The נשיאים (leaders) of the children of Israel play a prominent role in Parshat Naso. Hence, it is an appropriate opportunity to discuss the debate whether halacha permits women to serve in leadership positions such as a president of a synagogue.
The Rambam's Ruling
Those who rule that women may not serve in leadership positions cite the Rambam's ruling in Hilchot Melachim 1:5. The Rambam states, "we do not appoint a woman as the king as the Torah states (Devarim 71:51) 'appoint a king' but not a queen. Similarly, a woman may not be appointed to any leadership position among the Jewish people."
The Rambam's major commentaries, the Kesef Mishnah and Radbaz, cite the Sifrei on the aforementioned verse, as the source for the Rambam. However, the Sifrei merely states, מלך ולא מלכה, that a woman may not be appointed as the nation's leader. The Rambam does not have an explicit source for the extension of the Sifrei's rule to any position of leadership.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:44-54) explains that the Rambam's source is the Gemara in Kiddushin 67b. The Gemara states that not only are we forbidden by the Torah to appoint a convert as king, but we are also forbidden to appoint a convert to a position of authority. The Rambam believes that this Gemara teaches that the position of the king is the paradigm for every leadership position. The rules that apply to a king, apply to any leader. Hence, a woman may not be appointed to a position of leadership, just as she cannot be appointed as the leader of the entire people.
What is a position of authority? Rav Moshe Feinstein defines this term based on the Gemara in Kiddushin that we just cited. The Gemara teaches that a convert should not be appointed as an inspection of scales and weights. Rav Moshe explains that even if the position is not prestigious, it can still be considered a position of authority. What distinguishes a position of authority as opposed to a פועל, a hired worker, is that a פועל is hired to do the bidding of his employer, whereas one in a position of authority is hired to, at times, act not in accordance with the will of his employer. The inspector of weights and scales is a position of authority because he does not permit one who wishes to use dishonest weights to utilize them. He, unlike a פועל, is hired to occasionally act against the will of the people he supervises.
Other Rishonim (Tosafot, Sefer Hachinuch, Rashi, Ran, Ramban, Rashba, Ritva)
Although the Rambam rules that a woman may not be appointed to a position of authority, Rav Moshe and Rav Chaim David Halevi (the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, in an essay published in Techumin 01:811-321) note that many Rishonim appear to disagree with the Rambam.
Tosafot in Baba Kama 51a (s.v. אשר) write that a woman is permitted to serve as a דיין (a rabbinic judge). It is clear that Tosafot believe that a woman can be appointed to a position of authority.
The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 794) cites the Sifrei that a woman may not be appointed as king, yet he does not write that a woman may not be appointed to any position of authority. Indeed, in the next mitzvah, the prohibition to appoint a convert as king, the Sefer Hachinuch writes that this law does apply to any position of authority. Rav Moshe writes that this seems to clearly indicate that the Sefer Hachinuch does not agree with the Rambam.
Rav Moshe adds that it appears from both Rashi (s.v. כל) and the Ran (s.v. גרסינן) commenting on Kiddushin 67b that they do not accept the Rambam's ruling. Rashi and the Ran explain that the source for the rule that a convert may not be appointed to any position of authority is from an extra word in the Torah מקרב אחיך תשים עליך מלך (Devarim 71:51). The Torah could have merely stated "שום תשים עליך מלך מקרב אחיך." The fact that the Torah adds another "תשים" teaches that the rule forbidding appointment of a convert as king applies to any position of authority.
It can be readily inferred from this comment of Rashi and the Ran that they disagree with the Rambam. The Rambam would explain that that the rule that a convert cannot be appointed to any position of authority, is derived from the fact that a convert cannot be appointed a king. According to the Rambam, if the rule applies to a King, it should apply to any position of authority. Rashi and Ran, on the other hand, seem to clearly indicate that the extension from the king to any position of authority applies only to a convert and not to a woman. Rashi and the Ran do seem not to subscribe to the Rambam's assertion that a rule that applies to the appointment applies to any position of authority.
