May Women Run for Public Office?

At a discussion with his students at the Jerusalem Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, R. Shelomo Aviner ruled recently that on the grounds of “modesty” women may not run in Israeli elections to the Knesset.

His position was challenged by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow: “I don’t understand where this perspective came from, that a woman serving in a public office is not modest.” [Jerusalem Post, 2012-Oct-24]

Rabbi Aviner claims that:

  1. Women should be private and not public figures, based upon Psalms 45:14, the entire glory of the King’s daughter is in her interiority.”
  2. Politics, being public, is a male enterprise.
  3. Serving in the Knesset is immodest, and therefore a forbidden activity for women.
  4. There is basis for this ruling is found in the writings and thought of Rav Avraham Isaac Kook.
  5. R. Aviner grudgingly allows women to vote for people to serve in the government. Since other, non-religious women are voting and having their vote count in the allocation of political power, the Nationalist Religious camp must, under current circumstances, allow its women to vote if its ideological voice is to be heard.
  6. There is social mingling of the sexes at political events, which is forbidden according to R. Aviner‘s version of Jewish law.
  7. The case of Deborah the “judge” is to his view not a precedent for female leadership. Hers was a special, emergency case, as there was no one else to do the job of leadership.

In Yeshiva settings, the head of the yeshiva is also the heart, mind, conscience, and mouth of the yeshiva. His truth is hierarchically superior and challenges the official ideological and theological line leading to expulsion and a bad reputation as a dissident, troublemaker, and an unworthy person for the community of the elect. One is supposed to learn Torah in order to receive the recovery of truth as explained by the Yeshiva head, and Torah learning may not be undertaken in order to engage in the discovery of Torah truth as that truth is encoded in the Torah book, philologically parsed. Rabbi Aviner is both religious and Zionist, but his world view is Harda”l, as he finds ultimate Jewish normative propriety in the rulings of rabbis and not in the Judaism that is actually encoded in the canonical Jewish sacred library.

Jews who are both modern and Orthodox would alternatively contend:

