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We believe that the first rabbis were the "leaders of thousands and leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens" suggested by Yisro to Moshe (Jethro to Moses) in Ex 18:21. Similarly, the Sanhedrin is a continuation of the line started with the 70 elders who served under Moshe. (The elders are mentioned back while still in Egypt and at Mount Sinai, but are formally appointed in Nu 11:16. There was a line of ordination that started with Moses, and ran until the middle of the amoraic period (the period which the Talmud records, 3rd through 5th cent.s, CE) The term for ordination, semichah, refers to Moshe layin hands upon Yehoshua to appoint him his successor. (Nu 27:18)
The term "rabbi" is newer, a loan word from Aramaic from the late Second Temple period. And the word Sanhedrin is Greek, a term the Romans used for the state courts in any of their colonies. But the ideas they name are older, they were just called the "sarim" (leaders), "dayanim" (judges), "shofetim" (justices), or the "shiv'im zeqeinim" (seventy elders)" or "beis din hagadol" (high court).
Still, the Torah and even the Talmud(s) say little about the role of contemporary rabbis because of that break in the chain of ordination. A person is not allowed to provide halachic rulings while his teacher is alive without first obtaining that teacher's permission. An Orthodox "rabbi" today is someone who has a certificate on his wall from his mentor(s) that proclaims his having that permission, and expressing confidence that he will do so wisely.
Actually, there are two variants on that theme.
The usual ordination is the "Yoreh Yoreh -- He may guide, he may guide". A conjugation of the same word as "Torah". This is minimally mastery of Yoreh Dei'ah, the section of the Shulchan Arukh on kashrus and laws of sexuality. Most ordaining schools won't send someone out to be a rabbi without his also knowing Orach Chaim, the daily laws of prayer, Shabbos and holidays.
A judge gets a second ordination, "Yadin Yadin" (He may judge, he may judge). This shows qualification in the laws of courts and monetary law in the Shulchan Arukh Choshein Mishpat. Since, unfortunately, much of court business nowadays is divorce law, many yeshivos require knowledge of that as well.
Then there is the "rav umanhig" (rabbi and leader). This is someone who is capable of leading a community and answering day-to-day halachic questions, but isn't qualified to be a full "Yoreh Yoreh". Typically this is a teacher, say in adult education, who could use a title to aid his getting his work done. The qualifications vary widely: In Lubavitch, anyone who goes into outreach will be dubbed a rav umanhig. In other circles, it requires passing a test on parts of Orach Chaim (day-to-day halakhah) or some other expertise. In Lakewood NJ, arguably the flagship of the American Yeshiva Movement, they offer such tests in a wide variety of particular topics (eg: Shabbos, business law, etc...)
Now, wives often rule on halachic matters for me pretty often. They does most of the cooking, and therefore makes decisions about what is kosher, non-kosher, needs a rabbi's opinion, etc...
So what exactly is the difference between that and a rabbi (of the post-Mosaic ordination sort)? It's pretty blurry.
Being a Chazon (cantor, leading services in genera) is problematic, since men are prohibited from listening to a woman sing. There is a lenient minority ruling with regard to prayer, so we'll leave it with "problematic". Second, she can't say things *for* the men in the minyan, as they are obligated to pray and she has no obligation of formal prayer (with a couple of exceptions, such as the blessing after meals). So, her saying Qaddish wouldn't work.
She definitely isn't halachically qualified to be a judge. Women can neither judge in court, nor even testify in cases of marriage, divorce, or corporal punishment (not that the latter is applicable today). Deborah (Devorah) is one of the "shofetim", which is usually translated "judges", but this is a period when all regional leaders were "shofetim", whether actual judges or not. IOW, the book of Judges is misnamed in English, but "Regional Leaders" doesn't have the same ring to it.
The basic and core problem is that Orthodoxy is very firm on the idea that Judaism is primarily about life outside the synagogue. If we change gender roles to give women the choice to center her Jewish life in the home or to have a greater role in the synagogue, we water down that statement. We tell the woman who desires to be a rabbi that yes, she is right in seeking more Judaism in the "synagogue" (or beis medrash / study hall) etc...
As R' Aharon Soloveitchik put it, men were charged with "kibush", conquring, ie increasing the domain and sphere of influence of Jewish society. Women were given the primary role when it comes to "yishuv", settlement. Reinforcing the society, and making sure that new territory (real and conceptual) is used for the right ends.
In other words, the keeper of the Jewish home and the backbone of Jewish civilization in other roles -- teachers, social workers (formally or informally), etc... -- are theoretically the higher calling. And the traditional woman's role. We shouldn't be giving the message that the synagogue is a higher calling, shifting focus from Judaism as way of life to Judaism as way of worship.
Think of the woman who accepts this message, and then deems herself a second class citizen because she can't lead the minyan at her own shul, or become a judge. Ironically, if we tell her that any role in the "synagogue" (in a proader sense of the word) is something she ought to seek, then her inability to assume any role is more problematic than telling her to seek a different path and altogether that happens to be of equal value and more central to us as a community.
And second, more simply (but politically incorrectly), Orthodoxy considers the changes enacted by the more liberal movements to be cautionary tales. Changes of the lifestyle done thoughtfully and for good reason still break up the cultural continuity and emotional commitment necessary for the community to maintain observance and adherance over the generations. Conservative observance of their own halachic rulings is a very small percentage of the community. Serious Reform Jews are a small minority of Reform affiliated people. Orthodoxy learned to be scared of change.
Particularly of changes made to espouse values that don't get much play in our tradition. Judaism does, after all have different gender roles. We believe that G-d insured that there would always be a variety of people following different paths and assuming different roles by making no one person qualified for the full range of choices. I may not be a kohein. My wife will never lead a minyan. A kohein is barred from certian mitzvos because they involve impurity (eg joining the volunteer burial society, the Chevrah Qadishah). My neighbor isn't a Jew and because of that there are mitzvos he can perform that for me would involve overriding prohibition.
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