. On this basis it is easy to claim that most rishonim would see no halakhic barrier to women serving as religious council members, prime ministers, or synagogue presidents, and that the issues of serarah or mesimot would not bar women from being synagogue rabbis either.

In Parts 4-9 I expressed my disagreement with many elements of Rav Mosheh’s argument.  It should be clear that my analyses, if correct, open many other routes for permitting or encouraging women’s leadership of all sorts in our day, and I hope to develop those routes in the near future.

For now, however, I want to focus on the use of Rav Mosheh in this context by those who accept his basic analysis, and the broader issues that raises.  Is it legitimate to use a posek’s authority to support decisions that the posek explicitly rejected?  Let me sharpen that.  Is it legitimate to use the authority of a pesak to support decisions that the posek explicitly asserts would not follow from the arguments and conclusions reached in his or her pesak?

Let me say upfront that I think the correct answer to this question sometimes closely resembles yes.  This is because poskim often hedge their published teshuvot either because of humility (“I would not have the chutzpah to pasken if this were a matter of eshet ish et al”) or to avoid embroiling a specific psak in a broader controversy.

This responsum, and this issue, are interesting test cases, because critics immediately challenged Rav Mosheh’s assertion that his psak could be limited, and because he wrote a second responsum directly addressing the issue.

Rabbi Meir Amsel, a veteran from the losing side of the battle regarding women’s suffrage in Israel, wrote in HaMaor (available on that while he agreed with Rav Mosheh’s desire to help the widow fill her husband’s position, he was afraid that the argument regarding Rambam would embolden those who wished to promote women’s leadership, and specifically lead to women presidents in Israel and synagogue presidents in the US.  Rabbi Amsel then goes to great lengths to challenge Rav Mosheh’s analysis; some of his arguments anticipate my analysis thus far, and others I find much less convincing.  To Rabbi Amsel’s great credit, as the editor of HaMaor he published (and likely solicited) Rav Mosheh’s response in the very same issue, immediately after his critique, without responding further himself, and let readers make up their own minds.

Rav Mosheh reprinted that response as Igrot Mosheh YD 2:45. Here is a translation of the excerpts I see as relevant to our discussion here – readers are of course encouraged to read it in its entirety, and the Hebrew of the excerpts is appended.

Further in the matter of a woman receiving a hashgachah appointment:  To his honor my dear friend the great rabbi and gaon Rabbi Meir Amsel shlita, editor of the monthly HaMaor:

Regarding Your Honor’s apology for not agreeing with my words – I don’t know why you need to apologize.  Certainly everyone needs to clarify the truth according to their mind, whether for stringency or leniency, even if one is a student opposing the reasoning of one’s teacher, all the more so for others who are not students of that teacher.  See my book Igrot Mosheh OC 109 where I have dealt with this at some length.  And if your intent is to apologize for perhaps saying harsh things regarding me – everyone who knows me knows that thank G-d I am distant from G-d forbid being particular with any human being, let alone with a Torah scholar. Therefore, I will write only to the substance of the issue.

What Your Honor wrote that in terms of my responsum, in that I raised a difficulty regarding Rambam’s invalidation of women for all mesimot, that in my intellectual poverty I know no source for his words, and also that it seems to me that not everyone holds like this –

a stumbling block emerges from this, that they will appoint women as president in Israel –

we are not responsible for the practice of the government there, which owing to our many sins is in the hands of deniers and heretics who give no consideration at all to our opinions.  Even if everyone held like Rambam, and even if it were explicit in the Gemara and even in the Written Torah – they would not give it consideration, just as they give no consideration to all the Torah prohibitions, including the strictest and those most explicit in the Gemara and Scripture, and thus it turns out naturally that there is no stumbling block from what I have written.

As for the concern lest they appoint women in synagogues in our country America –

it is also not plausible that a stumbling block will emerge from what I have written, as the synagogues and institutions that practice in accordance with the path of Torah will not act without the hora’ah of a qualified Rav, and so it will turn out naturally that for this the position of Rambam is sufficient to prevent the appointment of a woman, and for those who have strayed from the path of Torah, even if this were a clear prohibition and explicit in the Torah they would not pay attention to this, and we are not responsible for them.  So it turns out naturally that there is G-d forbid no stumbling block from the clarification of the halakhah that that I wrote, that not everyone concedes to Rambam, and they erred who objected that it was a stumbling block.

. . .

It also seems clear that we are obligated to clarify the law even if there is a concern that a stumbling block will emerge from this according to some mistaken fools, as is explicit on Bana Batra 89 regarding that which R. Yochanan ben Zakkai said: “Woe to me if I say, woe to me if I don’t say”.  They asked:  Did he say or not say? and R. Shmuel son of R. Yitzchak answered that he did say, based on this verse of Scripture: “For the paths of Hashem are straight, and the righteous walk in them, but the violators will stumble in them”, and clarification of the law even for leniency is a great obligation included within learning Torah, which is itself a good path for the righteous.  But in truth there is no stumbling block here, as I have written.

. . .

The kal vachomer that Your Honor said on his own from the invalidation of a queen to invalidate all other mesimot is nothing, and it has no flavor nor aroma, and all logic says exactly the opposite.  But hat relevance is there here to judging on the basis of mere speculative rationales?  This is not the way of the scholars of Torah.