Finally, the Ramban (Shevuot 03a s.v. וכן) and the Rashba (Ibid s.v. ולא) seem to also disagree with the Rambam. They assert that women are disqualified from serving as a דיין (which is accepted as normative halacha, see Shulchan Aruch Mishpat 7:4; but see Pitchei Teshuva 7:5). They then ask how could the biblical Devorah have served as a judge as the Bible (Judges 4:4) records "and she judged (שופטה) the people of Israel at that time". They answer that she did not serve as a judge. Instead, the Bible means that Devorah led the Jewish people. At this point they ask how could she have led the Jewish people if the Sifrei teaches that one may not appoint a woman as the king. They answer that they willingly accepted her leadership.
The fact that Ramban and the Rashba raise the concern that a woman cannot be appointed as king, only when they write that Devorah led the Jewish people and not when discussing that a woman cannot serve as a דיין, seems to indicate that they believe that Devorah's serving as a דיין is not in violation of the Sifrei's rule. Thus, both the Ramban and Rashba seem to disagree with the Rambam's ruling that a woman may not be appointed to a position of leadership.
It should be noted, though, that the Ritva does agree with the Rambam. The Ritva (Shevuot 03a s.v. שבועת) states unambiguously that the Sifrei's prohibition to appoint a woman as king, applies to all positions of leadership.
To summarize, the Ritva agrees with the Rambam's ruling, but many Rishonim disagree with the Rambam. We will now present two different views on how to apply this controversy to contemporary circumstances. We will begin with Rav Moshe Feinstein's approach and then present the approach of Rav Chaim David Halevi.
Rav Moshe Feinstein
Rav Moshe writes that although many Rishonim disagree with the Rambam, the Rambam's view should be followed in practice. He explains that since it is a matter of dispute (over a Biblical prohibition) that has not been settled in the Shulchan Aruch, in ordinary circumstances the Rambam should be followed. Thus, Rav Moshe writes, a woman should not be appointed as a president of a synagogue. However, in a case of great need, Rav Moshe felt it appropriate to rely on the Rishonim who disagree with the Rambam. For example, Rav Moshe permitted a poor widow to be appointed as a Kashrut supervisor, despite the fact that it is a position of authority (similar to the supervisor of weights mentioned in Kidushin 67b).
Rav Chaim David Halevi
Rav Halevi points to the historical fact that two women served as queens of our people. The first was the evil Atalia (Kings II, chapter 11) and the second was the righteous Shlomtzion. Rav Halevi points out that never do we find that the prophets or Chazal criticized the fact that these women served as leaders of the Jewish people.
Rav Halevi writes that the Rambam would explain these historical phenomena by stating that women cannot be imposed as leaders over the people. However, if the people accept her leadership, then the prohibition seems not to imply, Rav Halevi notes that this seems to follow what the aforementioned Rambam and Rashba said about Devora - she could serve as a ruler because the nation accepted her rulings. According to Rav Halevi a woman is permitted to be elected to a position of authority.
This position is also espoused by the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav B.Z.M. Uziel (Teshuvot Mishpetei Uziel Choshen Mishpat 6). Interestingly, my revered Rebbe, Harav Yehuda Amital adopted this ruling in practice. I asked Rav Amital how he permitted (in 8891) a woman to be on the parliamentary list of his political party Meimad, in light of the Rambam's ruling. He replied that this ruling of the Rambam did not apply to a democratically elected position. According to this approach, it would seem that halacha would sanction a woman serving as a president of a synagogue, if she were to be democratically elected to that position. Of course, the Rabbi of the shul bears the responsibility of deciding whether the opinion of Rav Feinstein or Rav Halevi should be followed.
It should be noted, though, that Pitchei Teshuva (Choshen Mishpat 7:5) cites prominent authorities who rule that a woman who is an expert in halachic matters is permitted to paskin (decide) halachic questions.