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Rabbi criticises Beth Din over women's Torah ban

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A senior United Synagogue rabbi has criticised its rabbinic authorities for stopping women from reading from the Torah.

As reported in last week’s JC, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the London Beth Din refused permission for a group of women at Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue to leyn on Simchat Torah.

But this week Hampstead Synagogue’s Rabbi Michael Harris said he was greatly troubled by the episode.

In a blog, he wrote, “Once again – the most recent incident being the interference of the London Beth Din to prevent women at Golders Green Synagogue carrying a Sefer Torah with no objection to that interference from the Chief Rabbi – local rabbinic authority has been undermined.”

If rabbis were not permitted to rule on such issues in their own synagogues, he went on, “we we risk – as I have said in previous such instances – the infantilisation of the United Synagogue rabbinate”.

For years, he said, the community had been told that “there were halachic lines which could not be crossed regarding women as members of synagogue boards of management, regarding women as synagogue honorary officers, regarding women as synagogue chairs and regarding women as United Synagogue trustees.

“In each instance, when sufficient communal pressure accrued, these supposed halachic red lines were crossed. How much better it would be if instead of conceding legitimate demands in a piecemeal and reluctant fashion when lay communal pressure becomes sufficiently intense, the central religious authorities of the United Synagogue had a principled vision and strategy regarding the absolutely crucial issue of the involvement of women in religious and communal life and acted accordingly.”

He said that the “momentum towards greater empowerment of women in our religious and communal life is unstoppable.That is the good news. The bad news is that US members who would like to see principled movement and development in this area will likely have to go outside the United Synagogue to find it.”

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