The Chief Rabbi needs to go further on prayer opportunities for women

Proposals for synagogue women's officers are laudable but not enough on their own


Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is to be commended for his recently-published initiative to improve women’s synagogue experience. He did not spell out, however, how his proposal to create “women’s officers” will avoid unnecessary duplication between their duties and those traditionally performed, both in the ladies’ gallery and through educational programmes for women, by others, such as the wives of the senior and community rabbis.   

Many rebbetzins are now on the payroll of synagogues, attending regular training sessions provided under the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue. It might prove counterproductive, therefore, if the extent of the contact between them and their shul’s women members, and the religious influence rebbetzins have been able to exert, was reduced by such a lay intervention.

Synagogue offices are also frequently members’ first port of call; and the role of office managers, community directors, or secretaries, in offering practical advice and in relaying members’ requirements to the rabbi and wardens, is crucial to the smooth-running of any community. 

Most shul offices are also staffed primarily by women who unofficially act as sounding-boards for members’ concerns. It is essential, therefore, that the role of the women’s officer is more clearly delineated so that duplication and misunderstandings are avoided.  

But it is doubtful that an extra layer of bureaucracy will help resolve the core religious problems faced by many modern Orthodox women — and men: that of finding meaningful spiritual uplift in the synagogue experience; of coping with a service entirely in a Hebrew that they cannot comprehend, and with themes, such as the study-passages referring to Temple sacrifices, that they find an archaic switch-off. And all that amid a marathon three-hour Shabbat morning service. 

The new initiative makes no reference to the paucity of teenagers attending our large synagogues regularly, and, given shortening attention-spans, how to make their visit more interesting, informative and relevant to their lives and interests.

My own small contribution to the pursuit of women’s spirituality was to support the Stanmore Women’s Tefillah Group,  which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. I was disappointed at the obstacles that our religious authorities initially put in its way, even to the extent of declaring my support as halachically unacceptable and insisting that the service had to take place off the synagogue premises. 

Fortunately, with the passage of time, attitudes softened, thus confirming Rabbanit Blu Greenberg’s maxim, “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.” 
Given the transformative effect that the Stanmore women’s service has had on the religious standards of its members, the Chief Rabbi might consider whether his reforms go far enough, and whether a network of such services might be encouraged, enabling women to become active participants rather than spectators from the ladies’ gallery. 

This would be an active step towards alleviating the present indifference to prayer: such services would be the natural venues for batmitzvah ceremonies, at which the girls could recite their haftarah.

But education toward that end would have to go hand-in-hand with giving prayer a far more prominent position within the curriculum of our schools; and to training specialist teachers who are themselves charismatic role models for the nurturing of young girls’ spirituality and who exude an intense joy in the service of God. 

Rousing new melodies might also be commissioned, or existing ones adapted, to accompany the girls’ prayers. And “mitzvah dancing” might be introduced, following, literally, in the footsteps of Moses’s sister, Miriam, who led the Israelite women in prayer and joyful praise. 

I recognise the halachic issues with which the Chief Rabbi will have to contend in his efforts to further women’s spirituality. Although there is a halachic principle that “words of Torah cannot contract impurity” (Talmud Berachot 22a) — the corollary being that women should be permitted to hold and read from the Sefer Torah — it nevertheless remains a thorny issue; the Beth Din stopped the Torah from being carried into the women’s section at Golders Green Synagogue, and the Chief Rabbi barred Borehamwood women from reading from it on Simchat Torah.  With such attitudes, it is difficult to imagine how the Chief’s initiative can be perceived as other than cosmetic.     

Many are, indeed, confused by the apparent arbitrariness of the issues for which halachic leniencies have been found, as opposed to others where inflexibility reigns. Among the former are the application of the secular prenuptial agreement to help resolve the problem of agunah (the “chained wife” unable to obtain a religious divorce); the volte face to allow the Stanmore Tefillah Group to meet on the shul premises; the decision to permit women to be on synagogue boards of management, and, subsequently, to become synagogue chairpersons. 

Modern Orthodoxy will only retain its followers in a climate of halachic clarity, flexibility and consistency. 

Jeffrey Cohen is the retired rabbi of Stanmore Synagogue. He has just published a new translation The Book of Psalms: Poetry in Poetry ,

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