An Upper West Side congregation, Orthodox in practice, could become the first established synagogue of its kind in the country to allow women to read from and bless the Torah, in a service with men, based on a controversial new interpretation of Jewish law gaining momentum in the observant world.
The possible groundbreaking change at Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE) is based on a halachic opinion written by Jerusalem Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, who argues that traditional barriers to women’s synagogue Torah reading in the presence of men may no longer be relevant.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” Rabbi Shapiro told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from his office in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood, where he works as an attorney and not a practicing rabbi.
“Women, including Orthodox women, are pretty much integrated into our social and cultural and professional lives. If it’s halachically permissible for women to participate in kriat haTorah [reading the Torah], it’s only natural that they do it.”
The issue will take center stage at the upcoming three-day Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference, which opens Saturday night and runs through Monday in Manhattan.
“It is a historic document,” said Blu Greenberg, JOFA’s president. “Seeing the impact it’s had in several different communities confirms that feeling. It has tremendous possibilities for being accepted in some Orthodox communities where there is openness.”
JOFA leaders, who expect some 1,000 people to attend this conference as they have the group’s three previous major conferences, have put it on the agenda in several places, including two plenary presentations, a workshop led by Rabbi Shapiro, and another in which leading Orthodox rabbis will debate the implications of women sharing the bima with men.
KOE’s 250 members are sharply divided over the possible policy change. Even the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, has made it clear that he does not favor a change, congregants said. But he has indicated that it is permitted within certain guidelines he recently spelled out.
The mixed Torah reading would take place “once a month in a second room,” the rabbi said. He added he disagrees with Rabbi Shapiro’s conclusions but would tolerate the mixed reading because “if it is going to happen, it is better to be done under these auspices,” in a halachic environment.
Mainstream Orthodoxy calls for the separation of the sexes during religious services, which are led only by men.
It’s an ironic development for Rabbi HaLivni, a well-known Talmudic scholar who broke with the Conservative movement over its ordination of women as rabbis.
The matter will come up for a congregational vote within the next two months, said synagogue co-president Debra Kaplan.
The 10-year-old congregation is not officially affiliated with the Orthodox movement but describes itself as halachic, or adhering to traditional interpretations of Jewish law. It meets each Shabbat in the multi-purpose room of a youth hostel on 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
Some members say they may leave the congregation if the vote doesn’t go their way.
One is Jonathan Passner, a biophysics researcher, who says that “the process of deciding has been too fast and it’s too soon. Ultimately mixed kriah (Torah reading) in the halachic community may take place, or may become standard, but there has not been that much dialogue on the issue in the general halachic community.
“At this point in time, the shul would be writing itself out of the halachic community by implementing mixed Torah readings,” he said.
Michael Kellner, another KOE member, supports the policy. “We are in favor of allowing the most number of viewpoints to coexist,” he said, and in favor of “pushing for the maximum involvement of women within a halachic framework.
“As my feminist sensibility has developed, it’s been largely related to fair treatment. I don’t feel left out or like a spectator” during the Torah reading, said the Internet program producer for a cable television show. “Looking at the service and seeing the imbalance, I can appreciate that anywhere it’s permissible to minimize the inequity is something I’m in favor of.”
The central argument made by Rabbi Shapiro is that kavod hatzibur, or the dignity of the community, should be viewed differently today than in the past. Historically, the concept has been interpreted to mean that enough men should be able to fulfill the obligation to read from Torah that they need not rely on women, who had lower status.
Because women are educated and work in near-parity with men, in both secular and some religious Jewish settings, it would not undermine the dignity of parts of the Orthodox community to have women reading from Torah, Rabbi Shapiro concludes in his 52-page analysis of the relevant Jewish writings and traditions.
Though he wrote the paper three years ago, after researching the issue in advance of his youngest daughter’s bat mitzvah, it was made accessible to the public only last year, through the Web site of the Modern Orthodox group, Edah.
Since then, his position has been eagerly taken up by several communities that describe themselves as halachic and now allow women, as well as men, to read from and bless the sacred scroll.
A handful of congregations, in Jerusalem and Manhattan, have adopted Rabbi Shapiro’s conclusion as their policy. Two new ones — Darkhei Noam on the Upper West Side and Jerusalem’s Shira Chadasha — were founded at least in part on the basis of his paper.
Another Jerusalem community, which is over a decade old and known as the Leader Minyan, adopted it and now offers aliyot and Torah readings to women as well as men. The change was made, says founder Avraham Leader on the synagogue’s Web site, as “a result of organic demand.”
They join Orthodox minyans at Harvard and Columbia Universities’ Hillels, at which women lead the Friday-night Kabbalat Shabbat service, in related developments that are not directly linked to Rabbi Shapiro’s paper. At dozens of other Orthodox synagogues nationwide, women currently have monthly female-only prayer services, some of which include Torah reading.
At KOE, Rabbi Weiss Halivni told his congregants that a mixed-gender Torah service could take place if it is only an occasional event, and even then take place as a secondary reading, while the primary one goes on in the main sanctuary; that the mechitza separating the sexes be extended all the way up to the bima; and that only women read from the Torah when another woman is called up for an aliyah, and that only men read when a man has the aliyah, to prevent the sexes from mingling.
Rabbi Shapiro himself says that mixed-gender Torah readings are not appropriate for every Orthodox community. “I’m not directing anyone to what they should be doing, just offering” them an alternative, he said. “I believe that halachically, kavod hatzibur can be waived. If a particular community doesn’t want to, then that’s legitimate. I’m not trying to change standard Orthodox practice.”
In fact, he held his daughter’s bat mitzvah, at which she blessed and read from the Torah, in his in-law’s home because he was aware that trying to hold it in a synagogue would be viewed as provocative. “It would just stir up controversy, which I’m not interested in,” said the 53-year-old lawyer, who was raised in Borough Park, ordained at Yeshiva University and moved to Israel in 1983.
Rebuffed when he tried to get his halachic analysis published in Tradition, a widely read centrist Orthodox journal, Rabbi Shapiro found that once the paper was published last year on Edah’s Web site, it began to create a buzz almost immediately.
Rabbi Shapiro’s position validates Blu Greenberg’s oft-quoted phrase, “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.”
“That may not be his perception of it, but all of the things going on now are a response to a new impulse toward greater dignity for women,” she said.
The paper’s position “is a powerful statement about the redefinition of women’s role, status and presence in the community,” Greenberg said. She cited developments over the last two decades — including women’s high-level Torah study and certification as toanot, representatives accompanying women to their religious court divorce hearings — as evidence of this “redefinition.”
Rabbi Shapiro’s position, which is likely to gain even more devotees after they learn about it at the JOFA conference and take it back to their communities, is the latest illustration of that shift, she said. “The honor of the community is not any more about keeping women under wraps,” she said. There has been “a transformation from private to public.”
But Greenberg expects it to take hold as a permanent facet of Orthodox religious life.
“Like all things that are new, there will be considerable resistance to it” as awareness of the position grows, she said. “It’s going to take time to filter into little pockets of the community. It’s going to be interesting to watch and see where it goes in the next decade or two.”