A long-standing, positive feature of Anglo-Jewry is the visible demarcation – the clear blue water – between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy.
In the UK, people know where they stand. The United, Federation, Adass, Sephardi and Provincial Hebrew congregations are Orthodox. Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Masorti are not. While there are differences among the congregations of both categories, they are not fundamental or prohibitive.
The distinction between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is crucial for shechita and kashrut. It’s crucial in determining halachic status for marriage, divorce and conversion. And ascertaining the Orthodox status of a shul and its rabbi.
Of all the Orthodox congregations, the United Synagogue (US) is the most inclusive. Its approach has always been to welcome as members all who are halachically Jewish, regardless of individual belief or observance.
Every now and again, erosions occur within its ranks. Mischievous little factions, usually from the membership, but occasionally spurred on by a minority of misguided ministers, try to stretch the religious boundaries. Their antics would draw the US leftwards to a point that could end blur the clear blue water and jeopardise its Orthodox status. It is for the right-minded clergy – in particular the London Beth Din and the Chief Rabbi – to accord zero-tolerance to these activists.
The erosions generally relate to the role of women in the shul and this issue has been the chink in the US’ armour. Outside the shul, the matter of inter-gender relationships is a social phenomenon that can be argued and contained.
Inside, it poses a major threat. Kashrut, brit milah, Shabbat, festivals and Torah study – being essentially spiritual – sit comfortably with all shades of Orthodoxy. Feminism does not, and never will.
The latest feminist ploy in the US is being cunningly packaged in the guise of “partnership minyanim”, where women are involved in running the service, giving sermons, maybe reading Torah portions, and who knows what else? These are activities where women have never in Orthodox tradition been actively involved. It is pushing halachic boundaries to potential breaking point.
I am convinced the overwhelming majority of women within the US are content with their position in Judaism. They have no desire to lead services, carry a Torah scroll, or wear tzitzit and tefillin, any more than their husbands have the urge to bake challot, light Shabbat candles or have babies.
Thoughtful Jewish women recognise their role is on a par with men, but with different responsibilities. Both the home and the synagogue are the fortresses of Jewish life – and remember, it is the mother who determines the child’s Jewish status.
If the partnership campaigners really can’t bear the idea of women sitting behind a mechitza or in the shul gallery, participating at services passively and modestly, it would be tempting to say they should push off and join Reform, where women can preach and sing to their heart’s content. But that would not be a religiously appropriate response.
So I would suggest they ask themselves if they really want to support and strengthen the US as a mainstream Orthodox entity. Or are they out to subvert it for their own political ends?
If they answer honestly, they may just find themselves reverting to the soundest partnership of all.
With the truth.