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.