Sunday, March 06, 2005

Women's Aliyot -- come soon to a synagogue near you?

Biur Chametz reports from a recent meeting at the Orthodox Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem, in which congregants discussed the practice of giving women Aliyot to the Torah, as already happens at Shira Chadasha down the road, with a view to perhaps adopting it.
Both speakers, R. Prof. Daniel Sperber and R. Yehuda Henkin, agreed that giving women Aliyot was, in theory, permissable. Where they disagreed, however, was whether this was a good idea in practice. As R. Henkin has previously written:
Regardless of the arguments that can be proffered to permit women's aliyyot today... women's aliyyot remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in
practice. In my judgement, this is an accurate statement now and for the foreseeable future, and I see no point in arguing about it.
This puts the congregation in something of a catch-22. They can't give women aliyot because it's outside the consensus. It won't become part of the consensus, however, as long as no one does it.
The answer, of course, is for congregations who are interested in giving women aliyot to simply go ahead and do so. According to R. Henkin, they are not breaking halacha, merely breaking a sociological code. By doing so, however, they will be setting 'facts on the ground' and helping change that sociological code -- just as the first women to hold megillah readings changed a consensus, and the first women to study Talmud changed a consensus, etc.
This is best explained by Tamar Ross in her new(ish) book Expanding the Palace of Torah, in which she explicitely brings the Henkin/Shapiro/women's Aliyot example -- p. 179:
If several individuals share Shapiro's interpretation of the sources and are willing to act upon it privately, and if this practice become intelligible to the wider halackhic community, quite possibly the practice will eventually be accepted, at the very least, as a tolerable variation of the mainstream view. Such a view of halakhic development conforms completely with the optimistic belief of R. Kook that if the urge for a particular halakhic innovation becomes widespread, no doubt the additional necessary factors for its acceptance (a genuinely conceived interpretation and institutional approval) will be forthcoming. This comes alongside his warning against wholesale adoption of the innovation before the rest of the community is ready for it. Until that time, nothing is to stop individuals from privately assuming such standards for themselves, though imposing them on the public at large could only cause harm.
Ross, of course, is not advocating exactly what I did above; When she says 'privately,' she is keeping in line with R. Henkin's ultimate ruling that women can receive "an occasional aliya'... in a private minyan of men held on Shabbat in a home and not in a synagogue." I, however, don't see why an entire congregation which shares Shapiro's interpretation of the sources and is willing to act upon it, but happens to be situated in a synagogue, is much different. Either women receiving aliyot is halachic or it's not. Telling people that if they go ahead in a synagogue (but not in a private home...) they will fall outside the consensus is perhaps a warning of the sociological consequences -- but not halachic advice.
In any case, to my mind, changing the halachic landscape through 'self-determination' is not an adequate/systematic solution to the question of women and Orthodoxy, because it is simply too slow; change on this basis will take generations. At the moment, however, in many cases it's all we have, and much better than nothing. Biur, please keep us updated on events at Kehillat Yedidya!

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