Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Calling Women to the Torah

Biur Chametz (I, II & III) reports on a recent discussion at Jerusalem's Kehillat Yedidyah synagogue between R. Dr. Daniel Sperber and R. Yehuda Herzl Henkin over whether women can be called up to the Torah as part of the synagogue service. It seems to me that the cards were stacked in favor of one position based on the scholars invited to speak. Granted, a Haredi rabbi would have been out of place. However, there are Modern Orthodox rabbis who are opposed to this practice (see below no. 7). R. Henkin is "in between" on this subject, against it in practice but only due to one or two secondary issues, and R. Sperber is in favor. There was no one there entirely opposed to the practice.

Regardless, there was much of interest reported by Biur Chametz about this discussion. I have no other source for what was said and am relying entirely on Biur Chametz's report. Please keep in mind that it could be imprecise or incorrect.

Some thoughts:

1. R. Sperber suggested that there was once a time in which women were called to the Torah before the Sages prohibited it. I do not believe that there is any evidence to that and, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Prof. Shmuel Safrai has rejected the textual inference that led to this assertion (Safrai, Eretz Yisrael ve-Hakhameha, p. 101).

2. R. Sperber seems to think that by accomodating women in this respect alone, we will be satisfying their sense of frustration and exclusion, thereby keeping them within Orthodoxy. I find this to be short-sighted. In the end, equality in the synagogue is impossible. Even if we can give a little here and a little there by bending the rules a bit, we will never be able to satisfy the egalitarian desire and will be just leading women down the path towards more frustration. Equal participation in the synagogue is halakhically impossible and, therefore, undesirable. I am not condoning exclusion for the sake of exclusion. However, feeding egalitarian desires is misleading and will h"v end in disaster when they run into an halakhic brick wall.

3. I find it hard to accept the quote from Rav Kook: "There is no need for concern about permitting something that is permissible according to the law of the Torah, even if in practice there was no previous custom to permit it." I don't know the context of the statement but it is extremely relevant because there is ample precedent for abiding by customary restrictions (see section III of this post).

4. R. Sperber has taken the legitimate concept of Kevod Ha-Beriyos and extended it well beyond the parameters for which there is any precedent. Would he allow, for example, a teenage girl to carry a nice purse on Shabbat (in a place where it is only rabbinically prohibited) so that she not be embarrassed to be insufficiently accessorized? Isn't that kevod ha-beriyos? Or what if I am at a business meeting and everyone is eating kosher salami with kosher swiss cheese? Should I eat it also since it is only prohibited rabbinically or should I refrain from eating it and be embarrassed in front of all my colleagues? There are clearly boundaries to this concept and he has gone significantly farther than anyone else has.

5. R. Henkin, in responsum 2 in his recently published Bnei Banim vol. 4 (responsum available online here), writes that women cannot be called to the Torah because it violates synagogue customs. Even in places and extreme situations where it would have been appropriate to call women to the Torah, we have never heard of it actually being done. Historically, synagogue customs have been considered by posekim to be of considerable weight and this is certainly one of them.

6. Reform (both capitalized and not) has always made the synagogue one of its starting points, which is one of the reasons we are so hesitant to make changes like this. Again, the historical precedent of Reform is telling. Many of the original reforms were not technically against halakhah but quickly led to serious halakhic infractions. Friends, we are all educated people. Do I need to say what happens to those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history?

7. There is also the halakhic consideration of confirming the Heterodox. See my posts on this subject (I, II, III and in particular IV). In note 42 I cite R. Yitzhak Yosef, R. Yehuda Henkin, R. Ahron Soloveichik and R. Moshe Meiselman (in a book reviewed fully before publication by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik) as opposing calling women to the Torah. I have since seen the following from R. Barry Freundel, who sits on the advisory council of Edah (Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity [Ktav: 2004], pp. 272-273):

Beyond the borders of Orthodox acceptability are traditional egalitarian services and a very few others that allow women to be called to the Torah and, perhaps, also to lead some limited parts of the service. Though no halakhically persuasive argument has been advanced to support such services, the fact that some have tried to justify what is being done from our sources, however unsuccessfully, coupled with the desire of these groups to, at least initially, maintain the traditional liturgy, means that the challenge of the role of women in the synagogue is not over.

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