This weekend (June 19-21) the Jerusalem synagogue and kehilla, Shira Hadasha, will be holding a conference to mark its Bar/Bat Mitzva – it will be 12-and-a-half years old.
The choice to celebrate this anniversary at a ‘gender-neutral’ juncture is, of course, deliberate, and reflects the founding ethos of the shul. When it was established in 2002 it was the first of what are now termed ‘Partnership Minyanim’, anywhere in the world. These are Orthodox congregations, acting on the teshuva (Rabbinic responsum) of Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, that, contrary to traditional Orthodox practice, it is permissible – within the framework of Halacha (Jewish law) – for women to read from the Torah and to receive aliyot to the Torah. (Those interested in the details can read his paper on the subject online and should also read Rabbi Daniel Sperber‘s even more specific sanction of this innovation.)
The majority of the Orthodox world has not endorsed Rabbis Shapiro and Sperber, but there are some within modern Orthodoxy who have concluded that it is, indeed, acceptable within the accepted definition of Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Benny Lau, one of Jerusalem’s most respected modern Orthodox Rabbis, recently declared that, while his own congregation would not choose to adopt these changes, if the members or attendees of a particular synagogue wished to, there would be no insurmountable halachic objection.
The sole reason given by the Sages for a woman not to be permitted to read from the Torah before a mixed congregation was that it would transgress the principle of kvod ha’tzibur – the ‘dignity of the congregation’. In other words, the men of the community would be humiliated or embarrassed by the implication that the women were more knowledgeable or religiously educated than they were. This is clearly a sociological concern, reflecting the prevailing mores of the time, not a sanction rooted in Torah. No man in the modern world could claim that his dignity was affronted by the idea of an educated and knowledgeable woman. None of us think twice when we hear a woman give a lecture, or meet a female doctor or lawyer.
The significance of the success of Shira Hadasha and other Partnership Minyanim is that these are communities that are both deeply serious about the tradition, and willing to ask moral questions of it. The founders of Shira Hadasha and the many accomplished religious scholars that sit on its ‘Halacha committee’ are looking for ways to meet the spiritual needs of Orthodox Jews living in the 21st century, troubled when their tradition does not appear to meet the moral standards of their secular world; or indeed when the Halacha appears to conflict with the moral imperative inherent in the Torah – that all human beings are created in the image of God and are therefore deserving of equal rights.
For me, Shira Hadasha is the shul where serious and spiritually uplifting tefilla meets a philosophy of openness and machloket l’shem shamayim – literally: argument, or debate, for the sake of heaven, often challenging an established position in order that it better reflect God’s intention. I love that it is a religious home-away-from-home for countless Rabbis and scholars from abroad – Orthodox as well as Conservative and Reform.
When my daughter was born, my wife and I both received an aliya to the Torah, to name her and welcome her into the community. We stood at the bimah, on either side of the mechitza that separates the men’s and the women’s sections. When my daughter is Bat Mitzva, she will have the opportunity to read from the Torah, just as boys in the community do at their Bar Mitzva..
Religion worldwide – and certainly Judaism in Israel – is crying out for non-fundamentalist, religiously learned but critical voices. Shira Hadasha not only inspires, and provides a platform for, such voices, but has brought them together in a new song.