Thursday, March 17, 2005

Women and communal Torah reading - IV

(Previous posts on this topic can be found here, here, here, and here.)


I neglected to mention why I've been interested in this topic. Aside from intellectual curiosity, there is currently a group of people in my community who may be interested in establishing a congregation inspired, in part, by Shira Hadasha. Some of those involved are friends of mine, and I've been looking to deepen my understanding of the issues at stake so I can decide where I stand on the matter. That's why I shlepped out to the event at Yedidya, and that's why I've blogged on it at such length.

The more I think about it, though, the more opposed I am to instituting changes in the participation of women in synagogue ritual, even in the context of a newly established community. My objections can be grouped into three categories: halachic, political and social.

Halachic objections
R' Sperber's halachic methodology seems questionable, to say the least. He appears to be reaching back to primary halachic sources to try and determine the original law at its earliest expression, in order to apply it in today's circumstances. Thus: 1) The Torah reading, as originally established, did not exclude women intrinsically, only conditionally; 2) The reasons for their exclusion have lapsed; 3) The current situation may be causing harm; so 4) Communities should now be free to call women to the Torah. Similarly, he noted the participation of women in communal leadership roles in ancient Greece, long before Rambam ruled against it. If it was okay then, he implies, it should be fine now.

R' Sperber's approach to halacha may well be valid (I am far from qualified to judge), but it seems inconsistent with how (at least) Ashkenazi authorities have generally decided halacha. It seems to minimize the significance of established traditional practices in establishing norms, and generally to ignore the conservative temperament of halachic development. R' Sperber is willing to give wide play to grand themes such as kevod habriyot, pushing aside the weight of precedent and explicit codified texts.

On that basis, for example, why not abolish the mechitza? It hardly appears in halachic sources, certainly not in ancient ones. But you can't just skip over centuries (millennia!) of halachic development to pick out the sources which support your position.

As R' Henkin explains in the opening of this essay, halachic psak does not end with determining the technicalities of halachic theory, what R' Henkin calls the "pure" halacha. It also entails considered judgment about the practical reality in which the posek rules. Not everything which is theoretically permissible is appropriate for implementation.

Instituting unprecedented practices which change the very structure of Jewish worship is inherently not consistent with the spirit of halachic development. Were such changes to be implemented, they would require the endorsement of authorities of greater stature - with all due respect - than R' Sperber, who admits that he is a scholar, not a posek.

R' Sperber is currently the only Orthodox rabbi who has endorsed the practice of aliyot for women, with all others, including R' Henkin, clearly opposed. What Orthodox community would adopt such radical practices on the sole say-so of a halachic maverick?

Furthermore, the theoretical permissibility is itself questionable. Gil Student summarizes the main objections here; many of the objections to women's prayer groups are also applicable.

Political objections
Even accepting the halachic acceptibility of the proposed changes, there are compelling political and social reasons not to implement them.

In Israel, especially, where the state is actively involved in Jewish life, halachic radicalism can have political implications. By implementing "egalitarian" changes rejected by the Orthodox mainstream, a community effectively endorses the critiques of the anti-religious factions in society. It risks being portrayed as the "good" synagogue, as opposed to all the "bad" synagogues which refuse to change with the times. It risks becoming a pawn in the constant religious-secular battles.

It's hard to get much done in the public sphere in Israel without political support. Who would support an "egalitarian Orthodox" synagogue? Not the mainstream Orthodox, clearly. That leaves the anti-religious factions, who would eagerly back their pet Orthodox community as an endorsement of their anti-religious, anti-halachic agenda. The potential here for hillul Hashem is palpable.

Social objections - external
Today's Orthodox community has no shortage of social rifts, but that doesn't mean we should deliberately deepen them. Instituting radical changes in synagogue practice does just that. I want a shul I can invite friends and relatives to without embarrassment on either side. I want my hareidi cousins and my elderly relatives to feel comfortable davening with me. The moment a woman steps up to the bimah or amud, for any ritual reason, that minimal social unity ends.

Most would, I expect, overlook a woman making announcements or giving a dvar Torah, especially if it is separate from the synagogue services. But that is clearly not true for any sort of shlichut tzibbur.

Social objections - internal
The other social objection relates to the self-styled "halachic egalitarian" community itself. I can't help but ask how committed many of the community members really are to halacha.

Clearly, "halachic egalitarian" is a contradiction in terms. The halacha is not egalitarian, period. Men and women have different roles, especially regarding public worship. When an individual or community calls itself "halachic egalitarian", aren't they implicitly prioritizing egalitarianism - an externally-derived value - over halacha? Aren't they implicitly criticizing the halacha for being insufficiently egalitarian? Aren't they implicitly declaring themselves to be better than all the non-egalitarian halachists before them and around them? Some, of course, are not implicit about this at all; they openly attack "the rabbinical establishment" or "the men who decide the halacha" - pick your derisory phrase. Is this the attitude of a halachic community?

Does a halachic community institute radical changes in practice despite the lack of any rabbinical support? That's what Shira Hadasha did, instituting women's aliyot on the basis of Mendel Shapiro's theoretical analysis, even though he opposed their implementation and R' Henkin also ruled against them. If anything, for an Orthodox community to implement changes in ritual, it must have rabbinical support for them; otherwise, who decides where to stop? A conventional shul can get along without a rabbi most of the time, since the rituals are familiar to all. An innovative shul requires rabbinical guidance, or it will quickly slide past the boundaries of halacha, by anyone's standards.

