The dramatic highlight of a debate held Saturday night in Toronto on “The Changing Role of Women in Judaism” – really, Modern Orthodox Judaism — came when Rahel Berkovits, a Talmud scholar in Israel, tearfully recounted the utter failure of her efforts to engage several leading Israeli rabbinic authorities in discussing with her halachic issues of female participation in wedding ceremonies and other rituals.
She said the manner in which she was rebuffed by Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, a prominent rosh yeshiva, “made me feel like I was not part of Am Yisrael [the Jewish people],” said Berkovits, who made aliyah from the U.S. and lectures on Talmud, halacha and the status of women in Judaism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
She related similar experiences with other rosh yeshivas.
Berkovits wondered aloud whether a man posing the same questions would have been treated as rudely, to which fellow panelist Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Frimer, who opposes women being called to the Torah, said he has no problem discussing these issues with leading rabbinic sages.
That seemed to prove Berkovits’s point.
In an emotional and deeply personal response to a question about how she defines the parameters of Orthodoxy, she said she has found it “very painful” to be unable to talk to rabbinic decisors on a serious level, having thought, naively, that “if women showed how serious we are” about the observance of halacha, rabbis would be more open to wider female participation.
“If Orthodoxy is just looking over your shoulder and worrying [about being marginalized by those on the religious right], then I’m not Orthodox,” Berkovits said. “I believe in halacha, and the eternity and truth of the Torah. But I make my own choices” about what she believes to be moral and principled.
The debate, which focused on an Orthodox community in conflict over women’s changing roles in areas like partnership minyanim and the rabbinate itself, was sponsored by Torah In Motion, a Toronto-based group that holds frequent, live web casts on topics of particular interest to Modern Orthodox Jewry.
In addition to Berkovits, the panelists were Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, an Israeli scholar who elaborated on his extensive work that finds women should be allowed to be called to the Torah on halachic grounds; Rabbi Frimer, a professor of chemistry, who countered Rabbi Sperber’s claims and insisted that the great majority of halachic opinion is opposed to aliyahs for women; and Dr. Rivkah Blau, a longtime principal of yeshiva high schools for girls in the New York area, who cautioned against change in advancing women’s ritual roles until rabbinic authorities approve.
At one point in the more than two-hour discussion, Blau said that very few women – probably no more than 1,000 in the world — are interested in pushing the halachic boundaries of participation in synagogue life and rituals, and Rabbi Frimer said she was “1,000 percent correct,” adding that feminists should not “try to mold Judaism” in their image.
He said halachic authorities must be consulted, “and sometimes the answer is `no.’”
Berkowitz maintained that no one is insisting on change across the board, and that halacha is not black or white but has room for conflicting opinions.
She asserted that “many women feel very disconnected” from synagogue rituals that exclude them, and change is needed to keep them active in observant life.
Rabbi Sperber agreed, saying that “if we didn’t accommodate these women, they would be leaving the Orthodox community.”
The issue is “not about numbers, but about sensitivity to a segment of our community,” he said, adding: “I don’t see myself as a feminist, but as a halachaist” who believes it is important “to permit that which is permitted.”
He and Rabbi Frimer, who clashed most directly in their remarks, insisted that they remain good friends and will go on debating the issue.
For those seeking change in their lifetime, that no doubt provides little comfort.