Rabbinic Autonomy and Institutional Maturity

Rabbi Chaim Kanterovitz of Borehamwood Synagogue was reportedly prepared to allow women in his community to read from a Sefer Torah in women–only groups on Simchat Torah. The Chief Rabbi has issued a brief statement reported in the JC of Friday 5th December explaining why he would not permit this to go ahead.

Once again – the most recent incident being the interference of the London Beth Din to prevent women at Golders Green Synagogue carrying a Sefer Torah with no objection to that interference from the Chief Rabbi – local rabbinic authority has been undermined. It troubles me greatly. The issue of women reading from the Torah for other women has been discussed and analysed in contemporary halakhic literature by, among others, Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer in a 1998 article in the American Orthodox journal Tradition and by Rabbi Avi Weiss in his book Women at Prayer.  There are arguments on both sides of the issue and there are nuances involved, but the proposed course of action at Borehamwood was far from revolutionary in the global Modern Orthodox community and it was endorsed by the Borehamwood community’s rabbi who is a talmid chacham.

If rabbis are not permitted to rule on such issues in their own synagogues, we risk – as I have said in previous such instances – the infantilisation of the United Synagogue rabbinate. The situation is not helped by well-meaning lay leaders who do not support their local rabbi but submit meekly to the dictates of the central religious authorities, seemingly unaware that while the concept of the local rabbi as mara d’atra, halakhic leader of his domain, is well-rooted in our tradition, a formalised hierarchical rabbinic structure is not. Given that a hierarchical structure exists in the United Synagogue, it is legitimate for the freedom of an individual rabbi or community to be curtailed in limited instances. But in a healthy situation, limits will be imposed as sparingly as possible in order to treat rabbis as rabbis whose job it is to guide their communities on halakhic matters. Certainly, it is deeply troubling when a rabbi’s freedom is curtailed regarding a practice which is not novel within global Modern Orthodoxy and on which there is a nuanced and detailed debate in the literature regarding which a rabbi is entitled to form an opinion.

The Chief Rabbi’s brief statement refers to “halachic lines” which would be crossed if women read for other women from a Sefer Torah. The Chief Rabbi, as always, acts with the best of intentions, but his words here give a hostage to fortune. The community was told for years that there were halachic lines which could not be crossed regarding women as members of synagogue Boards of Management, regarding women as synagogue Honorary Officers, regarding women as synagogue Chairs and regarding women as United Synagogue Trustees. In each instance, when sufficient communal pressure accrued, these supposed halachic red lines were crossed. How much better it would be if instead of conceding legitimate demands in a piecemeal and reluctant fashion when lay communal pressure becomes sufficiently intense, the central religious authorities of the United Synagogue had a principled vision and strategy regarding the absolutely crucial issue of the involvement of women in religious and communal life and acted accordingly.

There will be little protest at the overruling of Rabbi Kanterovitz given the haredi orientation of the London Beth Din and much of the rabbinate. But the momentum towards greater empowerment of women in our religious and communal life is unstoppable. That is the good news. The bad news is that US members who would like to see principled movement and development in this area will likely have to go outside the United Synagogue to find it.  That is very sad. Only when our central religious authorities develop the institutional maturity and self-confidence to allow rabbis a respectable measure of autonomy in leading their communities will both local communities and the US itself be strengthened.

Healthy Debate or Unhealthy Interference?

Only yesterday, Thursday 10th April, the United Synagogue’s “You and US” email bulletin featured an article by the Co-Chairs of US Women entitled “US Women: Playing a Proud Part in a Healthy Debate”. The authors, Leonie Lewis and Dalia Cramer, praised the rabbinate, the Chief Rabbi “and his Beth Din who have continually shown themselves to be committed to encouraging women to play the fullest possible role in all aspects of community life”. Unfortunately, many of the practices which the authors cite as evidence for the Beth Din’s commitment to enhancing the role of women were in fact initially resisted and sometimes fiercely opposed by the Beth Din.

Leonie Lewis and Dalia Cramer go on to note that “news headlines often tell a stark, black and white, story”. Ironically, the front of today’s Jewish Chronicle tells a story which is not black and white but is certainly disturbing. It is well-known in London that Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski, rabbi of the Golders Green United Synagogue, a fairly short distance from Hampstead Synagogue which I serve as rabbi, began the practice in his Shul several months ago of having women carry the Sefer Torah round the women’s section before the reading of the Torah.  It has been no secret for many weeks that he has come under pressure from the London Beth Din to discontinue the practice, and as much was acknowledged by a spokesman for the Beth Din in today’s JC. 

Rabbi Belovski and his lay leaders have now decided to abandon the practice and Rabbi Belovski notes in the JC report that his community is divided over the practice. I would not attempt to second-guess Rabbi Belovski and his lay colleagues in deciding what is appropriate for their community.

But three things about this affair trouble me very much.

First, where is the healthy debate that the Co-Chairs of US Women trumpeted only yesterday? Instead, in this instance there has been behind-the-scenes interference and pressure from the Beth Din.