Bottom line: Even though there are many rishonim who hold like Rambam, but Rashi, Tosafot, Rosh, Ran, and Ramban disagree, and it seems reasonable that Rashba also holds that way, but certainly in practice one should be strict in accordance with Rambam and those who agree with him since it is a dispute among our greats . . .  Therefore, for a great need, for the sake of the widow and her children’s living, it would be relevant to rely on those who disagree with Rambam as in all disputes among the greats, but I have found a practical way to fulfill even the position of Rambam, and it turns out naturally that we are obligated to use that practical way as it turns out naturally that there is no need to rely on those who disagree with Rambam . . .

So Rav Mosheh explicitly stated that his psak would not permit women to be appointed as synagogue presidents, for example.  On the other hand, he makes clear that according to his analysis most rishonim would not support the claim that such appointments are per se forbidden.  Fundamentally, he thinks that allowing a poor family to support itself is a great need; allowing women to be appointed to positions of communal leadership is not a great need.

My conclusion, therefore, is that it is legitimate to claim Rav Mosheh’s authority on this issue for any purpose that one considers to be as important as Rav Mosheh considered the livelihood of a poor widow and her children.

 .עוד בענין אשה להתמנות דהשגחה מע”כ ידידי הרב הגאון מוהר”ר מאיר אסמעל /אמסעל/ שליט”א עורך ירחון המאור

הנה מה שמתנצל כתר”ה מה שהוא סובר דלא כדברי איני יודע למה הוא צריך להתנצלות הא ודאי שכל אחד צריך לברר האמת לפי דעתו בין לקולא בין לחומרא אף כשהוא תלמיד נגד סברת רבו וכ”ש לאחרים שאינם תלמידיו. ועיין בספרי אגרות משה חאו”ח סימן ק”ט שהארכתי בזה קצת. ואם כוונתו להתנצל במה שאולי בלשונו הטיח דברים כנגדי הנה ידוע לכל המכירים אותי שב”ה אני .רחוק מקפידא ח”ו על שום אדם וכ”ש על ת”ח. ולכן אכתוב רק לעצם הענין

 -הנה מש”כ כתר”ה שמצד תשובתי בזה שהקשתי על הרמב”ם שפוסל נשים אף לכל משימות שלא ידוע לי בעניי מקור לדבריו, וגם שמשמע לי שלא כו”ע סברי כן

-יוצא מכשול שימנו נשים לפרעזדענט במדינת ישראל

אין אנו אחראין להנהגת המלכות דשם שהיא בעוה”ר אצל כופרים ומומרים ואין מתחשבים עם דעותינו כלום ואף אם כו”ע יסברו כהרמב”ם וגם היה מפורש בגמ’ ואף בתורה שבכתב לא היו מתחשבים מזה כמו שלא מתחשבים עם כל איסורי התורה החמורים ביותר והמפורשים בגמ’ ובקראי וממילא אין שום מכשול מזה

-ולשמא ימנו אשה להבתי כנסיות שבמדינתנו אמעריקא

נמי לא שייך שיוצא מזה מכשול, דהבתי כנסיות והמוסדות שמתנהגים ע”פ דרך התורה לא יעשו בלא הוראת רב מובהק וממילא סגי לזה גם שיטת הרמב”ם שלא למנות אשה, ולאלו שסרו מדרך התורה הרי גם אם הוא איסור ברור ומפורש שבתורה לא ישגיחו ע”ז ואין אנו אחראין עליהם. וממילא נמצא שליכא שום מכשול ח”ו מברור ההלכה שכתבתי שלא כו”ע מודו להרמב”ם וטעות הוא  ביד אלו שערערו לומר שהוא מכשול

. . .

עוד נראה ברור שמחוייבין לברר הדין אף אם יש לחוש ליציאת איזה מכשול לאיזה טועים ושוטים כמפורש בב”ב דף פ”ט על הא דאריב”ז אוי לי אם אומר אוי לי אם לא אומר איבעיא להו אמרה או לא אמרה ופשיט ר’ שמואל ב”ר יצחק אמרה ומהאי קרא אמרה כי ישרים דרכי ה’ וצדיקים ילכו בם ופושעים יכשלו בם וברור הדין אף לקולא הוא חיוב גדול מלמוד התורה שזה עצמו הוא הלוך טוב לצדיקים. אבל האמת שאין בזה שום מכשול כדכתבתי

. . .

והק”ו שאמר כתר”ה מעצמו מפסול מלכה לפסול גם לשאר משימות אינו כלום ואין לזה לא טעם ולא ריח והסברות אדרבה להיפוך אבל מה שייך לדון בסברות בעלמא שלא זהו דרך חכמי התורה

 סוף דבר אף שיש הרבה ראשונים הסוברים כהרמב”ם אבל רש”י ותוס’ והרא”ש והר”ן ורמב”ן פליגי ומסתבר שכן סובר גם הרשב”א ובודאי למעשה יש להחמיר כשיטת הרמב”ם ודעימיה כיון דפלוגתא דרבוותא הוא . . . ולכן לצורך גדול בשביל חיות האלמנה ובניה היה שייך לסמוך על החולקים על הרמב”ם כבכל פלוגתא דרבוותא אבל מצאתי עצה לקיים גם שיטת הרמב”ם וממילא מוכרחין לעשות כהעצה שהרי ממילא ליכא צורך לסמוך על החולקים . . .


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