What Rabbi Mirvis should do for women

The incoming Chief Rabbi should give women a greater role in the synagogue service

By Alexis Brassey, September 1, 2013

As we enter the reign of a new Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mirvis has declared that his mission is to develop each synagogue into an all-embracing community centre, evolving from a centre simply of prayer and learning. To what extent is he likely to become successful, given the declining interest in US Orthodoxy and the flourishing memberships of both non-Orthodox movements such as Masorti and the expanding ultra-Orthodox Charedi movement? Unlikely, is the answer unless he can properly address the role of women.

Women in British society have full equality. They do not expect to be less educated, less promoted, less senior, less articulate, less powerful or less fulfilled than their male counterparts, nor should they be. Despite this, the US has taken an approach to the involvement of women which can only be described as pitiful.

One of the most painful aspects of modern rabbinical attempts to subjugate women is the pseudo-legalistic approach deployed with varying success against all measure of reasonable judgment. Take for example the issue of women reading the Megillah on Purim. Despite there being overwhelming halachic support for the practice, it is only recently that mainstream US shuls (including Finchley on Rabbi Mirvis’s watch) have permitted women to read the Megillah to each other on shul premises.

What possible rabbinical explanation could be offered for allowing it in 2013 as opposed to 2003?
Other areas of practice, well within the legitimate boundaries of halachic interpretation that have yet to be permitted, include dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, actually being called to the Torah and women’s prayer groups. Some areas of practice, seemingly with no controversy are flatly refused, such as allowing pre-batmitzvah girls to read Anim Zemirot on the bimah, with no religious justification whatsoever.

Other areas could be sympathetically amended such as shelo asani ishah, the morning blessing in which men thank God for not making them a woman. This last example would be ripe for a direct legal challenge on grounds of indirect discrimination, but for the exemption for religion. Women are unlikely to continue accept the wafer-thin excuses for exclusion or subjugation such as that “women are regarded as different, not inferior” or the possibility that it might offend the “dignity of the community”. What is demanded of rabbinical leadership is explanation followed by action, not excuses.

What is the message we are sending out to half of our number within the US? The US Women’s group led by the formidable Dalia Cramer, has been running a series of conferences discussing these sorts of issues. The response from the rabbinate, however, has been a diluted mix of filibustering, lack of interest and obfuscation.

Most US participants do not have the time or inclination to study the nuances of Jewish law to examine whether the practice of their synagogue could potentially be amended to engender a more egalitarian position. Even those who accept the religious legitimacy of greater women’s equality have declared they like the traditions and the way things are.

All movements need strong leadership and direction to flourish and survive. The London Beth Din, after being pressed, finally acknowledged that the refusal to call women for an aliyah was really just a minhag (tradition) rather than law, but more than a year on, no rabbi has yet seen fit to create a new precedent, fearful of reprisals from the centre.

Surely the US community must see the current institutionalised chauvinism is an outmoded model which will either adopt change or fail. Not a single girl has ever sung Anim Zemirot in a US shul and this remains the case despite there being no credible religious reason for this not to have happened. The reasons put forward for this phenomena can only be described as Pythonesque, including the notion that boys need the training — although since the advent of the acceptance of women’s Megillah reading, this excuse has worn even thinner.

Halachah, for those who have had the benefit of studying it, recognise it is in the main a very flexible system of law, designed to take in the changes and shocks that time brings to bear. The abuse of Jewish law for the maintenance of an unnecessary discriminatory approach to our practice it itself destructive. Our traditions are important and we must strive to keep them, but aspects of our practice must change for us to survive.

As we abandoned the keeping of slaves (something achieved by secularists through the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 and other secular legislatures, not by Jewish leadership) so must we abandon the systematic degradation of our women, also achieved by secular legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act rather than our own leadership.

Let us hope that the new Centre for Rabbinical Excellence Rabbi Mirvis plans to set up has the open-mindedness to consider the dignity of women in our community and to bring in a new era of women’s participation. We need to work on egalitarianism as far as halachah will allow and we need to do so as a matter of urgency.
Girls brought up in the US today are unlikely to either tolerate or expect unequal treatment as they grow up. A refusal to acknowledge this is likely to lead the US to becoming little more than a burial board within another generation or two.

Alexis Brassey is a member of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue

Last updated: 5:45pm, September 1 2013