Thursday, July 23, 2009

How to make Orthodox shuls more welcoming to women

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a really prominent national religious rabbi in Israel, has put together a halachic document meant to spark off a rabbinic discussion about how to make synagogues more welcoming for women. (Link is to Hebrew story.)

Among his suggestions:

● Women should be partners in the running of the shul. He doesn't impose limits of this - please note United Synagogue, where women still cannot chair synagogues.

● The Torah Scroll should be passed to the women's section and on Simchat Torah, women should be encouraged (note - not "allowed" - "encouraged") to dance with it.

● Under certain conditions, women can read the Torah for other women

● Women can say kaddish in shul provided a man is also saying kaddish in the men's section

And much more.

Predictably, the comment section on YNet is already full of accusations that Rabbi Cherlow is a "Reformist". Of course he is no such thing - he is a highly respected and very frum head of a hesder yeshivah in Petach Tikvah.

In addition, almost every one of his suggestions simply reflect the day-to-day goings on in many Orthodox synagogues (not Charedi) both in Israel and in North America. His document, therefore, is not even that revolutionary - except in the sense that it is an admirable attempt by the rabbis to deal with issues in an organised, sensible and sensitive way, instead of the usual ad hoc, defensive manner.

Together with the recent Kolech conference, in which thousands of Orthodox women voted on the title to be given to women rabbis, it also clearly shows that the question of women's public role in Orthodoxy still has a way to run, and that - contrary to what they would have us believe - the momentum is not all with the conservative forces.

And what about in the UK? Here, a report detailing "inconsistent and anachronistic” attitudes over women’s participation in Orthodox synagogues, and the women's frustration, released last month, was greeted with a big collective yawn. It is hard to imagine that any of Rabbi Cherlow's ideas - non-revolutionary as they are in Israel and the US - will be implemented here for a very, very long time.

One of the differences is that our synagogues are run in a top-down manner, centrally controlled by the United Synagogue, while in Israel and the US, rabbis (even if they belong to an organisation such as the Orthodox Union) do not answer to anyone in the same way.

Our rabbis, therefore, are constrained in the decisions they can make and the practises they can introduce to their synagogues, and even the ideas they can float - while their counterparts overseas can be far more imaginative and daring.

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