Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael: Humility and Rabba-nut


The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.  To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.  To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.[ii]

As I consider issues of leadership, my mind inevitably wanders to parashat Korah, which addresses questions of power and challenges thereto.  I cannot help but relate Korah’s challenge against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon to the more recent attempts of leaders within our community, spearheaded by individuals or groups, to unilaterally alter the practices of our community and transform the power structure of American Orthodoxy.  While a comparison does not prove a point, it often generates much food for thought.

The most salient issue which has been a focus of the recent power struggle is the ordination of female rabbis.  I am not, of course, simply writing to add my two cents to the debate; enough has been said about it, more than enough fingers have been pointed, and my halakhic and hashkafic knowledge is far from sufficient for me to comment usefully on the proposition.  I do think, however, that the tone of the debate makes it obvious, even to someone like me, that a highly problematic view of the rabbinate has infected the minds and hearts of kelal Yisrael.

This conclusion is reached rather simply.  The most common argument I have seen put forth in favor of ordaining women runs as follows: 1) Women are, in the modern age, able to learn at the same level as men, removing the barrier which has to this point automatically made women less capable of performing rabbinic duties than men.  2) If women are just as capable, it would be unfair to withhold the privilege of rabbinic ordination from women.  3) Our sense of fairness therefore mandates that women should be ordained as rabbis.

This argument is painfully easy to knock down.  It is very difficult to argue for the existence at present of a substantial cadre of women who are able to learn at nearly the same level as the individuals who receive semikhah, whatever our reference institution for standards of semikhah may be: RIETS, Ner Israel, Lakewood, or even the Israeli Rabbinate.  Certainly, as I have been privileged to witness myself, very learned women do exist, but they are relatively rare.  Additionally, even learned women have not often experienced the same intensity of years of rigorous yeshivah study, of “ve-hagita bo yomam va-laylah,”[iii] and it would be difficult to assert that more than a handful of women have the requisite shimmush talmidei hakhamim (personal experience with Torah scholars) which is a basic requirement for issuing halakhic rulings.

Even for the few women who may be personally qualified in the senses mentioned above, it is difficult to assert that education and academic achievement alone are sufficient to justify ordination.  A parallel demonstration is the fact that there are non-Jews in the world who are far more Jewishly educated than most musmakhim and who could even put many well-established rabbis to shame.[iv]  However, being Jewish is certainly a prerequisite for semikhah.  Similarly, women’s exclusion in various respects from talmud Torah[v] and communal life (in both temporal and spiritual spheres)[vi] may hint at an unbridgeable gap between women and the rabbinate, the latter of which is founded upon being steeped in Torah study and commands significant authority in the community.

None of these points necessarily indicate that women cannot serve as rabbis, but together they indicate that the argument presented above leaves open much room for debate.

All this said, the issue which most upsets me is not anything previously stated.  I can live with people who disagree with me, whether their opinions are based on ignorance or a different assessment of either reality or halakhic texts (although the latter is clearly quite preferable).  However, I cannot remain silent in the face of a society which is insensitive to Torah values, particularly regarding the issue of the rabbinate, which serves not only as a body of communal leadership but as the bearer of the masorah, which in turn directs our understanding of God’s will.

To make things clearer, I will note that there are two categories of leadership in kelal Yisrael: temporal leadership and spiritual leadership. The modern rabbinate likely represents a chimera uniting the two types: A rabbi is expected to guide the community in many practical matters as well as offer spiritual instruction and inspiration.  It is in the spiritual sphere that my objection truly lies; I argue strongly against the assumption underlying point 2 of the above position, the claim that it is unfair to withhold the privilege of entering the rabbinate from anyone who is capable of performing rabbinical functions.  My distaste arises from the notion that entrance into the rabbinate is a privilege, even a right, which may be fought for and won. On the contrary, it is clear to me that among the most essential elements of spiritual leadership is humility, perhaps to the point of not wanting one’s position at all.

