Women reading from the Torah: a dangerous truth

November 24, 2016 23:22

There has been recent excitement regarding the possibility of women reading from the Torah in Orthodoxy. There are self-defining Orthodox communities in Israel, America and even here walking along new paths. A rabbi of the United Synagogue has been identified as being supportive of the idea. Momentum seemed to be swelling, until the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, put a stop to such matters - for now. Egalitarianism has long been a central tenant of Reform and Liberal denominations, but the approach of the denomination I serve, Masorti or Conservative, might serve to identify what is, and what is not, the real problem.

There was a vaudeville comedian with a reputation for being a great pianist, but he never played more than a couple of bars without stopping to tell a gag. "People ask why I don't just play the piano straight," he would say pantomiming backwards, head away from the piano, "It's because I can't reach the keys when I lie straight." Jewish law is similar. One might be tempted to imagine there is some pure, holy and unadulterated ideal of Jewish law which can be plucked from the heavens by the adept, a bit like the Snitch in Harry Potter's Quidditch.

But the truth is that Judaism is a more mundane thing; an amalgam of ancient traditions, sociological realities and human frailties all folded around a desire to seek something ultimately ungraspable. The multi-millennial evolution of religious practice, even within the most black-hatted of Orthodox circles, has always been a function of our engagement in, and rejection of, the cultures that surround us and nowhere is this truth more clear than in considering the question of women and Torah reading.

It's a perfect test case for the way in which a community engages with the world outside of Synagogue.

The notion Moses oversaw a weekly Torah reading is, of course, anachronistic. But few realise that the practice of having a master reader reading on behalf of those who say only the blessings, was explicitly forbidden by no less an authority than Josef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch. Caro insisted we should "protest" against calling up anyone who could not read their own portion - anything less, being an insult to the honour due to the Torah.

Current practice evolved as a result of changing realities (how many of us could read for ourselves) and a rebalanced sense of who or what within a community deserved to be honoured, or embarrassed (of course the Torah deserves honour, but so, too, do human beings, even less knowledgeable ones).

Communities considering whether to offer call-ups to women are faced with a similar set of questions. The Talmud, in its enigmatic way, suggests women can make up members of the team to receive a call-up, but don't, "because of the honour of the community." There are some mighty religious authorities, such as Joel Sirkes, who consider this term, in the Hebrew cavod hatzibur, to be a blanket prohibition under any circumstance. But others, arguably greater in both number and religious standing, consider cavod hatzibur to be a reference to that particular community, at that particular place and time.

In other words, wonders Josef Caro, in a community such as one full of priests, where one needs someone for call-ups priests cannot receive, maybe you do call up a woman; after all, that couldn't be said to be an affront to the honour of the community.

If cavod hatzibur is a time-specific reflection of societal realities, as opposed to a timeless ideal - and I think it is - then the notion a community should avoid offering call-ups to women to preserve its sense of honour smacks of sexism and a rejection of the world beyond the synagogue where such bigotry would be, frankly, illegal. But to advocate that religious practice should alter to reflect the changed standing of women in contemporary society is to accept, among other things, the sociological and evolutionary nature of Jewish law.

And that is a deeply dangerous truth, especially for those on the "ultra" wing of Orthodoxy. It could lead to mixed dancing.

November 24, 2016 23:22

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive