January 22, 2005
Deborah was a prophetess, a political and military leader, and a judge. She had an almost unique combination of talents and positions almost unrivaled by any other Biblical figures except perhaps Moses and Samuel. For most of Jewish history, she remained an anomaly – a nonpareil – a woman whose positions were difficult to explain: \”Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophetess; she led Israel at that time. She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.\” (Judges 4:4-5)
Deborah\’s status as a judge presented the greatest difficulty for the rabbinic tradition since it contradicts an explicit understanding in the Talmud. The Mishnah teaches: \”All who are eligible to be judges are eligible to be witnesses.\” (Niddah 6:4) Elsewhere, the sages concluded that women are Biblically (deoraita) ineligible to be witnesses. (See Bavli Baba Kamma 88a) It follows from these sources that women are ineligible to be judges.
The Tosafot (France 12-13th century), were the first to notice the apparent contradiction between Deborah\’s position as a judge and the legal ruling of the Talmud. These sages, many of whom were students or descendents of Rashi, sought to recognize and resolve contradiction in the tradition. In this case, they sought to explain why Deborah\’s special status could not be offered as proof that women could act as judges. These sages offered several possible solutions to this contradiction. In one, they assert that Deborah was recognized as a judge because the Shechina – God\’s Divine Presence dwelled upon her, giving her a special status as a prophetess and a judge. She was, therefore, unique and ineligible to serve as a model for others. (Tosafot Baba Kamma 15a) Elsewhere, they claim that she served as a law teacher rather than as a judge. (Tosafot Gittin 88b) This later opinion serves as a precedent for one latter authority to assert that women can teach sages law. (See Hoshen Mishpat Pitchei Teshuva 7:5) Nachmonides (Spain 13th century) asserted that Deborah\’s special status as a judge stemmed from the fact that she was regarded as the ruler or queen of the people. (Shavuot 30a) It is interesting that Nachmonides has no problem regarding Deborah as a queen even though this, too, is in theory, a halachically complicated position for a woman to hold.
Setting aside the obvious sensitivity regarding this subject in modern circles (and this vignette is too brief to deal with this complicated question), it is noteworthy that the sages do not disparage Deborah to make their case. Rather, they recognize her greatness and even use her as a meritorious example to shape law where they feel the constraints of the law permit it.