Let us consider two major spiritual leaders mentioned in the Torah: Moshe and Aharon.  Moshe is described as “anav me’od, mi-kol ha-adam asher al penei ha-adamah – exceedingly humble, more than any man on the face of the earth.”[vii]  Indeed, Moshe, the conduit of Torah who is the first link in the chain of masorah,[viii] the man described by Rambam[ix] as the most perfect person ever to walk the earth, did not want to be Moshe Rabbenu.  The pesukim in parashat Shemot[x] describe Moshe’s initial strong objections to the idea of being made a leader of the people.  Moshe begged of God, “shelah na be-yad tishlah – Send whomever (else) You will send!”  Al derekh ha-peshat (in accordance with the plain reading of the text), Moshe wanted the redeemer to be anyone but himself; he wished for neither the glory of Israel’s savior-king nor the prestige of an ambassador to the Pharaoh.[xi]  Al derekh ha-derash, Moshe felt that his brother Aharon would be a better candidate and he therefore wanted Aharon to lead.[xii]  (Certainly, Moshe later occasionally needed to speak out against challenges to his rule – perhaps because they symbolized challenges to God’s authority – but the initial instinct is nonetheless significant.) Moshe’s humility is seen by Midrash Tanna’im as archetypal behavior for future leaders: “Just as Moshe Rabbenu was humble… so must every judge be humble.”[xiii]

Aharon’s personality is less obvious from the pesukim themselves.  However, several midrashim record a striking incident that demonstrates Aharon’s reservations about leadership: “When Moshe poured the anointing oil on [Aharon’s] head, Aharon shook and was terrified.  He said to Moshe, ‘My brother, perhaps I was not worthy to be anointed with the sacred oil, and I misappropriated it, and I became deserving of excision!’”[xiv]  The Midrash adds that this story was related to Korah and his followers to make it clear that their claim was against God, Who had appointed Aharon, and not against Aharon himself, who had not desired the position granted to him.

Hazal are emphatic in stressing the virtue of humility, particularly in the context of acquisition and retention of Torah knowledge.  For example, consider this passage from Masekhet Ta’anit:

Rabbi Hannina bar Idi said: “Why were words of Torah compared to water…?  To tell you: just as water leaves a high place and moves to a low place, so too, words of Torah are only sustained within one whose attitude is lowly.”

And Rabbi Oshaya said: “Why were words of Torah compared to these three liquids: water, wine and milk…?  To teach you: just as these three liquids are only sustained in the lowliest of vessels [i.e., earthenware], so too, words of Torah are only sustained within one whose attitude is lowly.” [xv]

Two other passages indicate that pride and Torah knowledge are incompatible: “R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav: ‘Anyone who becomes vain: if he is a scholar, his wisdom eludes him.’”[xvi]  Again, “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘“[Torah] is not in the Heavens” (Devarim 30:12) – it will not be found among the lofty of spirit [i.e., arrogant].’”[xvii]

Based on these and other sources, Maharal writes unequivocally, “It is impossible to acquire Torah [knowledge] except [if one is] a master of this trait [of humility].”[xviii]  His rationale is that Torah is an intellectual entity, and one must remove himself from physicality (which he connects to haughtiness) in order to acquire Torah.  However, another explanation, more relevant to the current discussion, may be advanced; it begins with another source regarding humility and Torah knowledge:

R. El’azar said: “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘His cheeks are like a bed[xix] of spices?’  If a person makes himself like this bed which everyone tramples, and like this spice with which everyone perfumes themselves, his Torah learning will survive, and if not, his Torah learning will not survive.”[xx]

Interpreting this piece, Rashi explains that the traits encouraged here are 1) avoiding haughtiness and 2) teaching Torah to students.  Interestingly, the derash of Rabbi El’azar seems to link the two, perhaps indicating that the former is a prerequisite for the latter.  There is an intuitive logic to the connection; an arrogant teacher will place his own comfort above the needs of students.  Apparently, rabbinic leadership goes far beyond personal scholarship, requiring sensitivity and a willingness to surrender oneself to the needs of the public.  In the words of Tosafot explaining a similar Gemara in Nedarim, “He should teach Torah to everyone,”[xxi] whatever their intellect or stature.

