P’sak Halakhah and Women’s Voices by Rabbi Dov Linzer

This article is is dedicated to the memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, z”l.

What does it mean to have an inclusive approach toward women and women’s voices in p’sak halakhah? The answer is not as simple as some might imagine. At Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School, of which I am rosh hayeshiva, one of the yeshiva’s core values is “recognizing the need to enhance and expand the role of women in talmud Torah, the halakhic process, religious life, and communal leadership within the bounds of halakhah.” The key phrase here is “the halakhic process”—for with all of our commitment to inclusiveness, YCT rabbis, myself included, often find ourselves ruling for women, identifying opportunities in halakhah for their greater ritual participation, but not with women, not listening to their voices and directly engaging them in the process of p’sak.

To illustrate this point, let me share a story. About seven years ago, the yeshiva moved into a building near Columbia University. As we started the year, we had not yet figured out how to put up a mehitzah for davening in our beit midrashin a way that would both work technically and also run down the center—something that we insist on. A woman from Columbia University started attending our morning minyan, standing off to the side. This approach is allowed by Rav Moshe Feinstein in the absence of a mehitzah when it occurs only periodically. By the third day, however, it was clear that she was coming on a regular basis and that a mehitzah would be necessary. Because we still did not have one for that purpose, I looked around the room and concluded that the best solution would be for her to daven in my office, which opened into the beit midrash, leaving the door open, so she would not be shut off from the davening. I phoned her to explain the problem and my solution, and was duly apologetic for the inconvenience or distress that this might cause her (at the same time probably imagining myself to have been magnanimous in offering her my personal office space). The next day, she came and davened in my office, and when the students saw this, they leapt into action and, by the next day, had figured out how to solve the mehitzah situation. This was pretty good in the sensitivity and inclusiveness department—so I thought—for me and especially for my students.

However, a few weeks later, I got a call from this woman, asking to come in to speak to me about what had happened. I readily agreed, not knowing what to expect. When we met, she told me that she was deeply disturbed by what had happened. Why? Not because my solution was not the best one possible. Perhaps it was, she said. No, the problem was that I had never once involved her in the process. I never called her and said, “Look, here’s the problem we have. Here are the parameters we have to work with. Can we think together to figure out the best possible solution?”

This moment opened my eyes. It made me realize that however much we rabbis are sensitive and inclusive, it is terribly easy to slide into the role of benevolent despots, ruling unilaterally—with sensitivity and compassion, to be sure—for those who ask us she’eilot, but still ruling for them, and not with them.

Of course, this problem exists when men are the ones asking the questions as well. However, it is exacerbated in the case of women, whose voices have never been a part of the conversation, neither as sho’alot or as poskot.

It doesn’t help just to commit to being more conscious and conscientious about this problem. I fi nd that, in a yeshiva of all male students with all male rabbis, I am constantly having to relearn the same lesson. Just this past semester, I gave a course on the history of halakhic debates around women’s ritual roles in the synagogue, covering areas such as bat mitzvah, Kaddish, and women’s prayer groups (with part 2, on partnership minyanim, given in the spring). I titled the course “Only Her Voice Was Not Heard: Women in Participatory Roles in the Synagogue.” When I shared the syllabus with my wife, Devorah Zlochower, she said to me: “You realize that you have no women’s voices in this class. The students are never getting a chance to hear firsthand from women about their experiences.” The irony would be humorous, if it were not so sad.

I corrected the situation, and opened the course with a panel of women—Devorah Zlochower, Miriam Schacter, and Rachel Lopatin—sharing their personal experiences and perspectives. But I have needed to relearn this almost tautological lesson again and again: Without the ongoing presence of women’s voices, I would not be able to be sufficiently attentive to women’s voices. And this ongoing presence could only occur when women become part of the conversation; when they become not only sho’alot, but also poskot.

