Monday, 8 December 2014

Can a woman be a president of a synagogue?

On Sunday December 14th the membership of Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH) will have the opportunity to amend the bylaws to allow every member in good standing to serve the synagogue in an executive board function, including vice president and/or president. I have been asked to write a blog to explain the history of this topic at SBH and the halakhic issues involved.

This topic has come up twice before at SBH, once in the 1990s and once in 2012. In the late 90s it was decided not to change the bylaws. Two years ago there was much debate to change the bylaws. At that time SBH did not have a rabbi and it was recommended to wait until the new rabbi would be appointed to give his halakhic ruling on the topic. So as the new rabbi I was tasked with coming up with a definitive halakhic ruling to present as the 2014 general membership meeting. 

I would like to share with you my decision making. First of all, I read the substantial halakhic literature on the subject. Second, I listened to different members of the community who were involved in the decisions in the 1990s and in 2012. Third, I discussed the issue with our rabbis emeritus and with senior rabbis in the community and the United States. 

Here is a summary of the halakhic literature based on an excellent article by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer in 2007. In the book of Devarim (17:14-20) the Torah states the laws of appointing a Jewish King. The Midrashic commentary the Sifrei notes that the Torah mentions the word king three times. From the fact that the word king is mentioned three times we must learn something new each time it is mentioned. One of the three things learned is that you may appoint a king - but not a queen. 

The Rambam codifies the halakha as follows. "We may not appoint a woman as king. When describing the monarchy, the Torah employs the male form of the word king and not the female. This principle also applies to all other positions of leadership within Israel. Only men should be appointed to fill them." (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:5) The question we have before us is what is leadership or in Hebrew "serara"? Serara can be understood to be anyone who makes unilateral decisions. There are several rishonim (medieval halakhic decisors) such as the Hinukh, Rashi and Ran who disagree with the Rambam's interpretation. They limit the scope to just a woman becoming a queen but they allow for a woman to have a leadership role. 

I would like to jump to the 20th Century. In a number of lengthy responsa it is clear that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled against women taking on leadership roles in synagogues. Rav Soloveitchik was asked about women serving on synagogue boards. Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer write the following: "The Rav responded that he saw no reason why women could not serve as a board member. It was not serara since the final decision was made by the board and not by the member. The members merely had input. The Rav did rule that women could not be synagogue presidents. Presidents had certain prerogatives and that constituted serara." Rabbi Maimon, being a student of Rav Soloveitchik holds that a woman can be on the board but cannot be a president or vice president. Hacham Uziel, former chief Rabbi of Israel wrote that our democratic system changes everything and even the Rambam would agree that there is no serara here.  

I felt that in the last twenty years since the passing of Rav Soloveitchik things have evolved a great deal. Synagogue boards work differently. President does not make decisions unilaterally. There is no discretionary power, all decisions are made by committees or boards and not by individuals. I felt it was important to talk to a major posek, a halakhic decider of complicated meta-halakhic issues. 

I contacted Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the Av Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of America he indicated to me that he believes that the issues raised by the Rambam are not applicable to the position of synagogue president, and that, consequently, there is no halakhic prohibition. He added that it would be better if there was a woman who wished to be president but did not say that it was essential. 

Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, head of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma'ale Adumim, Israel and a well known modern orthodox posek, felt that there was good reason to allow a woman to serve as a synagogue President, since to his mind serara is the right to exercise discretionary authority. This does not exist in synagogue presidencies as every decision is reviewed by the Board and members. 

To the question of changing the status quo and what the Orthodox Jewish community is comfortable with, there are a number of orthodox organizations in Seattle that have Female presidents or leaders both currently and in the past. There are also many orthodox synagogues outside of Seattle with female presidents. 

To those who are concerned about the slippery slope, Rabbi Frimer writes the following "Rav Nahum was, however, concerned about the cohesiveness of the community. In the 50s, 60s and 70s there was a real justified fear of the slippery slope, of the inroads made by Conservative Judaism. But in 2007, things have, to his mind, changed radically. Orthodoxy is vibrant and the Conservative movement is weak. Nevertheless, one can’t dismiss the fears and concerns of those who want to be stringent. But these fears and concerns may well dissipate in 10 years from now."

My definitive halakhic ruling is that women can serve as vice president or president of SBH. Despite Rabbi Maimon supporting the view of his illustrious teacher Rabbi Solovetichik, both Rabbi Maimon and Rabbi Benzaquen have made it clear to me that they support the process I went through and that I asked a major posek. Whatever, the membership decides on Sunday, I hope that this does not become a divisive issue. I feel that I have shown through the halakhic sources that it is permitted to have women serve in the positions of vice-president and president. It is now up to the membership to vote.

To read the article by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer in full, please click here


  1. Thank you for the post. I appreciate you consulting with Rav Schwartz.
    Could you clarify this sentence? "He added that it would be better if there was a woman who wished to be president but did not say that it was essential."

    1. The proposed bylaw amendment is not based on any women putting themselves up for nomination. Rav Schwartz felt if a woman was standing for nomination it would make a stronger case to amend the bylaws. The executive and board did not want to cloud the topic by having a female candidate stand at this time. They wanted the issue to be about giving all members including women an opportunity to serve as vice president or president and not whether a particular woman was a suitable candidate.

    2. Thank you for the clarification.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.