Even God Himself is described as humble in a fascinating passage recited by many before the aleinu prayer every motsa’ei shabbat:

R. Yohanan said: “In every place where you find the might of God, you find His humility. This matter is written in the Torah, repeated in the Nevi’im, and tripled in the Ketuvim.  It is written in the Torah: ‘For Hashem your God is the God of powers and Master of masters,’ and it is written after it, ‘He carries out the justice of orphan and widow.’[xxii]  It is repeated in the Nevi’im: ‘So said the high and exalted [One Who] lives forever and is holy, etc.’ and it is written after it, ‘And [I dwell] with the crushed and low of spirit.’[xxiii]  It is tripled in the Ketuvim, as it is written, ‘Extol Him Who rides upon the heavens,’ and it is written after it, ‘The father of orphans and the judge of widows.’[xxiv][xxv]

A careful reading immediately reveals that R. Yohanan’s proof texts do not all really fit the bill.  While dwelling “with the crushed and low of spirit” is an act of modesty, ensuring that widows and orphans receive their due seems to be irrelevant to humility.  Perhaps, however, this is the point: humility is synonymous not with self-abnegation but with selflessness.  It is the ability to look beyond one’s own admirable qualities and focus on the needs of others.

This, it seems, is the reason humility is required for Torah leadership.  Only a person who is humble in this sense – who would enter a leadership position for the sake of those who will be led, rather than for personal gain – is worthy of being granted the gift of knowledge of the divine Word. Only someone who is humble in this way will utilize the intellectual gifts granted to him for the public good.

Despite being the greatest man who ever lived, Moshe Rabbenu was (to quote Rashi’s explanation of Moshe’s humility) “shafel ve-savlan – lowly and patient,”[xxvi] constantly placing the people’s needs above his own.  It is, then, a sorry situation indeed when a debate over the nature of the rabbinic establishment morphs into a vicious power struggle, rather than an honest assessment of the needs of the Jewish people. Some battles are worth fighting, and certain mahalokot (arguments) are indeed le-shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven).  Still, especially in the context of mahaloket, it is worthwhile for all of us to recall the ideal portrait of a rabbi and the values that should light the way for these critical Jewish figures, and to reconsider how we debate the future of the rabbinate.

Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael – There is much [opportunity] for you, O daughters of Israel.”[xxvii]  The debate about women’s roles in today’s Orthodox community is an important one, and the question deserves serious and careful analysis.  But it should be answered based on the dictates of Halakhah, the established masorah, and the needs of the general populace, rather than either patriarchal bias or the desire to advance a feminist agenda. Despite the common claim to the contrary, women are actually granted a vast array of spiritual opportunities within the framework of Halakhah, and adding to or detracting from what Halakhah dictates are both dangerous.  Yet in this murky set of issues, one thing is clear: we will not serve the Jewish people by concentrating solely on the rights of potential rabbis, whose lives are supposed to be dedicated to the people, not the other way around. Instead, we should reframe the issue based on the following three questions: 1) Does the Jewish community have a significant and demonstrable need for female rabbinic leadership?  2) Would the inclusion of women in the rabbinate contradict the dictates and/or values of the system they would hope to represent?  3) Would the benefit of this innovation outweigh the resistance of the halakhic system to fundamental alterations to spiritual practices?  Only through properly focused debate will useful conclusions ever be reached.

This essay ought to have ended already; indeed, in its earlier forms, this sentence and those following it did not exist.  However, I would like to tack on two notes which I think are worthy of further consideration, lest the reader decide to ignore the regrettably oft-neglected endnotes section.  First, I have focused on feminist considerations rather than misogynistic attitudes because I only see the former as related to the humility issue, which was what inspired me to write this piece.  Beyond this, I am willing to trust that rabid sexism is not a serious problem amongst most of the Kol Hamevaser readership; as far as I can tell (though I may be mistaken), YU hardly encourages exclusion of women from religious or communal life.  I will certainly acknowledge, however, that in other contexts and communities, negative attitudes towards women’s intellects and abilities will drive the conversation, which is certainly problematic, albeit in a different sense.

