Rabbi Benzion Uziel: Women in Civic Life

Until the early twentieth century, women in most countries
had limited roles in civic life. In 1917, for example only
five countries in Europe allowed women to vote—
Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Soviet Russia. The women’s suffrage
movement in the United States and Europe was ultimately successful
in gaining the vote for women, but victory came only after a period of
protracted social and political agitation.

The issue of women’s right to vote and to be elected to office were subject
to heated controversy among the Jewish community in the land of
Israel beginning in 1917. Zvi Zohar, in an article about the debates concerning
women’s suffrage which raged in the land of Israel 1918-1921,
noted that the rabbinical leadership of the Ashkenazic Old Yishuv was
generally opposed to granting women the rights to vote and be elected to
office. On the other hand, the Sephardic leadership generally favored these
rights for women. (see Zvi Zohar’s article in Sephardi and Middle Eastern
Jewries: History and Culture, edited by Harvey Goldberg, Indiana
University Press, 1996, pp. 119-133.)

Zohar pointed out that the leading Ashkenazic rabbinical figure,
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, was adamantly opposed to letting women
become involved in political life. He argued that the Torah tradition relegated
civic authority to men, and that women were to remain in the private,
domestic domain He rejected the “modern innovation” of allowing
women political involvement, believing that this was a threat to traditional
Jewish morality and family life. (See Rabbi A. I. Kook, Ma’amarei ha-
RaAY’aH, Jerusalem, 1984, pp. 189-194.)

Zohar views Rabbi Benzion Uziel as the most articulate spokesman of
the opinion shared by most of the Sephardic rabbis of the time. Rabbi
Uziel’s approach differed substantially from that of Rabbi Kook (Piskei
Uziel, no. 44; Mishpetei Uziel, 5700, no. 6.)

Rabbi Uziel rejected the opinion that innovation was necessarily an
evil. On the contrary, innovation may be embraced where there was no
clear Torah prohibition involved. Concerning the question of whether
women should be allowed to vote, Rabbi Uziel argued that
we have not found any clear foundation to forbid. It is unreasonable to
deprive women of this human right, since in these elections we choose our
leaders and give our elected representatives the power to speak in our
names, to arrange the affairs of our settlement and to tax our property.
Women, directly or indirectly, accept the authority of those elected, and
obey their rulings and communal and national laws” (ibid.).

Rabbi Uziel said that it was unjust to expect women to follow the decisions
of the elected officials if they did not even have the right to participate
in the election in the first place.

Some opponents found rabbinic sources indicating that women’s
understanding was limited. Therefore, they reasoned, women should not
be allowed to vote. To this, Rabbi Uziel stated that there were many men
with limited understanding: Should they too be deprived of the right to
vote? Moreover, Rabbi Uziel indicated that women were endowed with
intelligence and sound judgment, no less than men. Simply looking at the
actual situation today would prove that women were quite capable and
competent to vote. (For more on women’s intellectual capacities see
Sha’arei Uziel, vol. 1, pp 124, 200.)

Rabbi Uziel dismissed the argument that allowing women to vote
would threaten morality and family life. What immorality could ensue
from allowing women to go to the ballot box to register their votes? If the
worry was that men and women would mix together in a public venue,
then we would have to prohibit people from walking in the street or going
to a store where men women might be together. We would have to forbid
any business conducted between men and women. But no one had ever
made such ridiculous suggestions. Why then did they raise this specific
argument when it came to voting?

One opponent wrote that women should not be allowed to vote
because they were excluded from official status in Biblical times. Rabbi
Uziel brushed this objection aside, noting that it had no bearing on the
question at hand. Women, as well as men, were created in God’s image.
They had a basic right to be able to vote for those who would have authority
to pass laws which they would have to obey. Not only was there no prohibition
to letting women vote, said Rabbi Uziel, but depriving them
would be unjust and would cause them humiliation and pain.

Having resolved that women should be granted the right to vote,
Rabbi Uziel then turned to the question of whether women had the right
to be elected. Halakhic literature includes the notion that women should
not be in positions of authority over men. Rabbi Uziel analyzed these
sources carefully, concluding that there was no objection to a woman
being in a position of authority—if the community willingly accepted her.
Thus, women could be elected to office, since their very election demonstrated
that the public accepted their authority. Rabbi Uziel further argued
that when women and men sat together in public deliberations, this did
not constitute a threat to morality and family life. These were not social
events but serious conversations and debates on major issues.

In conclusion, Rabbi Uziel ruled that women were permitted to vote
and to be elected. This view obviously came to prevail in the land of Israel.
In another responsum (Piskei Uziel, no. 43; Mishpetei Uziel, 5700, no.
5), Rabbi Uziel found halakhic grounds to permit women to serve as
judges as long as the community accepted their authority to judge. Yet, he
harbored doubts as to whether a woman should serve as a judge, even
though she might be permitted to do so. Rabbi Uziel felt that women were
innately compassionate and sensitive and that their judgments would be
colored by their emotions. Moreover, he thought that women should
devote their time and talents to raising their children rather than to
assume the burdensome responsibilities of a judge. Although he personally
did not approve of women serving as judges, he was intellectually honest
enough to present the halakhic justification to permit women judges.
Those who disagreed with his personal feelings could still find halakhic
authority in his arguments to allow women to serve as judges.

Rabbi Uziel likewise found halakhic grounds to accept women as witnesses
in civil cases when the public agreed to this practice. However, he
ruled unequivocally that women could not serve as witnesses in matters
of marriage and divorce since no communal ordinance could overrule the
Torah law prohibiting female witnesses in these areas. (Rabbi Uziel’s statements
are included in R. Herzog, Tehukah le-Yisrael, vol. 3, pp. 66—67.)
The newly established state of Israel passed legislation guaranteeing
the equal rights of men and women. Women were granted economic
equality, including the right to inherit. Halakha, though, does not grant
full economic equality to women nor does it generally allow women to
inherit. Rather, Halakha provides its own ways of protecting the economic
interests of women while at the same time granting women the full
opportunity to devote themselves to their families. Indeed, women had
the essential role of seeing to the well-being of their children and were
therefore exempted from certain financial responsibilities which would
interfere with child rearing.

In these areas, Rabbi Uziel argued that the Halakha was far better for
the interests of women than the modern legislation granting economic
equality. He felt that rabbinical courts, following the teachings of Halakha,
should be authoritative in cases of financial disputes involving women. He
called on the government of Israel not to attempt to force the rabbis to cast
aside Halakha: They would never do so; they would struggle courageously
to maintain the halakhic standards. (See ibid., pp. 68—72; and Shaarei
Uziel, vol. 1, pp. 124, 200—201; and vol. 2, pp. 203ff.)

From the above discussion, it is clear that Rabbi Uziel blended his profound
traditionalism with a remarkable sensitivity to modern conditions.
His rulings were animated by the view that halakha was the sine qua non
of proper Jewish life and that the interests and needs of women—and
men—were best met by fidelity to the classic teachings of Jewish law.