A confidential warning by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis for rabbis not to invite “inappropriate speakers” has been widely seen as a veiled attack on the appointment by one of his synagogues of an Orthodox feminist.
In a letter sent to United Synagogue rabbis and chairmen this month, the Chief Rabbi stressed the importance of not hosting speakers whose outlook “encourages practices which run contrary to our normative United Synagogue approach”.
But while the letter did not mention any names, a number of rabbis told the JC that they believed it was a response to Hampstead Synagogue’s recruitment of Dina Brawer as scholar-in-residence this year.
Mrs Brawer, the UK ambassador for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is the first student from Britain to enrol at Yeshivat Maharat in New York, which ordains female spiritual leaders for Orthodox communities.
Jofa has also invited speakers who support partnerships minyans – Orthodox services where women can read from the Torah but which Rabbi Mirvis has ruled is not allowed in the United Synagogue.
One US rabbi commented, “I don’t think that there is much doubt that the background is what happened in Hampstead. I’d be surprised if anyone was pretending that there is no connection.”
But he did not believe the letter was an attempt by the Chief Rabbi to “quash the autonomy of local rabbis. Sometimes that autonomy has to be used judiciously.”
In the letter, the Chief Rabbi reminded rabbis that at his rabbinic conference in the summer he had told them that “we should not offer a platform to speakers who are inappropriate”.
He explained he was repeating this in the wake of “a number of recent developments in our communities, which have caused me great concern”.
While the letter gave no detail, rabbis were invited to discuss it further with him.
“I would welcome the opportunity to set out in detail the position that the Beth Din and I have taken and I would hope to avoid further situations where any options for action are considered after the fact,” he wrote.
When asked to clarify if the letter was not directed at Mrs Brawer, the Chief Rabbi’s Office declined to comment. Nor did it respond to an invitation from the JC to welcome Mrs Brawer’s appointment.
Neither Hampstead’s rabbi, Dr Michael Harris, nor Mrs Brawer wished to comment.
One rabbi said that he would seek further clarification because the letter was “so vague nobody knows what it said. It is not clear who is to be excluded.”
The chairman of one synagogue, who was also a recipient but did not wish to be named, remained “confused. I don’t understand what this is about. I think if you are asking people to do something, it should be clear what it is you are asking them to do.”
But he believed that any decision on speakers at his synagogue should be up to him and his local rabbi.
In the meantime, JOFA’s UK branch has just published a kit on reciting kiddush to celebrate the chief rabbi’s Shabbat UK next weekend.
According to the kit, “Jewish adults, women from the age of 12 and men from the age of 13, are equally obligated in the mitzvah of kiddush. A woman can recite kiddush on behalf of other men and women and vice versa.”