Dancing on the other side of the mehitza

Mainstream Orthodox congregations have adopted egalitarian practices over the past two decades.

October 2, 2007 07:05
torah scroll 88 298

torah scroll 88 248. (photo credit: courtesy)


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Celebrations at Reform synagogue Kol Haneshama in the Bakka neighborhood of Jerusalem were tempered on Simhat Torah of 1986 by then-neighborhood rabbi Eliyahu Abergil. Incensed by reports of women dancing with Torah scrolls, Abergil broke into the festivities, seizing the scrolls. Had he anticipated the boost to Kol Haneshana's coffers his zealousness would provoke - and the resulting lavish new premises - it's likely Abergil would have thought twice. Another prospect unlikely to have crossed his mind is that Orthodox women, only 20 years later, would be participating in the very act he considered so contrary to religious Judaism. Come Simhat Torah tonight, women in various Orthodox synagogues across the country will take to the synagogue floors, Torah scrolls in hand. While some in the Orthodox community will disapprove, it won't evoke surprise. Active Simhat Torah celebration is just one of the changes to women's roles which have transpired in some Modern Orthodox congregations - part of a shift in women's status that has permeated almost every section of Israeli modern Orthodoxy. Women dancing with Torah scrolls, like certain other practices traditionally reserved for men, is associated with the more radical element of Modern Orthodoxy. This sector is principally equated with a number of congregations established with the intent of offering a more egalitarian role to women within the confines of halacha. The majority of these are in Jerusalem, according to Daniella Salamon of Kolech, the women's forum lobbying for the improved status of women within Orthodoxy. She explains that this is due to the capital's large and diverse population of Orthodox Jews. The city's ample American-immigrant community is also a factor. "The US has a strong and open-minded Modern Orthodox community that provides a high level of women's education and a framework which promotes an egalitarian approach," explains Salamon. "Obviously this influences Americans who make aliya, who in turn are often the driving forces behind Israeli efforts to advance women's standing in halacha." German Colony-based congregation Shira Chadash is considered the most revolutionary of these synagogues. Promoting egalitarianism "to the greatest possible extent within the confines of halacha" is one of its founding principles, according to board member Eli Holzer. It is a tenet, he claims, which provides scope for the inclusive Simhat Torah celebrations as well as other Shira Chadasha practices, among them women leading parts of Sabbath services and being called up to the Torah. Holzer counts himself among a group of "like-minded men and women" who founded the synagogue in 2001 - the result, he says, of "increasing discomfort at the dichotomy between the avenues available to intelligent, educated women in contemporary secular society and their limited role in synagogue." Factors such as the establishment of Kolech in 1998, which boosted awareness, and a controversial responsa (halachic decision) by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro of Congregation Menachem Zion in Jerusalem's Old City, arguing that women being called to the Torah is permissible so long as there is a consensus that such practices don't violate community standards contributed to their decision. Various other egalitarian-focused Orthodox synagogues have been established in Shira Chadasha's wake. A faction of Jerusalem's Pelech congregation recently broke off, forming a congregation similar to Shira Chadasha but "less Americanized," according to Saloman, and a handful of "Shira Chadasha models" have sprung up in cities such as Modi'in and Ra'anana. The veteran Jerusalem feminist congregation Yedidya, established in 1980, was the first Israeli Orthodox synagogue to instigate egalitarian practices, in an attempt, according to founding member Dr. Debbie Weissman, "to respond to the growing need among educated Orthodox women to be more than just spectators." It provides female congregents with the opportunity to be called to the Torah, which is among the most radical elements of Modern Orthodoxy. While this handful of congregations and their supporters may consider themselves at the forefront of the changing tides of Modern Orthodoxy, many of their Modern Orthodox counterparts are unlikely to agree because recognized halachic authorities have not publicly endorsed their campaign. NONETHELESS, MAINSTREAM Modern Orthodoxy's attitude to women in the synagogue has experienced a shift, although whether this marks the start of a revolutionary approach to the issue remains to be seen. The changes are most prominent in two areas: Modern Orthodox synagogues increasingly feature women reading from the Torah in women-only prayer services, and female congregents are increasingly granted the option of reciting the Mourner's Kaddish in regular services. Both practices have garnered considerable support from halachic authorities, among them Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, who has penned several responses on the subject. "The prohibition against women reciting Kaddish in public was decreed at a time when it was customary to recite Kaddish on an individual basis," he explains. "Now, when mourners chant the prayer in unison with the congregation, that reasoning is no longer applicable." Henkin justifies his support of women's Torah readings (so long as a blessing is not recited and no men are present) on the grounds that the common assumption that women are forbidden to touch the Torah during their menstrual period - when they are considered halachically impure - is inapplicable, as the Torah's holiness overrides this impurity. Like their more radical counterparts, many of