Distaff Democracy: Women’s Suffrage in Halacha – Parts 1 & 2

This year is the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex

Adapted from the writings of Dayan Yitzhak Grossman

This year is the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex. At the time, women’s suffrage was a controversial issue among poskim, as it was in general society. In this article and a follow-up, we survey various rabbinic perspectives on the question from that era.[1]


Eretz Yisrael and Europe

One of the few gedolim to pen an analysis of the questions of female suffrage and the eligibility of women to hold public office was the great German authority R’ David Zvi Hoffmann. He declared that in his opinion, no objection to women voting can be raised from traditional sources, but it is possible, however, that granting women the franchise might conflict with established custom, and we must therefore make sure to obtain “the consent of the entire community at a time when we are proceeding to alter the rules of society.”[2] R’ Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg declared that as a matter of strict halacha, we follow Rav Hoffmann (a predecessor of his as rector of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin), since “he is a gadol b’hora’ah, and the only one who wrote logical arguments that are based on sources.”[3]

Elsewhere, Rav Weinberg notes that “the rabbanim of Eretz Yisrael, as well as the Chafetz Chaim z”l and the gaon R’ Chaim Ozer z”l and others” forbade female suffrage. He explains that their objections derived from mussar—it is immodest for a woman to involve herself in public and communal matters—as well as various halachic considerations, but that although their arguments are debatable, it is pointless to do so, “since there are deeper reasons” against their enfranchisement.[4]

As noted by Rav Weinberg, one other prominent authority who condoned female suffrage was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, R’ Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel.[5]


The United States

In the United States, the first significant discussion of the question of female suffrage of which I am aware was by R’ Yaakov (Jacob) Levinson, a rabbi in Chicago and later in Brooklyn, in his pamphlet “Shivyon Hanashim Minekudas Hahalacha (Women’s Equality from the Halachic Perspective),” published in the year 5680 (1919-20). The work is primarily concerned with the appointment of women to public positions, but in the course of his analysis, he takes for granted that they may vote, and he makes the puzzling assertion that in Eretz Yisrael, women do have the franchise, and the entire question there is whether they may be elected to public positions.[6]

The question of female suffrage was also taken up by R’ Elazar Meir Preil (R’ Pinchas Teitz’s father-in-law and predecessor as rav in Elizabeth, N.J.). He begins his discussion by noting that “the rabbanim of Eretz Yisrael” have already ruled that women are prohibited to vote, and although they have not explained their reasoning, R’ Chaim of Volozhin has declared that “the elders of the generation are not required to give reasons for their words.”[7]

Rav Preil proceeds to reject the arguments of his friend Rav Levinson, explaining that it is “obvious” that women have no right to vote, since the Sefer Hachinuch limits the mitzvah of appointing a king to men (“for it is for them that such things are appropriate”).[8] Rav Preil further buttresses the disqualification of women with a ruling of the Chasam Sofer that electors—even ordinary citizens serving as such—have the status of dayanim, and eligibility to vote is therefore limited to those eligible to serve as dayanim.[9] Since women are ineligible to serve as dayanim, they are ineligible to vote.[10]

The argument from the Chinuch was actually put forth by one of the “rabbanim of Eretz Yisrael,” R’ Yisrael Zev Mintzberg, a leading Chassidic rav in Yerushalayim, in his Zos Chukas HaTorah, also published in 5680.[11] Subsequent to making this argument, Rav Mintzberg proceeds with a lengthy analysis of whether women’s understanding is “weak” or “clear,” and the level of credibility Chazal assign to them (even in those contexts in which their testimony is acceptable), and ultimately concludes that “since even one hundred women are only considered the equivalent of one man when they are in opposition to a man, and their understanding is weak and easily manipulated, how can their opinions decide elections by contributing to a majority, since their combined opinions are only considered as one?”[12]


Part 2

Our previous article surveyed rabbinic opinion of a century ago, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the vote, on the question of female suffrage. We continue here to present positions and arguments of rabbanim of that time.


Eretz Yisrael

As previously noted, the rabbanim of Eretz Yisrael a century ago were generally opposed to female suffrage. One of the leading members of this group was R’ Avraham Yitzchak Hakohein Kook, who argued that female suffrage is utterly antithetical to the Torah. Serving in public office is a male prerogative and not a female one, because “It is the manner of a man to conquer and it is not the manner of a woman to conquer,”[1] and “the roles of office, of judgment, and of testimony are not for her, since “The king’s daughter is all glorious within.”[2] In general,

Striving to prevent the mixing of sexes in gatherings is a theme that runs through the entire Torah. Thus, any innovation in public leadership that necessarily brings about the mixing of the sexes in a multitude, in the same group and gathering, in the routine course of the people’s life, is certainly against the law.[3]

