This Simchat Torah my nine-year-old daughter asked me why only the men were allowed to dance with the Torah scroll whilst the women just watched at our Modern-Orthodox synagogue. Similarly, on the requisite visit to the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall, on Friday nights my Birthright participants routinely question the minuscule size of the women’s section and the passive behavior of the women.
Indeed, the women attendees have absolutely no public role whatsoever in the Orthodox service. The whole spectacle is viewed as if one is at a play or at the opera, that is – passively. The women can watch as men receive honours and lead the service and read from the Torah. Women in most Orthodox Batei Knesset are not even allowed to deliver a D’var Torah (even if the women have a PhD in Talmud), or open the Holy Ark, which is a non-vocal honour. One rarely finds women in lay leadership roles even in the “Modern”-Orthodox world. There seems to be a dissonance between Modern-Orthodoxy’s claims of inclusion and its actual practices and attitudes.
This is clearly at variance with the rise of the professional woman in the Modern-Orthodox world. Women are now astronauts, doctors, lawyers, Talmud Scholars, Poskei Nidah, even Israeli Supreme Court Presidents and Prime Ministers, but once they set foot inside an Orthodox synagogue there is no active role for them to fill.
One increasingly popular Modern-Orthodox alternative that started in Israel in the past decade, inspired by the teachings of world-renowned Talmud scholar at Bar-Ilan University and Israel Prize recipient, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, is the phenomenon of the “halachic egalitarian minyan” such as the Shira Chadasha model in Jerusalem and the Darchei Noam model in Modiin, which has spread slowly to other locations in Israel and around the world.
The philosophy behind this type of institution is an attempt to create a religious community that embraces a commitment to halacha, prayer and feminism in response to the growing need of many Modern-Orthodox women and men to readdress the role of women in the synagogue. The mission statement of Shira Chadasha states that the community, “embraces as a religious value the inclusion of both men and women in leadership and ritual participation within the framework of halacha.” I truly believe there is a generation of young Modern-Orthodox Jews who see this as the way of the future.