While women’s participation in the synagogue service remains a controversial issue within the Orthodox movement, Rabbi Daniel Sperber says his writings on the subject have generally been greeted “respectfully.”
Sperber – professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University in Israel as well as prolific author, pulpit rabbi, and 1992 winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies – will speak in Teaneck later this month, advocating for greater involvement by women in communal worship.
An Orthodox rabbi, Sperber said he is trying to counter the “mistaken” idea that such participation is not halachic. That idea “is based on a lack of understanding, on a sociological situation that is no longer relevant,” he said.
|Rabbi Daniel Sperber|
The rabbi’s views are expanded in “Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives,” published recently by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. According to a JOFA spokesperson, the book includes not only Sperber’s position but also two essays opposing that view by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Prof. Eliav Shochetman, thus demonstrating “the dynamic nature of the halachic process.”
Longtime JOFA board member Pam Scheininger, a Teaneck resident and president of Netivot Shalom, said she had read Sperber’s article before receiving the JOFA publication. While “he makes a great deal of sense,” she said, “both arguments have merit and are laid out very well.”
Scheininger said she applauded JOFA for “striving to give an honest analysis” of the issue, “presenting both arguments to empower the readers to come to their own decisions. It tries to be intellectually honest,” she said, “and to get members to think through and learn through these issues and try to participate in a meaningful way.”
“Many congregations are struggling with these questions in their own community and are not sure whether to make a certain move in a certain direction,” said Sperber, adding that they are “very grateful” when he presents his position. Still, he said, he ensures that they make their own decisions, asking “whether they’re willing to take on themselves all the possible sociological implications,” such as criticism from local rabbis.
Scheininger agrees that the role of women is high on the agenda of Orthodox synagogues. Independent of the specific issue of women reading Torah, she said, “Most Modern Orthodox congregations are struggling with the issue of women’s participation, trying to find a level of partnership they’re comfortable with.”
“In each Modern Orthodox congregation, discussion is happening as to how best to meet the needs of the whole community as well as those of individual members,” she said.
“Rabbi Sperber is a tremendous Torah mind and I’m sure many people will come out to hear him.”
“I go where I am invited to speak,” said Sperber, noting that even those who do not accept his views tend to be “respectful of them.” He said he began publishing his views on this subject several years ago. “Since then, I have been ‘on the circuit,'” he joked.
He noted that several Orthodox synagogues in Israel, following the example of Jerusalem congregation Shira Hadasha, are already “semi-egalitarian,” adding that he believes such synagogues will become more numerous and more acceptable. His own congregation, Menachem Zion Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, is not likely to be one of them, he said.
Sperber said that not only was he aware of the recent controversy involving Rabbi Avi Weiss – who came under fire for dubbing a female rabbinic staff member “rabba,” replacing her previous title, “maharat” – but he had tried to discourage Weiss from taking that step.
“I was one of the signatories to her smicha, I tested her,” he said. Nevertheless, when discussions arose about changing her title, “I advised against it, suggesting that they take some time to let [the title] ‘maharat’ sink in.” He said the resulting flap reached Israel, “but not with the same degree of acrimony.”
“Here we hardly have women functioning in this position,” he said. “Certainly there is no official recognition.”
Sperber will speak about the JOFA book Friday evening, June 25, at the Davar Institute and on Shabbat morning, June 26, at Netivot Shalom. On late Shabbat afternoon, he will deliver a talk at Rinat Yisrael on not eating meat or drinking wine during the three weeks before Tisha b’Av.
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