The second note is that not all debaters on the same side speak in one voice, and the argument I have outlined and analyzed is not representative of all those in favor of women’s ordination.  Some have, indeed, focused on the questions I have laid out.  However, it is often difficult to hear these voices above the clamor that is the civil-rights argument for women’s ordination.  Unless there is an attitudinal shift, I believe the more reasonable voices will be lost in the wave of demands not grounded in tradition.  Then, either the pro-ordination side will be defeated by traditionalists, or a new split will develop within the modern Orthodox community.  Neither should be a reason to rejoice for someone who favors ordination of women.

Ariel Caplan is a senior in YC majoring in Biology and is an Associate Editor of Kol Hamevaser.


[i] While responding to the broader conflict that emerged with the ordination of Sara Hurwitz and the opening of Yeshivat Maharat, this article is most specifically meant to serve as a response to Ilana Hostyk’s piece “In Defense of Rabba Hurwitz,” published last year in the Yeshiva University Observer.  The article, available at http://www.yuobserver.com/home/index.cfm?event=displayArticlePrinterFriendly&uStory_id=3253a3a8-374f-4dbc-a884-460f76743af5, asserts: “Stern College for Women is an institution that has demonstrated that women are more than capable of achieving the same heights in learning as any man… However, one could not have expected all of this learning to be for naught. Jewish women could not reasonably be expected to remain in the same position they previously had in Judaism now that they have attained all of this knowledge. A leadership position within the framework of halakha is the logical, and necessary, next step.”  This argument will be directly addressed and analyzed.  However, I should note here that I find it distasteful that learning for its own sake is described as “for naught.”

[ii] Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York: Wings Books, 1996), 278.

[iii] Yehoshua 1:8. Also see Menahot 99b.

[iv] I have had the privilege of learning from one such individual who is currently employed by Yeshiva College as a professor.  To cite a characteristic line, “I could cook you a perfectly kosher meal.  But you would never eat it!”

[v] See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:1, which establishes that women are not obligated to learn Torah, and 1:13, which discourages women’s Torah education.  Also see the formulation in Shulhan Arukh, Y.D. 246:6, which also relates these two points.

[vi] This takes a more extreme form in Rambam’s assertion (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 1:5) that women are excluded from any position of serarah, authority; this stance is, of course, simply an extension of the more widely accepted law that a woman may not be appointed as ruling monarch over the Jewish people (based on Sifrei 157:15).  Even those who do not accept Rambam’s position will readily admit that women are excluded from certain public roles in the synagogue, such as leading prayers and the majority of Torah reading. Outside the synagogue, they are also precluded from serving as judges (Shulhan Arukh, H.M. 7:4) or witnesses (ibid. 35:14) in court. One might argue, however, that such exclusions do not necessarily indicate fundamental assumptions about women’s roles in society. For instance, the exclusions of participation in court may be related more to the nature of court proceedings than to the ontological role of womankind.  Yet, the abundance of roles only available to men is difficult to ignore by ascribing the various cases to small details rather than a broader picture of societal structure.

[vii] Bemidbar 12:3.

[viii] Avot 1:1.

[ix] Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:2, Peirush ha-Mishnayot Sanhedrin 10:1.

[x] Shemot 3:11-4:13.  Translation is the author’s.

[xi] Ramban ad. loc.

[xii] See Rashi ad. loc.

[xiii] Devarim 1:15.

[xiv] Bemidbar Rabbah 18:9; with author’s translation.  Also see the parallel midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 3:6, as well as the more extreme formulation in Sifra on Shemini 1:37, in which Aharon is confident that he was not worthy.

[xv] 7b. Translation is the author’s.

[xvi] Pesahim 66b. Translation is the author’s.

[xvii] Eruvin 55a. Translation is the author’s.

[xviii] Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-Torah, Chapter 2.

[xix] This refers to the agricultural phenomenon, not the piece of furniture.

[xx] Eruvin 54a. Translation is the author’s.

[xxi] 55a, s.v. she-yehei. Translation is the author’s.

[xxii] Devarim 10:17-18.

[xxiii] Yeshayahu 57:15.

[xxiv] Tehillim 68:5-6.

[xxv] Megillah 31a.  Translation is the author’s.

[xxvi] Rashi to Bemidbar 12:3.  Translation is the author’s.

[xxvii] Cf. Bemidbar 16:7.