(Previous posts on this topic can be found below: here, here, and here.)
Reflections and reactions
I've summarized the arguments and the discussion. Now it's my turn.
Perhaps surprisingly, R' Henkin and R' Sperber differ little in their halachic analyses. R' Henkin rejects R' Sperber's application of kevod habriot, but that is not essential to the case for the permissibility of women's aliyot. R' Henkin tacitly accepts that case - perhaps he even originated it - and certainly does not rule that aliyot for women are forbidden by halacha.
I see two main disagreements between them, one about the wisdom of such a move, and the other about halachic methodology. (To some extent here, I'm putting words into their mouths. I hope they don't mind.)
Is it the right thing to do?
R' Sperber argues that too many Orthodox women today are frustrated by the limitations on their role in communal ritual, in particular by the gap between that restricted role and their advanced levels of education in Jewish as well as secular studies. Some leave Orthodoxy entirely, either for other movements or for nonobservance. Others (from my personal observation) harbor a bitter resentment against the "Orthodox establishment", or the "men who decide the halacha", or whatever derisory term they prefer. They may believe that halacha is being manipulated to suppress women's rights. Many stop going to shul since they find it makes them angry. I can only imagine how many of them pass on such attitudes to their children.
In such a setting, R' Sperber argues, rabbis and communities must go out of their way to accommodate the needs of such women to the maximum extent allowed by halacha.
R' Henkin, meanwhile, may well be fully aware of the issues motivating R' Sperber, and sympathetic to accommodating them. He is, however, concerned about the social consequences of women's aliyot, both for communities which adopt them and for the broader Orthodox community. Will they be accepted as Orthodox communities, and their members as Orthodox Jews? There may be a handful of modern Orthodox intellectuals and activists who read The Edah Journal and understand the halachic case for women's aliyot, but the Orthodox masses, however halachically literate, do not.
I can see the guests at the Shabbat table: "You give women aliyot? I see.... But you do still keep kosher, right? Can you pass me the green salad and some tap water please? No, no cholent - another slice of challah please! Oh, you wouldn't happen to have disposable plates I could use?"
Jewish practice is as much about cultural norms as halachic theory. This is especially true regarding the status of women. How many Orthodox women hold a zimun when they bench in a group, even though halacha clearly permits it? How many Orthodox women think (wrongly) they're not allowed to make kiddush even for themselves, let alone for their families? To do otherwise goes against a lifetime of upbringing, halacha or no halacha.
Were there no non-Orthodox movements bearing the banner of halachic flexibility, if not irrelevancy, it might not matter what practices were adopted by an odd Orthodox community. In the existing social context, though, such a community risks being viewed as having crossed the line to join the non-Orthodox. Whatever the actual halacha may be.
Must we permit the permissible?
Regarding halachic methodology, R' Sperber argues that what halacha permits is ipso facto permissible. Rabbis, at least today, have no authority to forbid the permissible. Furthermore, where there are benefits to society from a permissible practice, it should be actively supported. Certainly, being Orthodox means being true to the halacha, no more and no less. There are no other legitimate criteria.
Despite his awareness of the distinctions betwen a posek and a talmid chacham, R' Sperber had no reluctance at the Yedidya event to give psak, including specific halachic guidelines on how to implement women's aliyot or women's prayer groups. I can only conclude that he sees halacha as determined solely by the sources, uncontaminated by the "public policy" considerations a posek may incorporate.
R' Henkin, however, feels that not everything permitted by halacha should necessarily be implemented. There is such a thing as "halacha v'ein morin kein" - it is the halacha, but we don't rule that way in public. As a posek, his role is not just to analyze the halachic facts, but to assess the effects of a ruling on society.
To a certain extent, Orthodoxy is defined not just by the halacha, but also by the great reluctance to change Jewish rituals. Thus, prudence is called for in implementing controversial changes to deeply-entrenched rituals. Innovation is not a good in its own right. It must yield benefits at least as great as its risk. Hence he is willing to show more flexibility in a private setting than in synagogue services. Aliyot for women may not be forbidden, but neither are they wise, and therefore they should remain no more than an interesting chapter in theoretical halacha.
Orthodox or not?
Unlike when the original essays were published in 2001, R' Henkin's contention that a congregation adopting aliyot for women will not be considered Orthodox is no longer a theoretical proposition. Kehillat Shira Hadasha has been around for a couple of years now. Whether or not it is considered Orthodox is an empirical question - and probably a very subjective one. Many prominent community members work in Jewish education, and I understand they have not encountered sanctions due to their involvement in the controversial congregation.
It may yet be too soon to assess R' Henkin's assertion conclusively. I'd be curious to hear from those in and around the Shira Hadasha community, though. Is it possible to adopt such unconventional practices without being rejected by the mainstream Orthodox community?
Personally, I admit to continued ambivalence about this. On the one hand, I have a deep sense of the distress facing many professional, educated, modern Orthodox women (my wife included). Halacha is a system of law; why should we be deterred from acting in ways it permits - especially in the face of genuine, sincere motivations? (That's why, for example, my wife makes kiddush at Friday night dinner; according to the Aruch Hashulchan, it's even preferable in some circumstances.)
Yet, the conservative (small-c) in me is skeptical of deliberate social change. The Law of Unintended Consequences is real. Can such a community maintain its fidelity to halacha over time, without succumbing to the temptations of constant reinterpretation? Will women continue to feel frustrated by their exclusion from rituals no amount of halachic argumentation can allow, such as leading Mussaf or Hallel? Will they discover, as many men do, that leading the services or receiving an aliyah is not necessarily a spiritual experience, and often far from it?
Maybe they'd be better off learning Daf Yomi?
Update (Mar. 6): The Forward reported on the phenomenon in Sept. 2002, including reactions from within the modern Orthodox community. The article apparently preceded R' Sperber's endorsement of the practice.
Update (Mar. 8): Miriam of Bloghead calls on congregations to just do it; the comments on that post are quite feisty. Gil from Hirhurim summarizes the problems with R' Sperber's position, and notes that the Yedidya panel did not include anyone who unequivocally opposes aliyot for women. In this comment, Shira (Leibowitz) Schmidt reports that "A serious discussion refuting Rabbis Henkin, Shapiro and Sperber was written by Professor Eliav Shochetman and will appear in the coming issue of the Torah journal Sinai (Hebrew, published by Mossad Harav Kook)."
I don't currently plan to address this topic further unless there are new developments.
(The next post on this topic can be found here.)