Why can't my girl be called to the Torah?

Alexis Brassey

Alexis Brassey

The father of a forthcoming batmitzvah girl has challenged the United Synagogue to encourage greater religious participation of women by allowing them to be called up to the reading of the Torah.

Alexis Brassey, a lawyer and member of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, asked the London Beth Din to consider a way to give women an aliyah on Shabbat. But the Beth Din has flatly rejected the idea as contrary to accepted Jewish law.

Dr Brassey, the eldest of whose three daughters will celebrate her batmitzvah in summer, took up the issue because he was unhappy at how the ceremony is currently conducted within his congregation.

"Everyone goes to kiddush after the Shabbat service and then most go home. The people who have come to listen to the batmitzvah girl then go back into shul and the girl gives a dvar Torah [address on the Torah].

"I got in touch with the Jewish Feminist Orthodox Alliance in the US and they gave me a lot of material."

Although some early rabbinic authorities did permit women to be called to the Torah, the prevailing practice in Orthodox communities has long been for them not to be - for two main reasons.

One is that calling up a woman publicly was said to offend the "dignity of the congregation".

The second, more complicated reason, is that the seven call-ups to the Torah on the Sabbath are regarded as mandatory; women are not obligated to read the Torah, as men are; therefore, it would be wrong to ask a woman to perform an obligatory mitzvah on behalf of men.

But Dr Brassey has argued that there is room for manoeuvre, in a paper quoting rabbinic sources which he submitted to the London Beth Din.

Since it is permissible on Shabbat to call up more than seven people - as many congregations actually do - it ought to be possible to call up a woman for an eighth, non-obligatory aliyah, he has suggested.

As for the dignity objection, he said: "The idea that what was dignified for a community 1,000 years ago, has to be the same as now, is absurd. "

But the London Beth Din spokesman said: "Can a woman be called up to the Torah? The answer is no. This is accepted halachic practice within Orthodoxy in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] and all leading poskim [givers of legal opinion].

"We regret that Dr Brassey's internet research has led him to a conclusion which differs from that of the Shulchan Aruch and conventional Orthodox practice."

But Dr Brassey is not resigned to defeat. The LBD, he said, ought to provide a "reasoned argument", discussing the various points of Jewish law he raised. "The Beth Din is hiding behind the notion that the religion can't change, evolve or do anything that isn't established Orthodox practice," he said.

Last updated: 12:42pm, January 19 2012