The topic of s'micha is a touchy subject in general due to the fact that the s'micha we have now is a rather diminished form in comparison to the s'micha of the Bible or Talmud.

The institution of semicha was introduced to the Jewish people when Hashem commanded Moshe to designate Yehoshua as his successor by placing his hands on his disciple’s head (Bamidbar 27:23). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 13b) comments that from that time on, semicha is no longer given in this manner, but rather through a declaration, by a teacher calling his student “rebbe” and giving him permission to impose fines ordained by the Torah. That same passage also informs us that we no longer have the concept of genuine semicha in our days. The transmission of semicha must be done by someone who himself received semicha through a continuous chain dating back to Moshe Rabbeinu.

Source: http://download.yutorah.org/2014/1053/Purim_To-Go_-_5774_Rabbi_Schachter.pdf

When bringing up the subject of women having s'micha, things get even touchier. Emotions can run hot and bold statements are regularly made. Here is an example of what is said when the topic of women receiving s'micha is brought up:

Rav Hershel Shachter intimates that , since certain non-masoretic groups ordain women as rabbis, it is a violation on the level of "yeharag v'lo yaavor" (i.e. one must give up ones life, rather than trangress) to give Orthodox smicha to women.

...we encourage one to give up his life in order to secure the continuation of the chain of semichah from the days of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Rav Shachter goes on to explain that, although smicha today isn't the same as Biblical smicha, it is considered an extension of it, and thus, must conform to the same standards. Anyone who gives smicha outside of those standards, threatens the very existence of masoretic (i.e. halachically observant) Judaism.

“RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution.”

Source: http://www.jta.org/2015/11/01/news-opinion/united-states/rabbinical-council-of-america-officially-bans-ordination-and-hiring-of-women-rabbis

So while even though it is an established fact that the s'micha we have now is a diminished form, there are those saying that people should give up their lives rather than let a woman receive this s'micha. But what doesn't make sense about these ideas, is that women had already received the higher form of s'micha in times past, and we have no Biblical record of anyone objecting to it then, so why should it be different now?

Judges Chapter 4

ד וּדְבוֹרָה אִשָּׁה נְבִיאָה, אֵשֶׁת לַפִּידוֹת--הִיא שֹׁפְטָה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּעֵת הַהִיא.‏
4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time.
ה וְהִיא יוֹשֶׁבֶת תַּחַת-תֹּמֶר דְּבוֹרָה, בֵּין הָרָמָה וּבֵין בֵּית-אֵל--בְּהַר אֶפְרָיִם; וַיַּעֲלוּ אֵלֶיהָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לַמִּשְׁפָּט.‏
5 And she sat under the palm-tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in the hill-country of Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.

How do we know she received s'micha?

Pirkei Avot Ch. 1

  1. Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.

Since Deborah was a prophetess after the time of Joshua, and a judge of the people, it would be inconceivable that she did not receive s'micha. And for those wondering why it would be inconceivable that she did nto have s'micha, consider the following prooftext used to justify the authority of the Rabbis

ח כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט, בֵּין-דָּם לְדָם בֵּין-דִּין לְדִין וּבֵין נֶגַע לָנֶגַע--דִּבְרֵי רִיבֹת, בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ: וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ--אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ. 8 If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, even matters of controversy within thy gates; then shalt thou arise, and get thee up unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose. ט וּבָאתָ, אֶל-הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, וְאֶל-הַשֹּׁפֵט, אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם; וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ, אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט. 9 And thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment. י וְעָשִׂיתָ, עַל-פִּי הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יַגִּידוּ לְךָ, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ. 10 And thou shalt do according to the tenor of the sentence, which they shall declare unto thee from that place which the LORD shall choose; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they shall teach thee.

Source: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0002_0_01625.html

If the Rabbi's get their authority from this verse, with their authority being based on having received s'micha (afterall in todays world, no s'micha, no Rabbi), then Deborah clearly receives the same authority since she is a Biblical judge. And there is no Biblical record of anyone objecting to her status as a judge, even though we have many instances of people objecting to Moshe's leadership/status in the Torah. And more than likely she was not the only woman who received s'micha

2 Kings 22

יד וַיֵּלֶךְ חִלְקִיָּהוּ הַכֹּהֵן וַאֲחִיקָם וְעַכְבּוֹר וְשָׁפָן וַעֲשָׂיָה, אֶל-חֻלְדָּה הַנְּבִיאָה אֵשֶׁת שַׁלֻּם בֶּן-תִּקְוָה בֶּן-חַרְחַס שֹׁמֵר הַבְּגָדִים, וְהִיא יֹשֶׁבֶת בִּירוּשָׁלִַם, בַּמִּשְׁנֶה; וַיְדַבְּרוּ, אֵלֶיהָ.‏
14 So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah, went unto Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe--now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the second quarter--and they spoke with her.

Since Chuldah was another established prophetess, one whom kings would inquire of, it would also be really odd if she had not received s'micha considering she was sought after.

How do we reconcile the modern statements that women can't receive something they already had? Especially given the fact that the thing they received is greater than what is possible now?

