Thursday, March 03, 2005

Women and communal Torah reading - III

(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?

Continued ambivalence
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.)


Cosmic X said...

"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?"

Actually, the green salad is probably more problematic. We're talking about Meimadnicks, correct? They support the uprooting of the Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip so they probably don't buy the "bugless" Gush Katif green vegetables. You think that they are able or willing to check other green vegetables properly? No way ! :)

But seriously, giving women aliyah would be a death blow to any unity that we have in the Orthodox community. Last Shabbat I was at a Kiddush of a family comprised of Dati-leumi and Haredi branches. The Kiddush was held in a dati-leumi synagogue and the Haredim had no problem. The minute such synagogues will give aliyot to women you can forget about having Haredim setting foot in them.

Zman Biur said...

Now, Cosmic, it's not fair to assume a link between attitudes towards the status of women in Judaism and national politics! In fact, that's one of my tainos against many of the "Orthodox feminist" groups - they assume that if you want to increase women's religious participation, you presumably want to sell Israel out to her enemies.

That's not really accurate, of course; neither Nishmat (R' Henkin's wife's institution) nor Matan are identified with the political left. I get a different impression of Yedidya, though.

Your second point is important, though. Do people want to be in a situation where they can't invite their Haredi cousins to an event at their shul - and they're reduced to embarrassed muttering when asked where they daven? And it's not necessarily just Haredim; plenty of modern Orthodox would be just as uncomfortable, even derisive.

One more thought: Any community which takes on such practices must be sensitive to the messages they may be sending regarding the mainstream Orthodox community. The existence of ultraliberal Orthodox shuls can easily be used as ammunition for the anti-religious, pitting the "good" Orthodox against the "evil Neanderthals stuck in the Middle Ages" who refuse to adapt to the times.

It can easily become a major hillul Hashem if the message is sent that there's somehow something wrong with conventional Orthodox practice. We must not allow ourselves to be used to undermine the halachic community.

jlmkobi said...

I appreciate much of what you have written. I understand your confusion/quandry about what practice should be allowed regarding women's participation.
Let me first state that what comes below is not the position of kehillat yedidya.
I consider myself slightly left of center on the Israeli political scene. Of course within the religious zionist spectrum it might seem that i am extreme left (but of course that is not the case).
I resent (think of even more extreme words) your statement that the israeli left
"want to sell Israel out to her enemies."
And I claim this even for my friends (and some of my non-friends) who are further to the left than I. (non-religious and religious).
I don't want to go into any one upmanship (as i have no idea who you are) but :) I have done miluim in areas that i don't think add anything to the security of the state of israel (or to the future of the jewish people). I have two (100 percent so far) children serving in the army now.
Regarding Yedidya, I would describe the kehilla as having a history of not being right-wing religious messianists. This is a bit simplistic because the Kehilla has never taken a specific political stand (to the chagrin of some of our more strident left memebers).
The vast majority of the Israeli left holds its positions because it beleives that this is the best position to ensure the future of the state of israel.
but back to yedidya
The 'ikkar' is the fact that we are a kehilla. To remain under one roof we frequently have to compromise on our 'ideal'practice. This may be regarding politics, women's issues etc.
Personally, I was attracted to Yedidya because of the politics and the people in the community. The enhanced women's participation was a bonus.
So our struggling with the new innovation is not unique or new. We struggle with all of our decisions.
Women have received aliyot at Yedidya (in separate readings) for more than 20 years. It is hardly new. Quietly, we have influenced the practice in many places in Israel.
Sorry for the long rambling. Of course this is not edited so it probaly sounds disjointed.

Zman Biur said...


Thanks again for your input. I am not personally familiar with Yedidya, and my impressions are all at best second-hand.

I apologize for my poor choice of words in describing the Israeli political left. They were meant to be a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration of how we right-wingers (Cosmic X and I) perceive the left. Suffice it to say that I am equally resentful of being described as a "right-wing religious messianist". I do not question the genuine patriotism of anyone on the Israeli left. (Well, almost.)

Personally, I am opposed to the politicization of the synagogue. Part of what characterizes a community is its inclusion of a variety of perspectives. One of my most serious objections to aliyot for women is that such practices tend to attract congregants who are more interested in making a point than building a community. As you say, community requires compromise.

Radical changes in the synagogue service are inherently divisive within the Orthodox community. I am far from convinced that that's a good thing.

jlmkobi said...

Thanks for your note. I guess my description of 'right wing religious messianist' was not clear. we do have members of the kehilla who are right (but not far) of center. and who voted for the likud and mafdal (in the past). I was trying to make a distinction of those that view most of politics in the eschatological (sic) scheme.
Today, the collective of the community is on average to the left of the religious public.
One of the reasons for the founding of the community was the fact that people were uncomfortable with the assumption that being a religious zionist meant you bought into (actively or silently) with the 'religious zionist messianist right'.

Judith said...

Leading services and leyning and having aliyot and carrying the Torah are not spiritual experiences at every moment, nor is anything else, because human beings have imperfect attention spans.

But they are most of the time, and I wouldn't give them up.

Zman Biur said...

Actually, I'm not sure that "leading services and leyning and having aliyot and carrying the Torah" are ever "spiritual experiences". They certainly aren't mitzvot.

I'm not even quite sure what a "spiritual experience" is; I might write about that when I'm inspired to.