Widening the Tapestry of Halakhah

Of course, the need for women as poskot goes well beyond this. We need to ensure that those voices and perspectives are part of the process of interpreting, weighing, and applying halakhah as well. If we excluded any 50 percent of our population from this role, we would suffer as a result. So many voices, opinions, insights, and considered judgments would never be heard or considered, never be able to be a part of the tapestry of halakhah, to enrich it with additional nuance, depth, and subtlety. When that 50 percent is the entire population of women, though, we are depriving ourselves of the particular experiences and perspectives that are uniquely theirs. What does it mean to interpret and rule on halakhic issues around pregnancy and childbirth, taking birth control pills, female infertility, and nursing, if none of those interpreters have ever had these experiences firsthand? These are just some of the more obvious examples.

The reality is that, in a world that is anything but gender blind, even with its egalitarian aspirations, women’s experiences in a vast array of situations will differ from those of men. (This is even bracketing the work of Carol Gilligan and others who argue that men and women approach law and ethics in fundamentally different ways.) It is those experiences, and those perspectives, that need to be brought into the process of p’sak halakhah.

Certainly, rabbis will be called on to rule on situations that they have never experienced, but it is quite different when an entire class of people does not participate in a conversation. Consider, for a moment, whether men would be comfortable with the idea of a halakhic system interpreted and shaped by women. Or consider if only celibate single men could pasken. Would married men (and women) be comfortable with such a situation? However much we may strive to approach halakhah while bracketing our own personal perspectives (and whether this is the ideal is a discussion for another time), the reality is that those perspectives, even unconsciously, shape our reading and interpreting of sources.

Consider the following quote from Rambam, based on the Talmud Sanhedrin:

אין מעמידין בכל הסנהדרין לא זקן מופלג בשנים ולא סריס מפני שיש בהן אכזריות ולא מי שאין לו בנים כדי שיהא רחמן.

One does not appoint to the Sanhedrin either a very elderly person or a eunuch, because they have a certain degree of cruelty. Neither may we appoint someone who has no children, to ensure that he [the judge] will be compassionate.

Laws of Sanhedrin, 2:3

As Rashi explains, the very elderly person “has forgotten the pain of child-rearing, so he will not be compassionate” (Sanhedrin 36b, s.v. zaken). Halakhah recognizes that different people with different life circumstances will interpret and rule differently. Rulings that affect people’s lives need voices of compassion, voices that emerge from a wealth of life experiences. When it comes to women, then, we have to ask ourselves: What have we done by excluding their voices from the discourse? Have we protected the system from their perspective, or have we robbed it of such?

In the past, it was not feasible for women to be a part of the halakhic system. They did not have the necessary level of education, and their role in society was such that neither they nor the rabbis could have imagined them playing such a role. However, now that this role is feasible, it becomes a necessity.

Others will argue the fundamental issues of rights and opportunities, and what it means from a moral perspective to exclude women from a particular professional or religious role. Those arguments are well taken. My argument, however, is that without women in the role of poskot, halakhah suffers. To correct this, we need more than a few token opportunities; we need to have women’s voices as a regular and ongoing part of the discourse and process of p’sak.

One might argue that at this moment in history, this article is not necessary. We now have, thank God, not only the programs for yoatzot halakhah and toanot rabbaniyot in Israel, but also Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s new program for female dayanot, and in the United States, Yeshivat Maharat. Women are taking serious positions of communal religious authority—both the maharats and other women in analogous positions in the States, and, in recent and exciting news, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld as a religious leader in Efrat. However, the halakhic discourse—the writing of responsa and halakhicopinions, whether in written form or on listserves and on the web—is still taking place almost exclusively among men.

Thus, my charge to my fellow male rabbis is that we do everything we can not only to welcome, but also to proactively seek out, support, and encourage, women to be part of the conversation, to get the necessary training, and, if they already have the necessary training, to speak up and write, so that their voices can be heard. My charge to these women is that they invest the time and energy to do so, that they write not only articles and books, but also teshuvot, and that they fully embrace the role of poskot. And my charge to us as a community is that we find ways—through philanthropy, advocacy, and education—to begin to make this a reality. We owe it not just to our women, but also to halakhah.