(The following is a message I wrote to my congregation and was also printed in the most recent newsletter of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC).)
Recently several Orthodox congregations that have embraced wider roles for women within their synagogues have been in the news and the subject of much internet banter. Two come to mind. First, “partnership minyanim,” in which women lead sections of the prayer service on behalf of the entire congregation—sections that one is not halakhically obligated to say. Thus, it is argued that women may lead these sections. And in Riverdale, New York, a woman was recently granted the title Rabbah, feminine for rabbi. The argument put forth by supporters is that much that a rabbi does, such as teaching and counseling, may be done by a woman, according to Jewish law; of course, those tasks that may not be done by a woman would not be performed by such a female Orthodox rabbi. Therefore, the argument goes, we should give women a voice within Jewish leadership, in this way.
Where does Bais Abraham, perhaps one of the most diverse and embracing Orthodox synagogues, stand on these issues? In approaching such decisions we must realize we stand on the shoulders of giants. One such giant is my predecessor and rabbi of Bais Abraham for over 40 years, Rabbi Abraham Magence, Zt”l. He taught us the beauty of every person, Jew or non-Jew. He taught us to make enough room for people to become as fully inspired as they can, to embrace everyone, no matter their level of observance, and to recognize the image of God in each person. When asked if women could hold their own service, one practiced within the bounds of halacha, omitting sections that require a minyan of men, he replied, “Why not?” I think what Rabbi Magence meant by this was that if the law does not forbid it and women will be inspired, who are we to forbid it? As the Talmud says, “Just because it has not been done before does not necessarily render it forbidden” (Mishna Ediyot 2:2).
Certainly much does change in Jewish custom and law. For instance, 75 years ago, a rabbi who gave a sermon in English instead of Yiddish would have been widely criticized, whereas today it is the convention. In the past, Orthodox girls did not publicly celebrate becoming a Bat Mitzvah, yet today it is quite common in the Orthodox world. In the past, women often ignored the Code of Jewish Law’s proscription for them to pray daily and say Grace after Meals with a quorum of three women, where as today these holy actions are commonly practiced.
On the other hand, I would call for some caution. We must be careful not to implement change without proper forethought as to how things should change. Orthodoxy believes that though we are all made in the image of God, no matter our gender or religion, this does not mean we are all the same. Men and women have unique voices and to ignore each gender’s distinctive vision and potential contributions would be a loss for Judaism.
While Bais Abraham embraces change that can lead to a more profound and passionate observance of commandments and study of Torah, we are wary to not lose the strengths of Jewish tradition in the process. May we merit navigating the waters of change with deep respect for our Divine tradition and the consideration of congregational dignity, along with respect for personal strengths and diversity. We are, and I’m sure will remain, an open, inspiring, loving, and diverse Bais Abe family.