Second and more importantly, there is the issue of local rabbinic autonomy, an issue I have raised repeatedly in UK rabbinic meetings over many years and which others raised long before me. The practice introduced by Rabbi Belovski in his Shul is a very moderate and halakhically defensible one. Many Orthodox Shuls in Israel and North America have adopted it or would not bat an eyelid at it. If there is no place in the United Synagogue for meaningful local rabbinic autonomy, we diminish and indeed infantilise the rabbinate. It is an issue I have encountered for twenty years, since I first attended Limmud Conference in the face of private and public pressure from the Beth Din not to do so. It is utterly depressing that this battle still has to be fought.

Third, and of equal significance, this episode is a case of a local United Synagogue being pressurised by a haredi Beth Din to abandon a practice widely accepted in the Modern Orthodox world.  It sometimes seems – another battle that appears to need fighting again and again – that US rabbis are permitted to pursue Modern Orthodoxy only as far as a haredi Beth Din will allow them.

 

 

On The Limmud Controversy

As many have pointed out in recent weeks, public controversy is often damaging and unhelpful. However, all the rabbinic voices in the ongoing public controversy over Limmud have opposed Limmud and Orthodox participation in it. It is surely reasonable for an Orthodox rabbi who thinks differently to speak out honestly and openly.

I first attended Limmud in 1994 and have since been to almost every national Conference as well as many day Conferences. It is a wonderful event which I always find uplifting, blessed by the incredible energy, enthusiasm and ability of a host of volunteers, many of them young and already showing great commitment to the Jewish community.

Sessions at Limmud reflect the variety of perspectives that exist in the contemporary Jewish world. Limmud has for nearly two decades now had Orthodox opponents as well as supporters, and I accept that one can make a case against Orthodox participation in Limmud, although there is in my view a far stronger argument to be made in favour of Orthodox and Orthodox rabbinic participation. Machloket leshem shamayim should be possible here.

But I struggle to understand why the gilui da’as of the seven rabbis – two of whom I know personally and admire – which initiated the latest sad series of events was written in such a way as to undermine the possibility of such machloket. I struggle to understand how rabbonim, however senior and respected, can claim to know the mind of HaShem concerning Limmud – a claim that could legitimately be made only by a prophet. I struggle to understand why they told dedicated young volunteers, many of them from our own Orthodox communities, who put so much dedication and commitment into Limmud out of the best possible motives of love for the Jewish people, that G-d does not approve of their path.  I struggle to understand the purpose of calling non-Orthodox Judaism “pseudo-Judaism”, language which only serves to drive many people further away from our tradition.  I struggle to understand a simplistic Manichean view of the world in which haredi Orthodoxy is the sole, direct and simple continuation of Torah miSinai and every other contemporary form of Judaism is deluded. The signatories of the gilui da’as included rabbis who deliberately live lives totally secluded from the mainstream British Jewish community. One doubts whether they understand that community, let alone Limmud.

The Jewish Tribune on Friday carried a statement from the Adas Bet Din denouncing Orthodox rabbinic participation in Limmud and, en passant, criticising Shuls which (like my own) encourage women to dance with a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah, as well as Shuls which allow the taking of the Sefer Torah into the ezrat nashim  for women to kiss. The irony is unbearable. Not satisfied with jumping on the anti-Limmud bandwagon, the Adas Bet Din tells us how to conduct our Shuls on issues affecting women, the very area where their failure over the Halpern affair has been so egregious.

The gilui da’as sparked an angry response from a group of lay leaders. It was, probably rightly, pointed out that some of them were not qualified to enter into theological debate. However, the lay leaders doubtless would have preferred to leave the response to the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate – but rightly surmised that, sadly, no critical response of any sort would be forthcoming.

A few days ago, Rabbi Kimche circulated his article. An excellent response has been made by Samuel Lebens at https://www.facebook.com/notes/sam-lebens/open-letter-to-rabbi-kimche/10151663623421901. Two additional points can be made. First, Rabbi Kimche is correct that a number of sessions at Limmud express viewpoints opposed to Orthodox ones. They may even have increased in number and in how radical they are. But if they have, that is because Orthodox rabbis and teachers have failed to attend Limmud in sufficient numbers and promote an Orthodox voice.  Orthodox rabbis need to be at Limmud in larger numbers, not fewer. Secondly, one is tempted to respond to Rabbi Kimche: if you have problems with Limmud, why not set up an alternative Orthodox event? That of course happened a number of years ago – the Encounter Conference, an interesting omission from Rabbi Kimche’s article. Encounter distinguished itself by attempting to deligitimise Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. It then disinvited Chief Rabbi Sacks to Manchester Encounter, hurriedly U-turning when some key funders threatened to pull out. Finally, the coalition of groups which put Encounter together fell out among themselves, and Encounter ceased to exist. What began because of delegitimisation of Limmud ended, compelled by its own bizarre inner logic, in effectively delegitimising itself.

It is hard to escape the feeling that we in the Orthodox rabbinate have let our community down in recent weeks, and frankly it is hard not to feel shame and distress at what has occurred. I look forward to learning and teaching at this year’s Limmud; it is one of British Jewry’s greatest ever achievements and it is a privilege to be a part of it.