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.