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Halachic considerations around giving women the vote
Rav Uziel ruled in favor of not only giving the vote to women, but also allowing them to run for elected positions.
With the upcoming elections, I have been addressing the halachic considerations around giving women the vote. In the previous column, I wrote about the first government elections that took place in Israel in 1920 and the rabbinic attitudes toward suffrage.
Votes for women was one of the most contentious issues sweeping the Western world and both chief rabbis at the time, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook and Rav Ben Zion Meir Uziel were asked their opinion on the matter. I presented Rav Kook’s approach, in which he came out against giving the vote to women for fear it would threaten the traditional family structure and lead to the anarchy he saw developing in Europe and America.
Following is an excerpt from his response to the question (all translations: Zvi Zohar):
“If anyone should tell us that women should be excluded from the voting public because “their minds are flighty (daatan kalot)” (Shabbat 33b and Qiddushin 80b) and they know not how to choose who is worthy of leading the people, we reply: Well, then, let us exclude from the electorate also those men who are “of flighty minds” (and such are never lacking). However, reality confronts us clearly with the fact that, both in the past and in our times, women are equal to men in knowledge and wisdom, dealing in commerce and trade and conducting all personal matters in the best possible way.
Rav Uziel was unwilling to consider the traditional Talmudic attitude regarding women’s intellectual capabilities when making his decision.
Instead, he based his halachic opinion on the reality he saw in front of him and which he emphasized, included the past as well as the present. When addressing the question about possible licentiousness if women leave the homes to vote, he questions how there can be immodesty when “each person goes to the poll and enters his voting slip?
If we start considering such activities as licentious, no creature would be able to survive! Women and men would be prohibited from walking in the street, or from entering a shop together; it would be forbidden to negotiate in commerce with a woman, lest this encourage closeness and lead to licentiousness. Such ideas have never been suggested by anyone.”
He also rejected the concern for preserving peace in the home, asking why a wife’s agency in this matter is more of a threat than adult sons still living at home who may choose to vote in opposition of their fathers. He directly confronted Rav Kook, who expressed concern for wives forced to flatter their husbands by voting against their own personal wishes or causing a rift by opposing their husband and voting for another candidate.
Rav Uziel called this “a newly contrived basis” to oppose women’s voting and dismissed this concern as having no validity. He concluded that women can vote since they are bound “by the collective obligation to obey the elected officials who govern the nation” and thus should be part of the community that votes such officials in.
Rav Uziel uses a similar lens from which to address the possibility of electing women to positions of public office.
First, he seriously considered some of the halachic issues. First and foremost there is a statement in the early Tannaitic midrash Halacha Sifre Deuteronomy that only a king may be appointed to the exclusion of a queen. Based on this, Maimonides writes in his seminal halachic code Mishna Torah, “And likewise, all public appointments in Israel are to be made from amongst the men and not the women. Therefore a woman should not be appointed as head of a community” (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:5).
These sources seem to pose serious deterrents to the possibility of women running for office. Despite this, Rav Uziel recognized that within the halachic tradition, there is room for a different conclusion. He wonders whether women are fundamentally ineligible to function as judges or whether it is a concern with the principle of dignity of the community. If it is the former, he acknowledges, there is nothing to do since the Torah has deemed her ineligible. However, if it is the latter, then if part of the public chooses her as their representative and proxy, there is no violation of this principle.
He addresses other halachic issues in his responsa, namely the question of serara (appointment of women to positions of power) and conventions of modesty. Again, in contrast to Rav Kook, who was concerned for the preservation of woman’s modesty and gentle character, Rav Uziel has no such concern.
“Logic dictates that in no serious assembly or worthy discussion is there licentiousness. Daily, men meet and negotiate with women in commercial transactions, and yet all is peace and quiet. Even those inclined to sexual licentiousness will not contemplate the forbidden while seriously transacting business… Meeting in the same enclosed area for the sake of public service – which is tantamount to service of the Divine – does not habituate people to sin or cause levity; for all Jews, men and women alike, are holy and not suspected of violating conventions of modesty or morality.
In Rav Uziel’s approach, we see a willingness to engage in halachic decision making as reflective of the social reality taking place around gender interaction. He applies his keen halachic thinking to preserving both the integrity of the tradition with the enormous changes occurring both inside and outside the communities committed to such tradition.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.