A senior United Synagogue rabbi has attacked the London Beth Din over the scrapping of a newly introduced practice to give women a greater role within Orthodox services.
Rabbi Michael Harris, of Hampstead Synagogue, who has been the most prominent champion of modern Orthodoxy within the US, called the incident “disturbing”.
Over the past few months, women at the neighbouring Golders Green Synagogue have been allowed to carry the Sefer Torah around the female section during Shabbat and festival services.
But, last week, Golders Green’s Rabbi Harvey Belovski announced that he was ending the innovation after discussions with the Beth Din and consultations within his community.
In a blog posted on Friday, Rabbi Harris hit out at “behind-the-scenes interference and pressure from the Beth Din” and bemoaned the lack of open debate on such issues.
‘In Israel and USA they wouldn’t bat an eyelid at allowing women this moderate role’
The Golders Green episode was “a case of a local United Synagogue being pressurised by a Charedi Beth Din to abandon a practice widely accepted in the modern Orthodox world,” he said.
“It sometimes seems… that US rabbis are permitted to pursue modern Orthodoxy only as far as a Charedi Beth Din will allow them.”
He said that the practice introduced by Rabbi Belovski was “a very moderate and halachically defensible one. Many Orthodox shuls in Israel and North America have adopted it or would not bat an eyelid at it. If there is no place in the United Synagogue for meaningful local rabbinic autonomy, we diminish and indeed infantilise the rabbinate.”
Some sources have suggested that Rabbi Belovski had underestimated the extent of opposition to the practice within his own community and at least one benefactor to the synagogue is understood to have left over it.
But former Golders Green vice-chairman Jacqui Zinkin dismissed any claims of widespread objection. “There were a couple of people who were dancing in the aisles at the announcement but to say the majority of the community were against it is nonsense,” she said.
“There were people who are related to members of the community who daven at more right-wing shuls who voiced their opinions loudly to their family members.”
On Radio Four’s Sunday programme, Rabbi Alan Plancey, former minister of Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, argued that any deviation from the standard practice of taking the Sefer Torah to the reading desk was “disrespectful to the scroll”.
The Beth Din is understood to have agreed to meet Golders Green congregants unhappy at the ending of the new custom.
In an article posted on the US website at the end of last week, the co-chairmen of US Women, Leonie Lewis and Dalia Cramer professed: “the utmost respect for our rabbis, our Chief Rabbi and his Beth Din who have continually shown themselves to be committed to encouraging women to play the fullest possible role in all aspects of community life.”
Attempts within the United Synagogue in recent years to be more accommodating to women — such as allowing them to dance with the scroll on Simchat Torah — have provoked a backlash from the right.
The head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, has condemned such practices as “under the influence of Reform”.
But other rabbis have been prepared to permit innovations during services. At South Hampstead, pre-batmitzvah girls can now sing Anim Zmirot, the Hymn of Glory, on Shabbat mornings as long as they do so in a group with boys; women can recite the prayers for the Queen and the state of Israel from the gallery: and mothers and grandmothers can bless bar- and batmitzvahs in front of the Ark.
But Rabbi Baruch Davis, the chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said that, on the question of girls singing Anim Zmirot, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis “has made it very clear than it is not the right thing to do”.