How Orthodox women can be liberated in shul

Rabbi Daniel Sperber has become one of the leading supporters of partnership minyans, where women can read from the Torah

By Simon Rocker, June 16, 2013
Voice of change: Rabbi Daniel Sperber, speaking at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK conference in London (photo: Karen Simon)

Voice of change: Rabbi Daniel Sperber, speaking at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK conference in London (photo: Karen Simon)

It was a problem few synagogues face but most would be delighted to have. On Sunday so many people turned up for a Rosh Chodesh service in London that some had to be turned away.

This was no ordinary service. It was an Orthodox partnership minyan, where prayers were led by women as well as men and both read from the Torah. While it may not have been the first in the UK — partnership minyans have taken place in private homes — this is believed to have been the first openly held here.

Over the past decade, more than 20 partnership communities have been established elsewhere in the Jewish world, the best-known being Darchei Noam in New York and Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, which were both founded in 2002.

“The basic move towards partnership minyanim was the feeling on the part of women that they have been up till now disenfranchised, they weren’t given any opportunity to have any sort of activity within the ritual field in synagogue,” said Rabbi Daniel Sperber, one of the foremost Orthodox voices in support of the innovation.

“They couldn’t daven, they couldn’t be chazanim or chazaniot, they couldn’t read from the Torah, they couldn’t get aliyot, they weren’t allowed to say Kaddish. They were relegated to the ezrat nashim (women’s section) to some sort of balcony where if the acoustics were not good, they couldn’t even hear what was going on…
“Boys have sumptuous barmitzvahs and girls were not allowed to have a batmitzvah in shul. This type of thing was deeply disturbing to me.”

The British-born professor of Talmud at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University — who was a guest speaker at last weekend’s inaugural conference of the Jewish Orthodox Alliance UK — is a recognised authority on Jewish custom and practice. Although not a member of a participant minyan himself, he was angered by the stand taken by some of its opponents: in particular by those who, while they conceded the halachic legitimacy of such minyans in theory, nevertheless regarded them as out of order. And so he entered the fray, finding precedents in halachah which might enable women to take a greater role within an Orthodox service.

“There are many areas in the synagogue service which are permissible to women,” he said, “If they are qualified and capable and know how to read Hebrew, and read the Torah with the right trop [cantillation], there is no reason they shouldn’t, provided that their congregation is accepting of this.”

For the 72-year-old academic, whose scholarship has demonstrated the dynamic evolution of Jewish observance over time, it was “a halachic issue”, he explained. “I don’t consider myself a feminist, I consider myself an ish halachah, a halachist.”

The attitude to women in classical Jewish sources reflected their social status in antiquity when they rarely occupied public roles. Now women can be “supreme courts, presidents or prime ministers of countries, ceo’s of huge multinational companies”, he observed.

Traditionally, one of the obstacles to women reading publicly from the Sefer Torah was the belief that it might offend the dignity of the congregation, kevod hatzibbur. The rabbis believed that if a woman read from the Torah, it would suggest that there were not enough men literate to do so and the men would feel disgraced.

“That is irrelevant nowadays,” he said, “where everybody is literate and no one feels offended by the fact that they go to a woman judge, rather than a man judge.”

So women can read from the Sefer Torah and be called up for an aliyah (except those aliyot designated for a Cohen and a Levi).

As for leading prayers, there is no bar to a woman taking certain parts of the service, such as the opening morning Psalms, the Pesukei d’Zimra.

But there is a halachic issue with prayers which a man is obligated to say but a woman is not obligated — prayers that require a minyan such as Barechu or the Kedushah. A person who is not obligated to say them cannot say them on behalf of someone who is obligated; therefore a woman cannot act as a shaliach tzibbur, a communal prayer leader, for these parts of the service.

As for the prohibition against a man hearing a woman sing lest she arouse amorous thoughts, he explained, “that has already been dealt with in medieval times, when they said that within a spiritual atmosphere, it is not applicable, because people are not thinking about sexual arousal.”

In a partnership minyan, the mechitzah which separates seating for men from women runs down the middle right up to the bimah. “So when a woman gets called up, she stands on her side of the mechitzah,” he explained. “When a man gets called up, he stands on his side of the mechitzah. So the mechitzah problem has been got over.”

Some issues are still being worked through as part of an “evolving process”. For example, on Rosh Hashanah, in many Orthodox congregations it is common to sound 100 shofar notes. The requirement is only for 40: so in a partnership minyan the 40 mandatory notes can be blown by men, the remaining 60 by women.

“The sum total of all these changes,” he said, “has created an alternative model. For many women, it is extremely satisfying spiritually. They don’t feel marginalised. Even though they don’t have complete equality, nonetheless they feel they have moved forward and they have done this within an Orthodox halachic framework.”

Last updated: 3:45pm, June 16 2013