The female rabbinate is a progressive sign of equality between the sexes; a bold, new stroke written out in the history of Judaism, whose pages have always been male-dominated…or so it is frequently assumed. As the old adage goes though: there is nothing new under the sun. While, at one point, a female rabbinate was unthinkable, its ever-growing numbers are giving rise to the question if the position is indeed new or if, instead, modern Judaism has decided to come full-circle. Is there evidence that professional female spiritual leadership ever existed in the Torah?
“He made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting.”–Exodus 38:8
It is a sentence that packs a spiritual punch so subtle that it seems many don’t even notice its potential revelation. Once attention is drawn to it, one might then question what the position of these women entailed; expect some immediate follow-up giving details. However, this is where such curiosity will meet with strict disappointment, as this mention stands alone. Not only was this particular passage vague, but the Tannakh as a whole remains so. Only once more are these women ever referred to at all, in Samuel 2:22, where it states: “Now Eli was very old and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.”
Analysis of the simple math shows that, if they existed from the time of the Exodus to the time of Eli, the position the women played in relation to the holy sanctuary stood steady for several hundred years.
In the place where the women were assigned, there were bases of bronze, a court, and a gate for a court. Here, the priests were consecrated and anointed with oil, required to bathe their hands and feet, and put on their sacred garments. The most significant thing about the entrance of the tent of meeting, however, was that Torah states that Hashem ordered it to have its own altar for burnt and grain offerings. Torah is very clear that sacrifices were killed by either Aaron, his sons, or the person who brought the animal. So, distinctly, those who served the entrance of the tent of meeting did not kill animals.
However, what is vaguer in Torah is who the spiritual guardians of the sacred garments were, who anointed the priests, who supplied the sacred bathing provisions and oil, who determined absolutely that the offerings were fit to sacrifice, who ensured that the sacrifices were conducted humanely, and whether or not women took part in the non-animal sacrifices. Many are quick to make assumptions regarding these things, but, without Torah giving a final ruling, perhaps it is better to err on the side of caution.
Obviously, the position of these women had some vital importance to Judaism or common logic dictates that it would have been phased out. A radical assertion? Sadly, yes, to many. Most modern-day commentaries often state that the exact Hebrew translation relegated them to menial labor; nothing more. Effectively, most commenters continue, theirs was an unimportant job, so the fact that they gave up their mirrors showcases that even the lowliest can still contribute to Hebrew society…. Well, that sounds nice to someone from today’s audience that has no grasp on historical value, but archaeology hounds would quickly point out that the lowliest members of society would not have been well-off enough to own mirrors in the first place. It doesn’t seem likely that these women were poor, but let’s ignore that. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. In the face of these commentaries: let’s check the authentic Hebrew. The result is “ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting” changes to “served the doorway at the tent of meeting.” Not exactly a big change and, either way, “served” did not have any trivializing implications. So why would modern commentary insert it there? Is it today’s feminist that is creating higher significance to the position or rather antiquate sexism suppressing a history of greater gender tolerance?
These women deserve to be looked at with historical fairness; acknowledged, at minimum, as enigmas. Were they menial laborers? Possibly. They could have been employed there on the same rank as Temple janitors and no one today can dispute that theory with any proof to the contrary. But one can question that, if they were only menial laborers or janitors, why does Torah state twice that they were specifically at the entrance of the tabernacle? Was that the only area that they “menially” cleaned?
Totally opposite of the janitor theory, we may ask: were they priestesses? As much as some might like to say “no” to this, it can only justly receive the same answer that the previous question did: “possibly.” On every corner, the Israelites were surrounded by cultures that had priestesses. So why do we today automatically assume that these women at the tent of meeting were not leaders in their own rite, setting a precedent for Huldah and Deborah to later follow? Just as Aaron was a priest inside the tabernacle, could his sister, Miriam the Prophetess, have been a priestess at its gate, perhaps calling her congregants to worship with a tambourine instead of a shofar?
In the several parashot leading up to the first mention of these women, what does one read? Description of priestly clothing, the inside of the tabernacle, building, and ritual sacrifice. What if priestesses had no dress code? Could this explain, without any deeper explanation, why none of these parashot talk about what is necessary for priestesses? And, if priestesses, subject to menstruation and all of its societal restrictions of the day, had to alternate their power between several different women, rather than have one constant high-ranking individual, perhaps even that could explain a lack of writing about a particular priestess standing out. Or, just as when Moses told Hashem to blot him out of his book, perhaps Hashem simply did this so thoroughly with the female priestesses that they are not even mentioned, nor the reason why it happened. Undoubtedly, the sexual improprieties on the part of Eli’s sons did not help the situation; could have been the very kind of disgraceful excuse needed to suppress priestess power as a whole.
