One small step, not a giant leap

The election of Mrs Karen Appleby as the first female chair of a United Synagogue shul (St Albans) is certainly a landmark. The question is, precisely what sort of a landmark is it?

The role of women within Orthodox synagogal structures has been a matter of debate and contention for an exceedingly long time. The apparent prohibition on women holding positions of authority within the synagogue is of purely rabbinic origin, and can be traced back to a particular rabbinic interpretation (the Sifrei) of Devarim 15:17, which speaks of kingship but not queenship.

From this interpretation, the dictum was inferred that women should not wield any authority over men. We might object that the chairmanship of a shul board is a far cry from the right to sit on a throne, and we might ask whether, in any sense, the office of synagogue "chair" can be equated with that of a head of state.

We might also note that simply because the verse addresses kingship, that does not mean that the Almighty has necessarily vetoed queenship, and that, indeed, some later rabbinical commentators argued the verse this way. Be all that as it may, until recently the precise wording of the relevant text in the Sifrei - "A man may be appointed leader over the community, but a woman may not" - has remained one of the cornerstones of normative Jewish Orthodoxy.

But what does this text mean? The book of Kings refers to the rule of Queen Athalia and, more famously (Judges 4:4) we are told that the prophetess Deborah "judged Israel."

A succession of medieval rabbis drew a distinction between a king being imposed (or imposing himself) upon a people and a community voluntarily accepting the authority of a queen - or, if you prefer - a female synagogue "chair". As Rabbi Gideon Sylvester remarked in the JC last year, this was indeed the thinking adopted - controversially - by Ben Zion Uziel, Sephardi chief rabbi of Palestine/Israel between 1939 and 1954; Rabbi Uziel added that the laws of modesty were not infringed by this. And since Mrs Appleby was clearly voted into office, the halachah would appear to be satisfied.

But the interpretation and reinterpretation of halachah has never taken place in a political vacuum. Important sections of the Orthodox world never accepted the arguments advanced by Rabbi Uziel. Perhaps for this reason, the gradual entry of women into the shul boardroom, and, by stages, into the chair normally reserved for its president, has (to be blunt) been comprehensively fudged.

It seems likely that the success of Karen Appleby at St Albans - and Rosalind Goulden at Cockfosters - will be followed by others, and that before very long the incidence of a woman "chair" of a US affiliate will be nothing out of the ordinary.

The abominable no-men of Stamford Hill, Golders Green and Gateshead will doubtless wag their fingers and solemnly shake their heads. The US will be able to answer, truthfully, that the status quo is alive and well. The argument will be put that no synagogue in membership of the US is truly independent: at best (the argument will go), women can be elected to preside over subsets of a monolith, the headship of which is reserved to a male of the species.

The same fudge can be observed at work in the Federation of Synagogues which, as I reported last year, is changing its constitution to permit women to become full members of (as opposed to observers at) its governing council. But ultimate power within the Federation is being removed from that council to a much smaller, male-dominated body.

Don't get me wrong. Fudges have an honourable part to play in any socio-political system, since they enable all sides to claim a victory. Nor do I wish to be thought at all disparaging. I offer my congratulations to Mrs Appleby and to all the other women who may be elected chairs of synagogues within the family of the US.

But we need to be realistic. A citadel has been stormed and, for a time, Jewish women may be satisfied with this victory. Then, one day, one of them will surely ask why women can't be trustees or presidents of synagogues, or president of the United Synagogue itself. The fudge will be seen for what it is. The battle for true gender equality will then begin in earnest.

    Last updated: 9:45am, May 13 2013