Don't shun frum feminists

November 10, 2016 13:18

Shimon Cohen suggests that orthodox feminists who do not value our traditions should exit their communities. Rabbi Stuart Altshuler, from a progressive synagogue in Belsize Park, agrees (see related articles).

But they appear to have aimed at the wrong target, for orthodox feminists are tightly bound to our traditions - this is why they do not leave - and, in the case of the women's Torah reading which is a touchstone of the current debate, the traditional position is more nuanced than either man admits. Indeed, the tradition offers potential for women's involvement in the synagogue that would surprise many readers.

This traditional position is rooted in the Talmud's declaration (Megillah 23a) that "all may be included among the seven called to the Torah on Shabbat, even a child or a woman". The Talmud continues, "but the rabbis said that a woman should not read from the Torah because of the honour of the congregation".

This ruling - both permitting and restricting Torah reading by women - is entirely authoritative: it is repeated in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) and by every major halachic commentator on this topic to the current day.

In citing the "honour of the congregation" as a bar to women's Torah reading, the Talmud falls far short of an absolute prohibition. Other activities in the same category - rolling a Torah scroll from one chapter to another in the presence of the congregation, or appointing a chazan too young to grow a full beard - are well-known to be permitted in case of need or are dependent on social context.

Perhaps for this reason, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, the leading Israeli halachic authority who criticises women's Torah reading as "outside the consensus", "too much too soon" and "not Orthodox", and says he is "unalterably opposed" to it, conspicuously stops short of any claim that it is forbidden by the tradition and acknowledges the truth of many of the arguments of its proponents.

He permits Torah reading by women on Shabbat in a private setting and, in a public synagogue setting, on Simchat Torah. Further, he rules that if a community agreed to waive or set aside its "honour" in order to call up women, this would be effective in answering the Talmud's challenge.

Intriguingly, the Talmud is not explicit as to why a woman's reading should infringe the "honour of the congregation" at all. Given that women in the United Synagogue today include distinguished public servants, well-known Torah scholars and United Synagogue trustees, and that these, according to tradition (Shulchan Aruch OH 136:1), are categories of individuals who should be called to the Torah first, some might find it difficult to understand. Rabbi Henkin suggests, based on classical rabbinic sources, that its concern centred on male illiteracy: a community that needed to bring in women to read from the Torah was a community whose men were unable to do so.

If this concern for male literacy was indeed the Talmud's motivation for restricting women's Torah reading, today the issue is moot. For in today's Jewish communities, unlike those of the era of the Talmud when to be called to the Torah meant to read aloud from the scroll, no ordinary member is expected to read. A 'ba'al koreh' is appointed as a reader, and others who are called up merely recite the blessings.

Rabbenu Tam, the 12th century authority, explained this innovation as an inclusivist act, to ensure that those who were unable to read would not be shamed in public and could continue to be included in the life of the synagogue.

His inclusivist approach mirrors the view in the Talmud (Megillah 21b) that public Torah reading is symbolic of universal public engagement with Torah in general. The need for this engagement is far broader than any specific rabbinic requirement for daily Torah study (mandatory, according to halachah, only for men) and is particularly important in modern times, with many Jews at risk of disconnection from traditional teachings.

Rabbi Akiva (Brachot 61b) compares a Jew without Torah to a fish out of water, an organism deprived of its life source. Similarly the Talmud (in Baba Kama 82a) compares the institution of public Torah reading at least every three days - on Shabbat, on Mondays and on Thursdays - to the public distribution of drinking water: a person can live without water for one or two days but living without drinking water - and, by analogy, living without Torah - for three days is impossible.

The universality with which the Talmud expounds the origin of our synagogues' public Torah reading - for the need for water transcends all boundaries - echoes Ezra's institution of public Torah reading when he returns from exile in Babylon (Ezra 8). Ezra encounters in Jerusalem a population which is demoralised, assimilated and disconnected from its roots. He reads from the Torah, not in the confines of a synagogue, but in the middle of the city square, addressing himself to men and women together. His actions echo, in turn, Moses's command to the kings of Israel that they should read from the Torah to the entire people of Israel - men, women and children included - every sabbatical year.

Seen through this lens, the Talmud's statement that all may be included in those called to the Torah, "even a child or a woman", reflects a view that public Torah reading embodies and reinforces an engagement with Torah which the entirety of the Jewish people requires for its survival. In this context, orthodox feminists who advocate women's Torah reading today are not in conflict with Jewish traditions and values. Rather, they seek to reinvigorate them.

Of course the difficulties raised by Rabbi Henkin - consensus, pace of change, and community cohesion - are significant. They merit public discussion and respectful, well-informed debate.

Perhaps, rather than encouraging orthodox women to abandon their communities, Shimon Cohen and Rabbi Altshuler might encourage the creation of a well-informed and constructive setting in which this discussion can now take place. The continued vitality of the traditional Jewish community is at stake.

November 10, 2016 13:18

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