  • 5
    "Since Deborah was a prophetess after the time of Joshua, and a judge of the people, it would be inconceivable that she did not receive s'micha." That's a pretty strong statement. Are you sure that "the Elders to the Prophets" means all of the prophets? I'm pretty sure that's not the case since the gemara says there were a huge number of prophets who were not recorded in Tanakh. I doubt they all received semicha. Also maybe she's different because she's a prophet.
    – Daniel
    Nov 16, 2015 at 23:11
  • 7
    I don't know the criteria. I'm just pointing out that your statement that it is "inconceivable" that Deborah didn't receive semicha is dubious.
    – Daniel
    Nov 16, 2015 at 23:29
  • 1
    Thanks for the ping, @DoubleAA. Rather a weak question, as Daniel's noted in his comments, but it doesn't mention reign and it's AFAICT not closureworthy. I'll reopen it. But I fully expect answers to say things like "No, that's just not a logical proof. You're conflating things that aren't the same.".
    – msh210
    Nov 16, 2015 at 23:57
  • 4
    Because the issue of issuing semikha is separate from the issue of hiring female clergy.
    – Daniel
    Nov 17, 2015 at 0:31
  • 1
    @Daniel so can a woman be a recognized Rabbi without s'micha like the Chafetz Chaim
    – Aaron
    Nov 17, 2015 at 0:53

2 Answers 2

  1. Tosfos (Yevamos 45b D'h Mi Lo) gives two answers:

    "דבורה לא היתה דנה אלא מלמדת להן שידונו אי נמי על פי הדיבור שאני "

    1. Devorah didn't judge but taught others to judge
    2. Devorah was told to do so by Hashem
  2. Tosfos (Shevuos 29b) says

    " והיא שפטה את ישראל איכא למימר שהיתה מלמדת להם הדינים א"נ לפי שהיתה נביאה היו מקבלים אותה עליהם"

    1. She taught the judges how to judge
    2. The Jews accepted her upon themselves as she was a prophet

The Tur only quotes the first answer

Regarding Chulda, Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma were great Torah scholars, yet never got Smicha (בן עזאי ובן זומא - תלמידים היו ובחורים ולא באו לכלל סמיכה ולא היו בימיהם כמותם בתורה כדתנן (סוטה דף מט.) משמת בן עזאי בטלו השקדנים:)

  • Both answers "1" are essentially what any 'rabbi' who teaches Semikha students does.
    – Double AA
    Nov 17, 2015 at 5:24

As is mentioned in the comments, "You're conflating things that aren't the same."

To be the spiritual leader of a congregation has no formal requirements besides being accepted by the congregation as being their spiritual leader. In order to issue psak (and have one's psak taken seriously) one needs to have some an in-depth knowledge of halachic concepts which may or may not come by way of a formal ordination program. Both of these things are what the RCA does not want women doing.

Passing on the mesorah that was given to Moshe at Sinai is a completely different thing. In your question you state, "Since Deborah was a prophetess after the time of Joshua, and a judge of the people, it would be inconceivable that she did not receive s'micha." That's a pretty strong statement. I strongly doubt that "the Elders to the Prophets" means all of the prophets. The gemara says there were a huge number of prophets who were not recorded in Tanakh and there is little reason to believe they all received semicha. Even if Deborah did receive formal semicha, you couldn't learn a kal v'chomer from her to modern women because she was a prophet.

So let me go back and specifically address your question:

How do we reconcile the modern statements that women can't receive something they already had?

Your proof that Deborah received semicha doesn't hold up, as shown above.

Especially given the fact that the thing they received is greater than what is possible now?

This is an attempt at a kal v'chomer but it doesn't hold up because Deborah was a prophet so even if she did have semicha, the kal v'chomer could only apply to today's female prophets of whom there are currently (unfortunately) none.

  • i couldn't care less if the RCA hires a woman. The topic is about women receiving s'micha, or being a Rabbinic authority. Even if a woman were to learn as much as the Chofetz Chaim, and were to have a huge following, i don't think the Orthodox world would consider her a Rabbi, i don't think they'd call her one, and they would oppose her altogether
    – Aaron
    Nov 17, 2015 at 1:51
  • 1
    @Aaron that's right. My point is that your contrast between Deborah and modern women is irrelevant.
    – Daniel
    Nov 17, 2015 at 1:56
  • 2
    @Aaron Your proof that Deborah received semicha doesn't hold up logically and even if it did it wouldn't prove anything for women today.
    – Daniel
    Nov 17, 2015 at 1:58
  • If we are to believe that s'micha was given from Moses to Joshua, and Joshua to the prophets. The question would be, which prophets? Aren't the most likely candidates those that were judges? Otherwise, how would we know, or not know who received it?
    – Aaron
    Nov 17, 2015 at 18:49
  • 2
    @Aaron Maybe it was to the Judges. Who knows? Perhaps they're the most likely candidates but so what? You made a logical argument that women have received semicha in the past. I'm exposing the flaw in the logic. I can't prove that women never received semicha, but I can show that your proof that they did is flawed.
    – Daniel
    Nov 17, 2015 at 20:19

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