In a first for an Orthodox-in-practice American synagogue, Kehilat Orach Eliezer in Manhattan has voted overwhelmingly to permit both men and women to read from the Torah at the same worship service. And despite synagogue leaders’ efforts to make clear that the decision is applicable to their community alone, others say the move could have a far-reaching impact.
"What KOE does is a benchmark for other halachic congregations," said Blu Greenberg, founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. "The Orthodox community lives by precedent, so each one of these models which exists is a new precedent for other communities."
However, Debra Kaplan, the Upper West Side congregation’s co-president, cautioned: "We’re not doing this representing a movement. We’re doing this as the right thing for our small community at this time."
The new policy contains many specific conditions that mark the mixed Torah reading as not acceptable for the main service and only permissible on specific occasions at a congregant’s initiative.
After about a year and a half of study on the issue, the last three months of it intensive, the congregation came to a vote at its regular quarterly meeting last Sunday. Over two-thirds of the 250-member congregation voted, Kaplan said this week, the measure passing by a 2-to-1 margin.
"It’s been a long process that a large percentage of the community gave their thought to," said Kaplan, associate director of external affairs at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. "Of course with an issue like this not everyone will end up happy, but the extent of communication and learning has given everyone time to evolve in their views on this issue and open themselves up to hearing others."
As far as she knows no one has quit the synagogue as a result of the vote, she said. But a few members took a "conscientious objector" stance by choosing not to vote.
"I didn’t want to vote because I believe there are synagogues with mixed kriah [Torah reading], and I don’t need KOE to change for me," says Raphi Salem, a web designer. "On the Upper West Side there are literally at least 20 shuls. There’s something for everyone. If I want a mixed kriah, I go elsewhere."
The overwhelming majority of synagogue members, however, did take a position in what was often a divisive debate.
The policy went through several drafts, which were discussed at congregational meetings, dinners and Shabbat services. One earlier version was considered halachically permissible but ill-advised by Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, the congregation’s adviser on matters of Jewish law.
That position would have made mixed Torah reading a permanent, monthly part of KOE’s schedule, the way a woman’s tefillah already is. That women’s prayer service will not be changed by the new policy, said Kaplan.
The policy now adopted makes mixed-gender Torah reading an occasional event, held at the request of someone celebrating a joyous moment, like an engagement, wedding, birth or bar- or bat-mitzvah. It will be an "alternate" Torah service, held in a separate room from the main worship.
Those participating will leave after the first part of Sabbath-morning worship and just before the Torah service begins, and return to the main sanctuary after it concludes to join the rest of the congregation for the rest of prayer.
Also, a mechitza will be used on the bima to separate men and women so they don’t mingle as they take turns reading the holy text.
Only men will be called to bless the Torah in an aliyah when a man is reading those passages of the week’s Torah portion, and only women will have the aliyah when a woman is reading a particular section.
The first two aliyot will be given to the traditionally male Kohen and Levi, so men will usually read the first two parts of the Torah portion. If no man is available, however, a woman may chant that part of the Bible passage, according to the halachic ruling put forward by Rabbi Weiss HaLivni.
The other five aliyot (there are always seven in total) will be divided between men and women, but men are required to chant at least 21 of the Torah chapter’s passages in order to satisfy the minimum demands of traditional Jewish law, the policy states.
Kaddish may be led by either a man or woman after the Torah portion is read, and the related reading from the Prophets, the haftarah, may also be chanted by either sex. Likewise, the Torah scroll may be unwrapped and wrapped and lifted by either two men or two women.
This decision by KOE does not make it the first observant community to institute joint male-female Torah readings (Jerusalem’s Shira Chadasha has permitted them for the past few years, and in New York, High Holy Day services at the women’s learning center Drisha also offered it) but it may signal a watershed moment as the first observant congregation in the U.S. to make it a frequent worship possibility.
"The rift between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism is pretty strong," said KOE’s Salem. "But we are blurring the line."
While Rabbi Halivni, has described the congregation as Orthodox, "our membership doesn’t," she said. "We would not describe ourselves as halachically Orthodox, we just describe ourselves as halachic [bound by Jewish law] and leave it at that."
KOE members include rabbinical students from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Orthodoxy’s Yeshiva University and Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, among others.
"Other communities can look to us as an example but each has to analyze what is right for them. They can look at our process but it in no way is directly applicable to any other community," Kaplan, the co-president, said.
Steve Bayme is national director of the department of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee and himself a Modern Orthodox Jew.
While it’s clear that "the overwhelming majority of Orthodox rabbis and leaders are in opposition to this," Bayme said, "this is a grassroots phenomenon which has received a great deal of support from scholars."
The concept was a main focus at November’s conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, at which Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, who authored the paper which provided an initial basis in Jewish law for such a position, and Jerusalem-based Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who is widely respected, endorsed it.
Rabbi Weiss Halivni, moreover, is a deeply respected Talmudist.
"One of the most highly respectable Talmudic authorities is giving it his backing, which is of enormous consequence," Bayme said. "Those who argue that it violates Jewish law will now have a harder time proving their case."
The real test, he said, will be in seeing how much of an ongoing constituency there is at KOE for such a mixed-gender Torah service, which he described as "quasi-egalitarian."
KOE members are simply glad to have the decision-making process behind them.
"I’m happy that we have dealt with this issue in a way that has engaged the community and been as inclusive as possible," said Kaplan.
KOE member Salem agreed: "The community was definitely divided over the issue," Salem said. "It was really heated."
"Everyone was sick and tired of it. At every Shabbat meal and every Shabbat morning people were talking about this," he said. "We weren’t talking about Iraq or Lieberman, but about mixed kriah at KOE."
"Everything on this issue has been talked out," Kaplan said. "This is the right step for us at this time. Now we’re ready to move on."