the women embracing the opportunity for increased synagogue participation are Anglo immigrants, and the developments are almost exclusive to Ashkenazi communities. Sephardi attitudes to women's roles, according to Salomon, "tend to be conservative." Hebrew University biochemistry professor Dr. Gillian Kaye is among a group of women responsible for instituting changes at her synagogue in Aderet (a Modern Orthodox moshav close to Beit Shemesh). "We began incorporating certain practices, such as separate women's Torah readings, women reciting Kadish and women giving sermons on the weekly portion, into the Shabbat services," she explains. "No one objected, and so they've become permanent features." Tel Aviv-based Ichud Olam congregation features similar innovations, according to committee member Natalie Rubenstien. "We often organize weekend retreats, during which women have the opportunity to recite the blessings on wine and bread at meals, give sermons on the weekly parsha and hold Torah scrolls during the service," she says. Women's Torah readings, she adds, are also an option for holiday services. One member of Ra'anana's Ariel congregation speaks poignantly of her experience reciting Kaddish for her mother. Mainstream Modern Orthodox congregations such as Jerusalem's Shai Agnon have adopted similar egalitarian practices. None of these women cite feminist campaigners of the Shira Chadasha model as an influence; many preferr to distance themselves from what they perceive to be radical elements. Kaye, for example, says she doesn't want to be seen as revolutionary and considers preserving the unity of her community to be of "paramount importance." "While I enjoy the greater freedoms, I wouldn't want further change at the expense of alienating members of my community," she says. The overriding consensus among interviewees was that as "intelligent, educated women," their motivation for promoting change stemmed from a desire to approach their Judaism from a deeper and more enriched perspective. WHILE THESE women's enthusiasm makes up for what they may lack in knowledge, such a limitation is unlikely to impede their daughters. A new generation of Orthodox women is being schooled in disciplines considered off-limits to their mothers at high schools and higher Jewish learning institutions throughout the country. Chanting from the Torah, thanks to the ever-increasing number of women's Torah-reading services, is one such discipline. Tal Torah, a Jerusalem-based learning center specializing in tutoring girls for their Bat Mitzvah, is one of the many institutions providing the opportunity to learn this skill. "In my experience, learning to chant provides students with a greater understanding of the text, and thus a grater connection to it," observes director Ariel Ben David. "Not all our Bat-Mitzvah students express a desire to chant their Torah portion. It's a personal decision, but even those who don't wish to read in public often enhance their relationship to Judaism just by learning to chant the Torah notes." Tal Torah is also one of the numerous Orthodox women's learning centers offering classes in Talmud, a field considered out of bounds to women only 20 years ago, but which today is almost unanimously recognized in the Modern Orthodox world as a valuable addition to women's education. A Jerusalem-based advanced center for women's Jewish studies, Nishmat is another such institution. Learning Talmud, according to founder and dean, Rabbbanit Chana Henkin, "has profoundly enhanced women's religious and spiritual lives." Twenty years ago, she observes, "people were still scared of the effects of women becoming educated in their tradition. There was a fear that it would lead to their distancing themselves from their heritage, but the opposite has happened." The introduction of Talmud into women's curriculums, she believes, was "an inevitable consequence of the increasing dissonance between women's educated and successful secular lives and their limited access to their own tradition." Today, Henkin adds, the fruits of this development are becoming apparent. "A growing number of knowledgeable Orthodox women are active in the public forum of Orthodox education," she asserts. Renowned Modern Orthodox educator Dr. Aviva Zornberg echoes these sentiments. "When women's colleges such as [Midreshet] Lindenbaum and Matan started out, they were pioneers; there were very few women with an in-depth knowledge of Jewish sources. But today, thanks to their efforts, an increasing number of tetxually eloquent and dynamic women are affecting the future of Modern Orthodox education." One of the most innovative initiatives to develop as a result of women's knowledge of Talmud is that of the yoatzot halacha, or halachic advisers - religious women learned enough to obtain rabbinic status in the laws of family purity. Particularly difficult questions are sent on to rabbis. Henkin, who initiated the practice of yoatzot in response to the embarrassment many women felt in asking questions of a personal nature to a rabbi, and who as a result were either too lax or needlessly stringent in keeping the laws of family purity. "Today,"she continues "I'd say that support for the yoatzot is almost unanimous among Modern Orthodox authorities. Our results speak for themselves; we've received 50,000 calls, and it's evident that we're making it easier for women to observe halacha." The yoetzot were not the first women to study Talmud to the level required to obtain a halachic post. In 1988, Nurit Freed established the toanot halacha or halachic advocates - women learned enough to represent those seeking a divorce in a beit din (Jewish court). "Originally the idea stemmed from a desire to support women in the male-dominated beit din," recalls Freed. "Divorce proceedings are traumatic in any event, and this, coupled with the fact that a woman at her divorce hearing is faced with a panel of rabbis, her husband and the halachic advocates, which