The United Synagogue and free speech

November 24, 2016 23:06

On the Richter Scale of communal controversies, it may have registered low. But you might still catch the tremor if you put your ear closer to the ground.

The Chief Rabbi’s recent warning to his rabbis not to host “inappropriate speakers” in their synagogues inevitably raises the question: what does the United Synagogue (US) stand for and what kind of Orthodoxy does it represent.

The Chief Rabbi did not spell out who he was warning against, only that synagogues should avoid speakers “who represent a hashkafah [outlook] which encourages practices which run contrary to our normative United Synagogue approach”.

Well, in theory that could rule out Chasidic rebbes who tell women that they shouldn't be driving cars.

But the target has generally been seen as lying to the left – in particular those who support, directly or indirectly, partnership minyans, the egalitarian Orthodox services which the Chief Rabbi has said cannot be held within the US.

The centrist Orthodoxy embodied by the US is under pressure from both right and left. As we reported last week, Charedi Jewry is set to become the majority of the community within a couple of generations. Whereas the US was once the dominant stream in British Jewry as a whole, it will no longer be even the dominant stream within Orthodoxy.

Over the past year, the US has been busy trying to recruit more congregations from among the frummer parts of Hendon and Golders Green. To do that, it has to present itself as acceptable to the right.

Meanwhile, on the left, partnership minyans are spreading faster than anyone might have anticipated a few years ago. They may still involve only relatively few people but they are some of the best and brightest within the US.

There is no sign that PMs have run out of steam and they are likely to continue to grow. Jewish schools are producing better educated Jewish women, and while some may be happy with their current role within Orthodoxy, others seek more for themselves and their daughters in terms of religious participation than their mothers could enjoy.

Although the US has ruled out partnership minyans, it has yet to set out what women can do rather than what they can’t.

The warning against inappropriate speakers looks like an attempt to shut down debate. Is someone like the eminent British-born Israeli Talmudist Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber, who has made the halachic case for partnership minyans, now persona non grata for the US? It would be sad if that were so: but it if is not, then the US should make it clear. US members surely have the right to know whom their religious authorities deem it acceptable or not for them to hear.

November 24, 2016 23:06

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