Of course, everyone knows that our sacred commentaries would mention it if women could have been priestesses…. That is the logic one automatically comes to. Or, perhaps not. In the words of Maimonides: “‘The sages said: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he taught her lasciviousness!” With reference to what are these words said? With reference to the Oral Torah.” He also states: “A woman who has studied Torah has a reward, but it is not like the reward of a man. For she was not commanded, and the reward of anyone who does a thing concerning which he is not commanded is not like the reward of him who is commanded and has done it, but is less than it.”
So Maimonides, whose writings and opinions formed so much of the culture of modern Judaism, and whose fact-based logic typically is something that pushes forward towards greater equality, takes a clear stance on not only a man’s right to teach a female Torah, but, just as with so many positions still in the workforce today, that a woman can do the same job, and have less spiritual pay for it, even if the man is forced and the woman volunteers. Maimonides relies on Oral Tradition to back his position up.
The Exodus is thought to have occurred roughly in 1500 BCE. The Oral Tradition was actually at last written down in installments over a lengthy period, roughly 200CE to 500CE. So, in-between the Exodus and the Mishnah, lies a gulf of 1700 years, and in-between the Babylonian Talmud a whopping two millennium. Maimonides himself was born in the early 12th century; 2700 years after these events took place. With all due respect to the sages Maimonides is so fond of, what insight do these numbers really give to the validity of refuting a woman’s right to Judaic scholarship?
It is often tempting to see the women in Biblical times as mere chattel, but if that were the whole truth, women in this region would not have been able to be judges, hold public office, or, like the so-famous Hypatia, not only be university professors, but become world-famous for it. Who is to say that the instruction of Torah fell solely on male shoulders? Who can prove that women depended on men for it at all and did not have their own rabbinic leaders? Who, within a reasonable time frame of these women living, even within a time frame of 500 years, can say that they were not rabbis?
And the answer is…nobody.
Even linguistically, the fact that only kohenim, (a male term,) comes up in the Torah is tricky. Actor. Comedian. Poet. Sculptor. Aviator. These were all male-only terms; now they are gender neutral. From this example we know that, in just recent times, professional words have changed. Similarly, in ancient times, we know that Hebrews took words from other languages. The exact etymology of the word “Kohen” has Arabic ties; whether or not the Hebrew or the Arabic came first is unknown. But during this time period, if a woman became Pharaoh, the term was not feminized to “Pharoah-ess.” To the contrary, the woman herself was depicted publicly in many ways as male. Having lived so long in Egypt, the Hebrew language would have then, more than at any other time in history, been affected by Egyptian linguistic quirks. So, knowing that, we must ask, in all of the portions mentioning the kohenim, does even the word “kohen” absolutely only reference “male priest?” Again, we don’t know.
But as the sages Maimonides quotes prove, there did accumulate a well-documented dark age for feminism in Judaism at some point. And, like all dark ages before it, it wanted us today to believe that not only was that the right way to think, but that things had never been any different. In times of prejudice, one thing is an unfortunate guarantee, from the ancient torching of the library of Alexandria to the Taliban’s bombing of the 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001, and that is: prejudice itself never seems to be sufficient in word-form only. In every case, there are actions that rise up to further the point. Books are burned. Faces are broken from statues. Names are scratched out of whatever they presided over, forcing these people and their accomplishments to historically vanish. Female intellectuals and spiritual leaders especially are traditional targets for this behavior, giving true history a perpetually slanted view.
So these two almost-bizarrely undetailed references to the women who ministered at the entrance of the tent of meeting may fall, along with many other questions, into the argument of whether or not the female rabbinate ever existed on a steady basis in Judaism thousands of years ago. Janitors, rabbis, or whatever else in-between – whichever theory one adopts, what written evidence remains gives us the obligation to consider how any order of people could be in such constant close proximity to all the listed Temple actions on a regular basis and not have some high level of consecration in the community.
But, perhaps more importantly though, these two sentences in Exodus and Samuel show just how incredibly valuable the knowledge which did not go into Torah was and what a loss we can feel from its absence today. And why we need to keep questioning what we read as well as all its sources, with the dates of those sources, whilst walking in pursuit of authentic and righteous Jewish culture and spirituality.
Rabbi Galina Trefil has spoken on behalf of human rights before the Nevada State Legislature, been interviewed on BBC Radio, and been previously published by several publications, including by Romea.CZ, Neurology Now, Jewcy, The Dissident Voice, and Jewrotica.