As the race for the White House heats up, Hillary Clinton has become the first female nominee for President of the United States.
So, what does the Torah say about women leaders?
Biblically, men and women may lead the community equally. It is not until Maimonides that there appears to be a distinction drawn and that women are forbidden to take the mantle of what is known as “serarah”.
The key to understanding this term provides the answer to our question. Serarah is an authoritarian form of leadership which, once conferred, allows the ruler to make decisions which are executive and against which checks and balances are
The Book of Esther reinforces the idea that the male must be the dominant figure in the home, and uses the term of dominance to describe that element of authoritarian decision-making, which is the preserve of the man in Persian thought: that “each man must be the ‘sorer’ – the ruler in his home and speak the language of his people”.
It appears from the conjoined phrase that the reason for the last word being reserved in the home for the man is that in his capacity, the male is the one through whom the line of tradition passes.
As to leading the community, the example of Deborah the prophetess in her capacity as judge and military leader of Israel, clearly shows up as an exception to the expectation that dominant rule of the community is the preserve of men.
There is evidence from scripture that she asked Barak to accompany her, and consulted with him, but she insisted that Israel would be delivered into the hand of a woman.
The expression used for her leadership is not authoritarian domination, serarah, but a form of legal appointment – shiput – which carried with it an intimation that she arose as a leader by consensual recognition as the head of a tribal confederacy and not as demagogic ruler with absolute powers.
It is precisely the lack of public consensus, kavod hatzibur, which is quoted repeatedly to deny women leadership.
Former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel ruled that there is no halachic problem with women’s election to office through public consent and ordinance.
It was his Ashkenazi counterpart, Rav Kook who was implacably opposed to changing anything in the status quo and who maintained that suffrage of any kind was anti-halachic.
This counters the common misconception that Middle Eastern viewpoints are restrictive of women; it can be quite to the contrary, perhaps a revulsive reaction to the perceived excesses of Western libertarianism or extreme forms of feminist ideology.
Jews supporting Clinton should do so irrespective of her gender. It is her policies and her capacity to lead, and not her biology, which really counts.
• Ariel Abel is rabbi of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation in Princes Road