Women must be heard within Orthodox shuls

Theresa May was allowed to address an Orthodox service last week - but could a Jewish woman deliver a sermon in the same place?


How do you get a woman on to a United Synagogue pulpit?

The question sounds like the start of a good joke. Unfortunately, it is not.

At a Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration hosted by Bnei Akiva last Wednesday, the two principal speakers, both of whom addressed the audience from the pulpit of Finchley United Synagogue, were Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May. Mrs May spoke with authority and passion about the Conservative Party's commitment to the Jewish community and its security and ongoing concerns about antisemitism. She made an appropriate reference to the three Israeli teenagers who were tragically kidnapped and killed last summer at the time when she visited Israel for the first time.

I was moved by her words and the warm reception she received. However, I was frustrated that a woman is seemingly only permitted to speak from the pulpit of a United Synagogue shul if she is not Jewish and not discussing words of Torah.

Last summer, also at Finchley Synagogue, an evening of learning took place to honour the memory of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers. The speakers at the event, who included the Chief Rabbi, dayanim and the Israeli Ambassador, were all men.

We need to provide a pulpit for the learned women of our community

While they were all worthy speakers, it felt wrong that no woman's voice was heard on that occasion - especially in view of the powerful and affecting words, including words of Torah, uttered by Racheli Frankel, mother of one of the kidnapped teenagers, at his funeral and at the United Nations shortly before the memorial service took place at Finchley.

A senior member of the United Synagogue was prompted to ask why no women had been chosen to speak at this event. The answer she was given was that the organisers wanted people with gravitas who would speak words of Torah. When she responded that there was a myriad of suitable women who could speak at the event, she was rebuffed.

Three years ago, the Jewish Leadership Council published a report on advancing gender equality in Jewish communal life. It made a number of important recommendations on how to promote change within communal organisations so that women might take more leadership roles. But the taboo against women leading in the realms of ritual, the spiritual and Torah teaching was not specifically addressed.

Some would say that we should be thankful for the advances that women have made in learning and teaching Torah in the UK - and we should. That we should be pleased that a woman was allowed to speak at all from the pulpit of a US synagogue - and we are. That we should applaud the United Synagogue for not encouraging photo-shopping women out of existence, something which happened to Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Charedi newspapers which were anxious not violate their own hyper-stringent laws of modesty by including a picture of a woman - which we do.

However, it is time for mainstream Orthodoxy to take the next step and encourage women to move into roles of spiritual leadership, to take on leadership positions on issues concerning ritual and to teach Torah from the pulpit - and not from a side room. There are many learned women in the UK who can teach Torah thoughtfully, engagingly and with deep insights. Their voices should be heard more regularly and should be given greater prominence.

It is unfortunate that in a society where status and position are so valued, women who have studied for years but don't have the title "rabbi" - even women who have received graduate degrees or PhDs and have written weighty tomes - don't have the same social and spiritual standing within the Orthodox community as rabbis to lead and teach. This is one of the reasons that women are studying for semichah at Yeshivat Maharat in New York and for semichah and dayanut at Jerusalem's Susi Bradfield Women's Institute for Halachic Leadership, training to be rabbinical court advocates and advisers on issues of ritual purity.

In 1903 the Chafetz Chaim, one of the major halachists of his time, overruled a longstanding prohibition on teaching Torah to women, stating that in view of changing social conditions they must be taught Torah. Today, British women like Theresa May occupy positions of great authority and responsibility, and the Jewish community recognises women's ability both to learn and to lead. Women have a lot to contribute to the debates about how in the 21st century to live a Jewish life, how to act Jewishly and how to think Jewishly.

We need to learn from the example of Deborah, the judge and prophetess, who taught and determined Jewish law and was accepted as a leader of her community and acknowledged to be a wise and learned woman. We need to provide a pulpit for the learned women of our community to teach and lead us, and to guide us both spiritually and ritually.

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