Bat mitzvah speech makes case for female leaders

This morning I led a women’s reading of the Haftorah, a practice that is still very new within our Beth Israel community. I chose the Haftorah Shirat Devorah from Parashat Beshalach because it is an interesting story about a female prophetess and judge. Indeed, Devorah’s role as a female leader is quite unique in our traditional sources and is widely discussed throughout our history.

In this story, Barak asks Devorah to help him lead a war against Sisera and his army. Devorah and Barak win the battle, but Sisera escapes. He goes to the tent of Yael, who kills him in his sleep. Then Devorah and Barak sing their victory song, which echoes the song of Moses and Miriam.

Devorah was not the only female prophetess. According to the Babylonian Talmud, there were seven female prophetesses and 48 male prophets. Commentators from several time periods debate whether Devorah was a judge, not just a prophetess, as women in our history did not usually fulfill these sorts of leadership roles. This is still true in some communities today.

The rabbis offer several explanations and midrashim about Devorah as a female judge. Some look at her full name, Eshet Lapidot, which could be interpreted as the wife of Lapidot, a woman of torches, or even a fiery woman.

The Babylonian Talmud and Seder Eliyahu Rabbah give a positive explanation for her unique name. According to these sources, Devorah prepared wicks for the temple, and because of her religious devotion she was rewarded with the light of prophecy. Hence her name, the woman of torches.

Other sources, however, argue that Barak, which means lightning, was her husband because torches and lightning are both related to light. These midrashim say it is no wonder Barak would listen to Devorah’s orders, as they were a married couple. Obviously, this explanation is uneasy with Devorah’s stature as a female leader.

Another group of midrashim examine the place where Devorah sat as a judge. When Devorah taught, she sat under a palm tree, but the tree did not create much shade. Therefore, they conclude, Devorah must not have had many students or followers. This source is putting down Devorah’s leadership.

In contrast, Babylonian Talmud Megillah 14a argues that the palm tree is symbolic of the people’s unity and their strong faith in God during Devorah’s time as a prophetess. The tree’s singular trunk represents God, while its many branches represent Israel’s diverse people, who are united in their faith.

Rabbis in the medieval period also comment on Devorah’s role as a judge and leader, offering a halachic or legal perspective. These rabbis wanted to understand how Devorah’s position as a judge might affect the role of women as leaders at all times. Was Devorah an exception to the rule, or did she set a precedent? Were there unique circumstances to her acceptance as Israel’s judge and leader, and can those standards be met by other women at other times as well?

In modern times, Devorah’s leadership role became critical in discussions relating to ordaining women as rabbis. This question, as you might know, already has been addressed by the Reform and Conservative movements. In the past couple of years, it has become a central question in Modern Orthodox circles, as well. In fact, Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi in Israel, begins his discussion of this topic by celebrating Devorah as a prime role model.

Rabbi Bin Nun states that women can teach, just like Devorah did, and since education is the primary responsibility of rabbis nowadays, certainly women can fulfill this role.

Rabbi Bin Nun also notes that commentators who opposed the idea of women as judges would agree they can be judges if two quarreling parties or a community accepts them as such. He then applies this concept to the question of female rabbis. Rabbi Bin Nun says if a woman is accepted to be a rabbi, then it is allowed in that particular community.

While this position is not yet very popular in the wider Orthodox community, it is encouraging to see how the idea is slowly developing, and it will be even more interesting to see how it expands in the Orthodox community in years to come.

For me, these are all fascinating sources. Although I don’t agree with all of them, I enjoyed learning how rabbis deal with women’s leadership roles. I find it interesting that Rabbi Bin Nun uses Devorah as an example for a more modern case. It is important to bring out the rare occasion of a female judge and to apply it to the  idea of female rabbis. I also agree that even though women are not traditionally rabbis in Orthodox communities and were not judges in the past, they are allowed if accepted by a community.

This is a small change from the idea that women cannot be leaders at all, and a step closer to women being allowed to be Orthodox rabbis. I believe that creating these new opportunities for women will increase and deepen Torah learning, add more female role models in the Jewish community and, as importantly, will be a just and fair development in Judaism.

Gaby Sandel, 12, celebrated her bat mitzvah on Jan. 11 at the Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. This piece was adapted from her drash.