traditionally had always been men, makes for an even more daunting experience." While the toanot encountered a certain degree of opposition in the Modern Orthodox world at their inception, today, Freed maintains, they receive widespread support, and are considered as learned as any man in the profession, as is evident, she claims, by their various male clients. The toanot, Freed stresses, are not directly involved in debating women's halachic status regarding divorce, but she believes their inception acted as a forerunner for various women's advocacy groups. Even increasingly accepted religious changes inevitably garner opposition from some quarters. Significant portions of the Modern Orthodox movement reject notions such as women reciting Kaddish or holding women's-only Torah readings. Leading religious Zionist rabbi and head of Jerusalem's Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, Shlomo Aviner, is among the critics. "It's unnecessary and dangerous to change standards which have been in place throughout our 2,000-year tradition," he asserts. "Many halachic responses have argued against this trend." Aviner is also opposed to women's Talmud learning. "Women's brains are different from men's," he argues. "They're suited to certain types of learning but not others… Talmud is a technical discipline which requires male logic." His attitude parallels that of haredi Jewry, the most change-resistant sector of religious society. "Women are more complex than men," argues Rebbitzen Tziporah Heller, a teacher at Jerusalem's Neve Yerushalayim seminar and author of several books explaining the haredi take on women. "As a result, the wisdom they seek, which is generally relationship- and family-orientated, cannot be found in the Talmud. "Therefore," she continues, "haredi Judaism discourages such study. Which is not to say that changes haven't occurred. There have been improvements in areas such as biblical and philosophic study, which are most fitting to their unique intelligence and of which they attain a high level of knowledge since the times of Soro Shnirer [founder of the Beit Ya'ackov movement], the original revolutionary with regards to religious women's education. But these changes aren't a result of external influences." Speaking of campaigns to increase women's synagogue participation, Heller maintains that they stem from women's desire to imitate men, and have "passed their prime." 'Anglo Jewry has adopted a characteristic British conservatism' The charge often leveled against Anglo-Jewry by their more open-minded international counterparts, that British Jews are "more British than the British," springs to mind in view of how negligible and slow are the reforms transpiring in Her Majesty's domain regarding women's roles in Orthodox Judaism over the past 20 years. The trend stands in marked comparison with substantial advancements on the issue in Israel and the US during that same period. "Anglo Jewry appear to have adopted a characteristic British conservatism," observes Canadian-born Dr. Tamra Wright, director of academic studies at modern Orthodox adult-learning center London School of Jewish Studies. "Accordingly, change to established community norms tends to be subtle and gradual." "In contrast to Israel and the US," according to Wright, "Women's synagogue participation is limited to the recitation of kaddish and women's Torah-reading services on some holidays in a small minority of United Synagogue congregations [the umbrella organization incorporating the majority of modern Orthodox synagogues] and at Yakar [a small, independent, London-based congregation established on inclusive principles similar to those of the modern orthodox Jerusalem synagogue bearing the same name]." Needless to say the UK doesn't boast a radical "Shira Hadasha-style element," and such a development, Wright maintains, is unlikely to transpire in the near future. "There's no significant call for changes of this nature in the UK community," she admits. "In fact, women's synagogue participation of any nature appeals to a limited sector of modern Orthodox women... I wouldn't characterize it as a trend that's gaining momentum." Despite its wide-spread validation in the modern Orthodox world, women's Talmud learning in the UK is confined to a small number of modern Orthodox institutions of which London School of Jewish Studies is the most prominent. "Although Talmud is a subject some women pursue at LSJS, we are one of the only Orthodox institutions which offer this opportunity," says Wright. The conservative nature of Anglo Jewry isn't the only factor to contributing to the restricted changes in women's religious roles, according to Wright. She argues that modern Orthodoxy's limited influence on orthodox norms in the UK also impacts this trend. "A significant proportion of modern religious Anglos identify themselves with the substantial 'Yeshivaish' elements of our community for whom changing women's religious status is not high on the agenda," she explains. These limitations aside, Wright is adamant that changes to British orthodox women's religious status have transpired over the last 20 years: "Today it is almost a given that orthodox girls spend a gap year following high school at institutions of higher Jewish learning, which in turn means they are imparting religious knowledge back into our community," she says. She cites modern orthodox learning initiatives such as the London School of Jewish Studies' Beit Midrash program which she says is "attracting grater numbers of participants - both male and female - than ever" and a successful weekly learning program at London's Kinloss Synagogue which "appeals to many women." Wright also acknowledges the "highly successful" UK branches of religious outreach organizations Aish Hatorah and Ohr Sameyach, which, she claims, "are educating significant numbers of young women about Orthodox tradition."

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