  1. First, the Psalms passage, which maintains that the King’s daughter, the Jewish female, is to be a private and not a public person, has been expanded by culture and not by Torah law. The passage might also be read to forbid women to leave the house or to earn a living by being a salaried professional. How else could a precious Jewish daughter earn a livelihood that feeds herself, her children, her unemployed ever learning husband, cover the rent, and religious day-long education. Second, Jewish laws are not derived from non-Pentateuchal Biblical books. How R. Aviner knows/intuits the actual normative valence implied by his spin of the Psalms passage is not explained; the claim, that women may not run for office because office holding is immodest if the office holder is a woman, is boldly asserted and Scripture is cited as if R. Aviner knows God’s secret intent, which just happens to be the ethos of parochial Orthodoxy’s street culture. As long as the Written and Oral Torah do not explicitly forbid an act, that act is implicitly permitted. [R. Joseph Karo, Bet Yosef to Yoreh Deah 1:1, citing mEduyyot 2:2. R. Shabbatei Cohen’s opposing view, that what was done is what is to be done, reflects and anticipates R. Aviner’s alternative approach.] In order to forbid an otherwise permitted act, a rabbi must persuade his community on the basis of a reasoned reading of the Oral Torah canon. To appeal to the rulings of great rabbis of Yom Kippurs past will not do, because the world of modernity carries a different mindset than the social world of yesteryear; to affirm Daas Torah is invalid, because the Daas of Torah resides in the public Torah book, and not in the individual intuition of any rabbi, however great he may be; and to invoke Tradition/Masorah is illegitimate, because a real and authentic tradition that carries with it the soul of Sinai may be found—at least according to Maimonides’ introduction to his Code—in the Talmud of Babylon, and not in the pronouncements of latter day saintly would be and wannabe Masorites.
  2. According to R. Aviner, politics, being public, is a male enterprise. Deuteronomy 17:15 rules that Israel is commanded to appoint a king over its sovereign polity. bYebamot 45b unpackages the passage and rules that all power appointments [mesimot] are made by men. It is indeed a plausible, but not necessary, reading of this passage that women may neither hold public office nor vote for male holders of public office. Sifre Deuteronomy 157:15 maintains that a man may lead and a woman does not lead. Note well that the syntax of this passage is descriptive and not prescriptive. It is true however, that Midrash Tannaim 17 glossed this passage and ruled that women may not serve as leaders. At stake in this conversation is whether God’s covenant with Israel requires obeying God’s commands alone or preserving the sociology of yesteryear, as well. Recall that R. Aviner is prepared to derive Jewish law by attaching his ideas to canonical comments; since to be binding Midreshei Halakhah require a sitting Sanhedrin for approval, R. Aviner is constrained to adjust the parameters of Jewish normativity in order to preserve what he takes to be traditional Jewish sociology. Pisqei Uzziel 55 reads the norm as literally as forbidding the appointment of a king. God’s will is not more and not less the sacred recorded law. Not forbidden by the Oral Torah’s sacred statute is the acclamation or election of the king. Since the normative valence of a statute is limited by the semantic field of its words, Rabbi Uzziel’s reading is also plausible. Recall that R. Uzziel disagrees with his older, more established colleague, R. Kook. At stake in their disagreement is how to accommodate social change to halakhic statute. Rav Kook believed that social change should be avoided, and read the restrictions expansively; R. Uzziel contends that we take God at God’s literal word as recorded in the canon, so whatever is not forbidden by statute may, if the reality on the ground so requires, be permitted in practice.
  3. R. Aviner did not reference the rule regarding women not holding the power of office; he instead raised the issue of modesty. R. Aviner’s rulings parallel R. Kook’s faithfully and accurately. But he marginalizes women by viewing them as bundles of sexual energy that tempt men to sin. How does Rabbi Aviner know that women serving in public [a] violates the canons of modesty and [b] is indeed forbidden by Jewish law? For his version of Orthodoxy, the opinions of contemporary great rabbis carry covenantal valence because these rabbis claimed this right, power, and authority because these rabbis acted as if the Oral Torah affords them this authority. And they get rather testy when their divinely inspired intuition is called into question, when they are held to peer review by those whom they do not regard as peers, and regard all criticism as bashing by people, who cannot understand because great rabbis alone understand. According to authentic Oral Torah Judaism, the ethos of faith is co-terminous with the ethic of the statutory norm. There are no hidden or secret heavenly laws known only to R. Aviner, no axiological axioms or meta-halakhic concepts [a Greek rather than Jewish idea] that are imputed to Judaism but not recorded and encoded in Judaism’s sacred library, and there are no values or binding norms that carry valence because post-Talmudic Rabbi X said so. For an act to be determined to be Jewishly immodest, it is, with all respect to Rabbi Shabbatei Cohen, insufficient to claim “we never saw the act being done.” We are required to show that there is indeed a rabbinic law that creates the legal mandate. Rabbi Aviner fails to cite the Talmudic norm that without question disallows women running for office or voting; invoking the magic words of Masorah or Minhag is Jewishly inappropriate. The Masorah that is legally binding ends with the Talmud, which is the benchmark by which post-Talmudic Minhag and Masorah are evaluated. By assuming, but not demonstrating, that it is a concern for “modesty” that the Talmud is taken to outlaw for all time women leadership, R. Aviner is constrained to dismiss the Scriptural evidence of Deborah, he makes out of “modesty” a catch-all category that imputes to God, the Lawgiver, all the anthropomorphic qualities of a man who sees women as gendered objects of sexual energy, a perspective that this writer regards as immodest in and of the extreme.
  4. Rabbi Kook was a very great man and a wonderful rabbi; in Israel he is called “the Rabbi,” or ha-Rav. And he is by all accounts worthy of this title. And I make it no secret that I learn from R. Aviner, who continues this revered Tradition. But R. Kook dressed the old world dress and it is that world and its time conditioned ethos that provided R. Kook with his normative benchmarks, over, above, and even in the face of Torah. Specifically, R. Kook would disapprove of female suffrage and the use of chalk in education. However, God’s will is revealed in the Torah of Sinai and not the folkways of yesteryear. As stated above, it is a human bias and not a divine mandate to deny women the right to vote or to use chalk in teaching. Similarly, R. Adin Steinsalz was criticized for not studying the Talmud with Tsurat ha-Daf, the [culturally] “traditional” format that is by convention to be used. Convention may not be confused with covenant; chalk is by no means forbidden by Talmudic law so its non-use is unworthy of the “tradition” designation, and by opposing women voting and running for office on the grounds of “modesty,” we have created an innovative new Orthodoxy. It is a religion where halakhah is not the Law of the Jewish people; it is the trove that is ritually reviewed by the masses and is normatively defined by great rabbis of socially conservative inclination.
  5. By grudgingly allowing Orthodox women to vote and to serve in the Knesset, R. Aviner grants what might be termed a “dispensation,” as he is, after blow-back, dispensing what he suggested is a law of modesty. Since non-Orthodox women are both voting and holding office as politically active persons, the modesty “law” may be suspended [See Maimonides, Mamrim 2:4] because, by forbidding women to vote and hold office, the Orthodox diminish their hold on the perks of power. It should be recalled that “dispensation”, i.e., the right of an authority person to suspend a law, is found in Catholic law but not in the Law of the Written and Oral Torah.

    Jewish law forbids [Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Intercourse, 21] lustful inter-gender physical contract by Torah law, lustful non-contract gestures, by rabbinic law, and the clandestine unions regardless and independent of other behavior between a man with either one or two women who are not his wife/wives. There were occasions when due to anticipated loose behavior, the rabbis segregated the sexes. It is Jewish convention and not conviction that requires gender segregation. Tosafot to bShabbat 125b, s.v. ha-kol modim, sees the gender partition as “conventional modesty” and not as an undocumented allegedly Biblical mandate. The segregation of the sexes reflects the Hareidi sexual ethic; and this community has a right to its style and its folkways. R. Aviner grudgingly allows women to vote for people to serve in the government. Since other women are voting, the Nationalist Religious camp must allow its women to vote if its voice is to be heard.

  6. But the moment that this Orthodoxy claims that its folkways and its style are in fact the will of God and the Torah of all Israel, with declaration but without demonstration, then this Judaism’s very Orthodoxy may be held to review, revision, and if needed, rejection.
  7. The Biblical idiom shofeta et Yisrael, [Judges 4:4. Psalms 82:8 may reflect this idiom, to be explained below, as well] describing Deborah’s judging Israel, may be a synonym for ruling Israel as a king. The Semitic root is also found in Akkadian, as shapitum, a Northwest Akkadian epithet for “king.” How R. Aviner magically knows that Deborah is not a precedent for leadership [or women singing in the presence of men, see Judges 5:1 and R. Yehiel Weinberg, Seridei Esh 3:8] is also unstated. As an authority person, R. Aviner assumes the legal power to privilege precedent intuitively. Canonical textual evidence is superseded by the inspired rabbinic intuition of the great rabbi.


At [last checked, it is a dead link], Rabbi Aviner clarifies his position. It is argued by R. Aviner’s spokesman that:

  1. A reporter went and found the talk on our website, listened to it and misunderstood it and created news. Incredibly immoral. He should have called Rav Aviner and asked him about it. Rav Aviner is probably the most accessible Rabbi in the world. His number is everywhere.
  2. He began the talk by quoting Rav Kook that women should not in involved in politics since it is immodest. Rav Kook‘s article is in Maamrei Ha-Reiyah.
  3. Even Rav Kook never said it was forbidden but rather a guideline.
  4. Rav Aviner said that the current reality is that women are in politics and many lists save a spot for women, so we should vote and support the women who will bring the greatest blessing to our Nation.
  5. People see everything as black and white. Rav Aviner often points out the grays in the world, the ideal and then how to deal with the reality.

On one hand, due diligence would have required clarifying R. Aviner’s position. But the claim that women are to be private people and how anyone can say that women’s running for office– or voting– is immodest– is a legitimate issue for discussion. Do rabbis have a right to define positively and apodictically what God really asks of Israel without discussing the actual meaning of the sacred text of the canon. And no, Kitzur Shulhan Aruch presents an opinion and not “the” law. Since Rabbi Aviner and other great rabbis forbid what the Oral Law requires, i.e. women serving in defensive wars of Israel [bHullin 44b], the opinion is subject to review.

By choosing to opt for “traditional culture” when the Torah need not be read the way Jewish culture, by dint of social inertia reads the Torah library, R. Aviner and Haredi/Harda”l rabbis assume a power that is not, at least according to Maimonides, possessed by post-Talmudic rabbis, which is the power to define the will of God with the rhetoric of midrash halakhah and divinely inspired intuition. According to official religion Orthodox Judaism, the Torah and its divinely Authored benchmarks are not given to change but are engraved forever, never to be effaced. The Torah was given to every tribe and an authenticating master copy was placed in the sacred ark, to insure that Israel is ruled by God’s accessible published word law and not by a subjective human whim, by a public law and not by a secret society of charismatic leaders, and by an exoteric revelation and not any esoteric mystical intuition. Real Torah empowers the judges who judge the judged to themselves be judged by those whom they judge, and woe to the judges who are found to be in need of judgment.

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.