Can women serve as witnesses (edut)?
Orthodox Judaism allows women to act as witnesses in some cases, but excludes them from acting as witnesses in the many of the most significant areas. Conservative/Masorti Judaism rejects this view.
“According to the Talmud, women are ineligible to serve as witnesses (edut). This is derived from two places in Deuteronomy: 19:15, which deals with witnesses, but does not specify gender, and 19:17, which indicates the male gender, but is concerned with litigants, not witnesses….Maimonides rejected the Talmud’s logic in this case, and instead offered a different reason as to why women should not be allowed to serve as witnesses. He bases the prohibition on Deut. 17:16, which describes witnesses with the word ‘edhim’, which is masculine. Thus the Rambam rules that all witnesses must be male. However the Kesef Mishneh rejects this proof, as the Torah generally uses masculine plural verbs when it wishes to include both men and women The Shulkhan Arukh simply states that a women may not be witnesses, and does not claim that this is a biblical law. Thus, although the prohibition is time honored, its origin is unclear, and some believe that the reasons for enforcing it are not valid. Moreover, the rabbis did decide to permit women to serve as witnesses in some cases.”
– Conservative Rabbi Robert Gordis “The Dynamics of Judaism”
In recent centuries traditional Jewish law has expanded the cases where women may be witnesses. Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz’s paper in “On the Ordination of Women as Rabbis” notes these cases:
* being the only witness to a fight
* being the sole witness to the abuse of a scholar
* being a witness to things that happened in the women’s section of the synagogue
* being a witness as to all aspects of maintaining kashrut
* The Tur (HM 35) omits women from the list of incompetent witnesses altogether.
* women can testify to release an agunah (woman unable to remarry because of desertion or disappearance of her husband; Yev. 93b, 114a),
* in minor matters which do not constitute a full-fledged legal case.
* Women are admitted as competent witnesses in matters within their particular knowledge, for example, on customs or events in places frequented only by women (Rema HM 35:14; Darkhei Moshe HM 35, n. 3; Beit Yosef, ibid., n. 15; Terumat ha-Deshen Resp. no. 353);
* in matters of their own and other women’s ritual purity (Ket. 72a; Ket 2:6);
* for purposes of identification, especially of other women (Yev. 39b);
* In post-talmudic times, the evidence of women was often admitted where there were no other witnesses available (cf. e.g., Resp. Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, no. 920; Resp. Maharik no. 179), or in matters not considered important enough to bother male witnesses (Resp. Maharik no. 190; Sefer Kol Bo no. 116).
Further changes in the Orthodox community have come from Israel; there the disqualification of women as witnesses was abolished by the Equality of Women’s Rights Act, 5711-1951. Further, some Israeli Orthodox rabbis allow women to act as witnesses by using a legal fiction known as “meysiach lefi tumo”; the rabbinic court doesn’t directly ask women questions, but asks questions indirectly. Their testimony is then accepted as valid.
Conservative Jews note that the areas from which women were excluded from testifying were those in which they were, at the time, not knowledgeable due to lack of experience or interest. In today’s world, where women have the same education as men, this is no longer the case. Therefore, in 1974 these considerations persuaded six members of the CJLS to vote to reclassify the status of women and alowo them to be witnesses in all cases. See R. Aaron Blumenthal’s article “The Status of Women in Jewish Law”, published in Conservative Judaism, 31:3 (Spring 1977), pp.24-40.
This view was given further halakhic support by in 1983 by Rabbi Joel Roth. He wrote that allowing women to be become witnesses can be done by the halakhic concept of shinui ha’itim (“times have changed”). “It is simply inconceivable to me that anyone could cogently argue that modern women are generally unreliable as witnesses, that the entire class of women should be disqualified…I recommend therefore, the exercise by the faculty of the ultimate systematic right of the learned who are committed to Halachah to openly and knowingly abrogate the prohibition against women serving as witnesses. This is the ultimate Halachically warranted act. It is not a non-Halachic act” (“The Ordination of Women as Rabbis”, p.171)
Since then the subject has been debated again by the Commitee on Jewish Law for a number of years. In 2001 the CJLS accepted a new teshuva by Rabbi Myron Geller which formally stated that women were to be accepted as witnesses in all the same areas that men are.