ANOTHER ‘FIRST’ FOR THE MONTEFIORE ENDOWMENT
History was made in London on 14th June when three leading exponents of diametrically opposed interpretations of the halacha on the role of women in religious life debated with each other at a public meeting chaired by Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, Hon. Principal of the Judith Lady Montefiore College. The event attracted a great deal of attention and was so heavily pre-booked that many were unable to gain admission because of the limited capacity of the hall. It was hailed in America as a ‘miracle’ to have persuaded the three speakers to share the same platform.
One of the Montefiore Endowment’s principal aims is, in the words of its founder, to ‘promote the advanced study of the Torah as revealed on Sinai and expounded by the revered sages of the Mishna and Talmud’. This public meeting, following a similar one on Brain Death last year, was designed to shed the light of Torah on a topic of crucial contemporary interest to many, despite the controversy that balloons around it. The Endowment’s interest is simply that of encouraging learned and respectful discussion of differing halachic viewpoints, even though they may conflict. There is no intention of taking sides or endorsing any particular opinion.
This event featured a learned debate between three highly respected speakers – Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig (Rosh Yeshivah of RIETS, Yeshivah University), Rabbanit Chana Henkin Founder and Dean of Nishmat, Advanced Torah Study for Women) and Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber (President of the Institute of Advanced Torah Studies, Bar Ilan University. The speakers themselves decided the order of their contributions.
After an introduction by Rabbi Levy, Rabbi Rosensweig opened the debate with a stout defence of the status quo regarding the role of women. He made clear his view that Jewish Law regards rabbinic leadership as a male prerogative and that suggested innovations such as partnership minyanim and the ordination of female rabbis are neither legal nor desirable in that a large consensus of Torah scholars regard them as ‘problematic’. On the other hand, Rabbi Rosensweig was in favour of increased Torah study for women and suggested, as did Rabbanit Henkin later, that there was ample scope for women to develop roles in the synagogue without causing unnecessary offense to those more traditionally minded.
Rabbi Sperber, who followed, advocated partnership minyamin and the ordination of women, saying that they ‘enhance the spiritual life of Judaism’. His belief is that such practices, though now on the fringe of acceptability, would become better understood as time goes on and that criticism will eventually diminish. In a later comment to Rabbanit Henkin’s call for a more gradualist approach, he pointed out that had suffragettes not chained themselves to the railings, women might still not have had the vote in this country. He did not expand further on this theme, saying that his writings are already well known; but added that there are parts of the service that do not require a minyan and which a woman can lead ‘as a sort of conductor keeping time’. He was in favour of women being called to the reading of the Torah and approved of women serving as rabbis.
In her contribution Rabbanit Henkin adopted a more gradualist approach and preferred first to see innovation in areas that pose no halachic problems. Her own Nishmat programme produces Yoatzot Halacha, who may be consulted on female issues, including health, which a woman might hesitate to bring to a male rabbi. She also suggested for example that women could give Divrei Torah in synagogue either during or after the service and could concentrate on making the womens’ section more meaningful and holy. She worried very much about changes that ‘tear us apart’ and thought that partnership minyamin and ordination for women create too many problems and are a mistake. In general, the Rabbanit made it clear that she was not comfortable with awarding titles or functions to women that cause controversy and ill-feeling for in practice they are counter-productive. She much preferred understatement and the giving of time to allow history take its course.