This initial statement was about women holding public office, but Rav Kook subsequently extended his opposition to their voting as well. Here, too, the Torah, Nevi’im, Kesuvim, Halacha, and Aggadah all teach us

that the spirit of the whole nation, in its essence and purity, opposes this modern innovation. It teaches as well that if we bend ourselves specifically to the novel Irish morality, we thereby commit an act of betrayal to our own morality, the morality of Judaism.[4]

Another opponent in Eretz Yisrael of female suffrage was R’ Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky, who argued that in the censuses of the Torah, only adult men and the heads of households were counted, because they were the ones whose opinions mattered regarding all public affairs and appointments, but the Jews were repeatedly enjoined from counting women (and children under twenty years old), “because there is no benefit in knowing their number.”[5]

R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and R’ Yitzchak Yerucham Diskin (son of R’ Yehoshua Leib Diskin) also opposed female suffrage.[6]

There were, however, a few prominent rabbanim in Eretz Yisrael at the time who did support female suffrage. As noted previously, the most prominent of these was R’ Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel, but R’ Zvi Pesach Frank was also in favor of allowing women to vote, for political reasons: Denying religious women the right to vote would drastically weaken the political power of the Orthodox and would thereby cede control of Eretz Yisrael to the nonreligious.[7]


We mentioned previously that many of the leading European gedolim also opposed female suffrage. These included the Chafetz Chaim and the two great rabbanim of Dvinsk, R’ Meir Simcha (the Ohr Sameiach) and R’ Yosef Rosen (the Rogatchover Gaon), who were among the signatories to a psak din declaring that “according to the law of our holy Torah, a woman has absolutely no right to either vote or be elected.”[8] R’ Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (the Achiezer) also issued a public letter in which he vehemently opposed the election of women to positions in which they would work together with men on a regular basis in the management of public affairs, but he repeatedly explained that his objection was to the violation of modesty entailed in men and women working together, and he does not discuss women voting.[9]

At least one European gadol, however, felt that the vehemence of the opposition of the gedolim in Eretz Yisrael to female suffrage was deeply misguided and a serious miscalculation. R’ Avraham Dov Ber Kahana-Shapiro (the Kovno Rav, author of Devar Avraham) penned a biting letter to Rav Kook’s son R’ Zvi Yehuda in which he criticizes the rabbanim in Eretz Yisrael for boycotting the gathering at which female suffrage was debated and for lacking the foresight to realize that the matter was a fait accompli anyway, and their extremism thus resulted only in the loss of any influence they might otherwise have had over the proceedings. Moreover, their implacability antagonized “a large portion” of the women against them, and “perhaps to a certain extent, against religion:”

Do they really consider the participation of women to be an absolute prohibition, explicit in the Torah, such that we do not say “It is better that they be unwitting, etc.?”[10] In my opinion, they have acted foolishly.[11]


The United States

We previously mentioned the positions of R’ Jacob Levinson and R’ Elazar Meir Preil. The most vigorous rabbinic supporter of female suffrage in the United States (and anywhere, really) a century ago was undoubtedly R’ Chaim Hirschensohn, the Chief Rabbi of Hoboken, N.J., who insisted, in the course of his lengthy treatment of the subject,[12] that “Regarding suffrage, there is no doubt whatsoever, and no possible conception of finding any conceptual basis for its prohibition, and those who prohibit it are prohibiting that which is permitted . . . and are stealing the rights of myriads of thousands of Jewish daughters unjustly . . .”[13]


References for Part 2

[1]Yevamos 65b.

[2]Tehillim 45:14, as understood by Chazal, e.g. Yevamos 73a.

[3]“On the Election of Women,” September 1919, Jerusalem. Translated by Zvi Zohar.

[4]“On Women’s Voting,” With G-d’s Aid, April 1920, Jerusalem. Translated by Zvi Zohar.

[5]Ha’ishah Al Pi Toras Yisrael, Ch. 11 pp. 48-50.

[6]Malki Bakodesh cheilek 2 She’eilah 4 p. 12.

[7]Malki Bakodesh ibid. Rav Frank’s position is also cited in Rabbi Prof. Aryeh Avraham Frimer, Nashim B’safkidim Tziburi’im Batekufah Hamodernis and Yisrael Shapiro, Machlokes: Ha’im Mutar L’Ishah Laleches L’Kalfi V’livchor? Kikar Shabbat, 23 Shevat, 5780 18:31. https://www.kikar.co.il/348147.html. See both these articles for extensive discussions of our subject.

[8]Addition to Kol Yisrael Volume 9.

[9]Isur Bechiras Nashim.

[10]Shabbos 148b.

[11]From Bereishis 31:28. Igros L’Ra’ayah p. 557. Cf. Prof. Marc B. Shapiro, German Orthodoxy, Hakirah, and More, The Seforim Blog.

[12]Malki Bakodesh ibid. Teshuvah 4 pp. 171-209.

[13]Ibid. p. 202.