Partnership minyanim 'enhance Judaism'

President of Bar-Ilan University’s Institute of Advanced Torah Studies spoke in favour of the ordination of women at debate in London last week.


One of the foremost Orthodox advocates of partnership minyanim (PMs) says innovations to expand the role of women are “enhancing the spiritual life of Judaism”.

Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber, the British-born president of Bar-Ilan University’s Institute of Advanced Torah Studies, defended PMs and the ordination of women at a panel debate on women and law in London last week.

PMs, including those in Britain, have relied on Rabbi Sperber’s authority for their format where women can play a formal role in the service unlike in conventional Orthodox synagogues.

“It is true it is innovative, it is true it is not accepted by many and I realise that I am a maverick but I think we are doing something very good, very positive,” he said. “And as it expands, as it becomes more understood…the criticisms will be quietened.”

There were parts of the service, he explained, which did not require a minyan and hence “a woman can lead it, as a sort of conductor keeping rhythm.” He was also in favour of women being called to the reading of the Torah.

Rabbi Sperber also thought women “can serve as rabbis - whichever name you want to give them.”

But these developments were opposed by his fellow-panellists, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, founder of the Nishmat College in Jerusalem for advanced Torah study for women, and Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, head of the yeshivah at the rabbinic seminary at New York’s Yeshiva University.

The event, which took place in the hall of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Maida Vale, was organised by the Montefiore Endowment, the charity which runs the only mainstream Orthodox rabbinic ordination programme in the UK.

Rabbanit Henkin said she would “like to see changes occurring in ways that will not tear us apart”.

She was worried “what happens when those partnership minyanim get to an obstacle they can’t cross. I worry about that a great deal.”

Instead, she preferred to see “innovation in those areas which are not halachically problematic”. Women, for example, could give divrei Torah, Torah talks, in synagogue either during or after the service, she suggested.

But she also felt that ordination programmes for women were “the wrong way to go.”

Her own college has a two-year programme to train yoatzot halachah, female advisers in Jewish law in the area of women’s health.

In contrast, some of the graduates of Yeshivat Maharat for women in New York have used the title “rabbi” or “rabba”.

“I am much more comfortable with an understated title. Let history take its course,” Rabbanit Henkin said. “Because when you go out and you wave flags and you make statements, you cause people to circle the wagons, dig in their heels and you move things backwards rather than forwards.”

Rabbi Rosensweig maintained partnership minyanim and the ordination of women “defy both the legality and desirability tests”.

In the value system of Jewish law, rabbinic communal leadership was seen as a “male prerogative,” he argued.

He favoured increased Torah study for women and the kind of measures suggested by Rabbanit Henkin to make women more at home in a traditional synagogue rather than “looking for innovations which are extremely controversial, divisive and in many cases the large consensus of Torah scholarship is that they are problematic.”

When Rabbanit Henkin advocated a more “consensus” approach to increasing women’s involvement, Rabbi Sperber argued that if the Suffragettes had not chained themselves to the railings a century ago, the status of women would not have be where it is now.

But despite the different positions, the tone remained civil. Rabbi Abraham Levy, who chaired the meeting on behalf of the endowment, thanked the panellists for “having disagreed so nicely”.

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