Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Female Rabbis and Devorah

Right before Pesach I received the following question regarding this post, which I am posting with permission, along with my answer.
I read your most recent entry on the Maharat issue. I have one question/issue. You set forth a very compelling case that a learned woman could serve as the functional equivalent of a rav in most categories of a 21st century rabbi, yet, as you contest, a woman doesn’t command the greatness, authority and leadership necessary for the job. As I read it the one name that popped in my head is Devorah. As I read Shoftim, my sense is that she possessed all of those skill sets with enough gravitas that men would go to war upon her command. (I’m aware that men have a tendency to do lots of atypical things because a woman asks; isn’t that the only recipe to a successful marriage!?!). But while she was a naviah, I think those same characteristics (leadership, authority, etc.) are available to (and are possessed by) many modern day women as well.
Thanks for your question about Devorah. On one hand, Devorah's role in Tanach seems to call into question my assertion that women could, but should not lead because it's a lack of modesty or appropriateness.

But when I thought about it more carefully, perhaps Devorah is the best example of precisely what I was trying to say. Devorah clearly could lead the Jewish people - and she did. Her gender really had no bearing on her ability to lead. In the words of the Midrash, הכל לפי מעשיו של אדם רוח הקדש שורה עליו - (the Divine Spirit of God rests on a person completely based on his actions.) Since she was capable and available, she became the leader.

But Devorah's example raises a larger question: If she was such a great example, where are all the other female leaders that should have followed in her wake? Why did so few women follow her example?

A predominant theme running throughout the book of Shoftim is the dearth of quality leadership who led the Jewish people during the period of the Judges. Go through the list: as great as each leader was, each one had a critical shortcoming: Ehud, Shimshon, Gidon. The Navi basically makes this point before the tragedy of Pilegesh B'givah (Chapter 19) when it states, ויהי בימים ההם ומלך אין בישראל - "it was in those days that there was no king of Israel." Shoftim chronicles the results of flawed leadership; the lack of unity that divides the people, the shortcomings in faith and devotion to God.

Discussing Devorah, the gemara makes precisely this point saying that she only became the leader of the people because there was a lack of righteous men in her generation - see Megillah 14a. (and I daresay that Devorah would have been the first person to agree with that statement.) Even when she sends Barak to go fight Sisra, he says that he'll only go if she goes with him. To this she responds: אפס כי לא יהיה תפארתך על הדרך אשר אתה הולך כי ביד אשה ימכר ה' את סיסרא -- "'I will surely go with thee; notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thy honour; for the LORD will give Sisera over into the hand of a woman.' (Shoftim 4:9) She mocks her own general for needing a woman to babysit him while he fights the war. (Sisra's finds his ultimate downfall in a similar manner - in the hands of a woman who seduces and then kills him. How's that for a military glory?)

Then the story ends and we don't really hear from Devorah again. She fades from the scene, most probably because she didn't really want to be the leader of her generation anyway. But, as they say, במקום שאין איש - "in the place that there's no man..." She had to take the phrase literally.

I think the Gemara (Berachot 20b) really says it best when discussing whether a woman could lead the bentching for a man: really, she could. אשה מברכת לבעלה - "a woman may bless for her husband." אבל תבא מארה לאדם שאשתו ובניו מברכים לו - "but a curse will (should?) come upon a man whose wife and children bless for him" - because he himself cannot.

That, I think is the point here. Once we assume that halachah does indeed distinguish between the roles of men and women (which I think the Torah clearly does), what does it say about the community that chooses a woman as its spiritual leader despite the fact that she cannot lead the davening, count for a minyan, judge, testify, etc.?

Devorah herself "sat under the date tree" in order to avoid impropriety. People came to ask her questions, and she answered them. But she herself never asserted that leadership. She avoided it. Because she herself understood that the Jewish people would have been much better off had their leader been a man.