No doubt I will regret these generalizations, but those attracted by "halachic egalitarianism" seem to fall into a few broad categories: Orthodox women who have stopped going to shul because they find the experience so unpleasant; ba'alei (mostly ba'alot) teshuva, many of whom grew up in non-Orthodox communities and miss participating in synagogue rituals; liberal academics and intellectuals who look down on rabbis; political activists with an axe to grind; laymen without much halachic knowledge, who assume that if an "Orthodox" shul does something, it must be okay; and non-Orthodox congregants without a convenient Conservative synagogue. Many of them never approach a rabbi with a halachic question, unless perhaps they know the answer in advance. (One audience questioner at the Yedidya event said just that.)

As a rule, there is a correlation between an individual's level of halachic learning and their reluctance to implement radical changes. This is my sense of the group in my community. The most enthusiastic supporters of egalitarianism readily admit how little they know about the halachic issues. They talk about having a process of community learning to decide what practices to adopt. But if they are aware of their lack of learning, why not do the obvious, and consult someone with an established record of halachic knowledge: An expert rabbi!

Addressing legitimate gripes
So what is there to do? Women have legitimate gripes with many current synagogues, particularly in Israel. Often, the women's section is a cramped afterthought, with a nearly-solid mechitza which prevents them from even watching the service as spectators. Often, there are no adequate facilities for childcare, forcing someone to stay home with them. Often, many of the men are snide and derisive towards women who take davening seriously and care about Jewish learning.

None of this is necessary. Making shul a comfortable, accommodating place for women is itself a legitimate concern, and it can easily be accomplished without breaking the boundaries of halacha. (In our community, it would also address the main concerns of about half of the group looking to start a new congregation.)

An afterword
The fight over aliyot for women is just gearing up. Just a handful of "Orthodox" congregations have introduced them, and just within the last couple of years. Which way Yedidya falls will make a loud noise. If Yedidya adopts aliyot for women, will that constitute a mainstream endorsement of the practice, accelerating its penetration into the modern Orthodox community? Or will it simply marginalize Yedidya, moving it firmly beyond the fringes of Orthodoxy?

However this develops, it's hard to avoid asking whether Edah was acting responsibly in publishing Mendel Shapiro's original essay and the responses to it. Surely it was clear that a controversial article in an English-language lay publication would be widely distributed, and that not everyone would have the wisdom to distinguish between a theoretical exploration and practical psak. Surely the members of the editorial board know the difference between what R' Henkin calls the "pure" halacha and psak. If the objective was theoretical rather than practical, shouldn't the debate have taken place in a Torah journal, not a popular forum?

I also remain at a loss to explain R' Sperber's position. Granting his sincerity in the halachic analysis he espouses, is it reponsible for him to publicly endorse the adoption of radical, unprecedented changes in ritual, in opposition to every mainstream Orthodox authority? Is he unaware of the seriousness of the objections or simply indifferent to them? Is he not concerned for the potential social turmoil?

Among the group in our community, my sense is that, while about half are excited by the idea of "halachic egalitarianism", most are also aware of its risks. In practice, I doubt they will adopt the radical proposals for fear of breaking too far from the Orthodox community. I find it ironic that they are more concerned about this than R' Sperber or Edah seem to be.

(The next post on this topic can be found here.)


Jack said...

radical, unprecedented changes in ritual, in opposition to every mainstream Orthodox authority?

I can understand the need to move slowly because radical changes should be carefully considered and thought out before being executed.

But, change should not be ignored because it is radical in nature. Chazal in their infinite wisdom could not foresee everything that the future would bring.

For years people incorrectly thought that the world was flat and that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

When segregation ended there were many people who were initially uncomfortable attending integrated schools, but they grew comfortable over time.

The question to me is not social in nature, but halachic. It is one thing to say that you can come up with halachic reasons to or not do something, but another to use social concerns as they are not always a good tool to measure change.

Batya said...

Personally, I have no desire to behave like a man in shul. I have no desire to live like a man in any way. I don't see the point in blurring the lines. Men and women are different, and I have no problem with it. To demand the "kavod" a man gets should come with the same obligations.

As a grandmother, I can now say that there were times/years, I didn't make time in my day for regular prayers. I was busy as a mother. And now my life is different, so my day and week revolve around prayer times.

Being called to the Torah is superficial as a sign of religious involvement.

"Mi she'ashir, same'ach b'chelko." "He who is rich is satisfied with what he has."

Zman Biur said...


You make good points.

I think what I'm trying to say is that radical change may not be automatically illegitimate, but it is inherently suspect. Society can undergo rapid changes in both attitude and behavior. Some of those changes may be compatible with halacha, others may be inimical. Clearly, halacha should not be constantly shifting to accommodate the whims of popular culture.

That's why radical changes in halachic practice must be implemented with the agreement of mainstream authorities and experts of stature, not lone opinions.


Maybe you don't feel this way, but there certainly are many women who feel dissatisfied, not necessarily with their specific ineligibility for public ritual honors, but with what they perceive to be a general disrespect for their learning and religious sincerity in Orthodox society. They feel they are treated solely as kiddush-organizers and babysitters - while in professional life they are doctors and lawyers.

Telling them to just accept their lot doesn't make the frustration go away. Especially when the derision comes from men who are far less intelligent and learned than they are.

Jack said...

That's why radical changes in halachic practice must be implemented with the agreement of mainstream authorities and experts of stature, not lone opinions.

That makes sense, but what concerns me is this can still present a problem. Sometimes change is necessary for the purpose of growth, and often people do not want to put themselves in a position in which they feel less than secure, even when they are confident in it.

So it can lead to stagnation as well as protection.