A Look at Partnership Services
Please scroll to the bottom of this article for an endorsement by the RCUS
services have existed in some places in Israel and the United States for a
while, but have only recently appeared in the UK. They offer orthodox liturgy and traditional
seating – genders are separated by a partition – but differ in that women, as
well as men, lead parts of the prayers and read from the Torah.
and implementing halakhically-viable alterations to existing practice demands
courage. The orthodox world is innately
change-averse, although innovation and creativity are possible within certain
boundaries. Yet since observance is
defined and regulated by Jewish law, substantive modifications are only
possible if they withstand halakhic scrutiny and conform to meta-halakhic (guiding
philosophical) principles: supported by broad consensus among acknowledged
halakhic authorities for the originator's credentials and methodology, as well
as positive peer-review of his or her arguments.
a halakhic perspective, a ‘partnership’ service includes several distinct
practice-modifications, each of which deserves separate evaluation. This is unrealistic in a short article, so I
will focus only on the central and emblematic issues – women reading from the
Torah on behalf of a mixed gathering and receiving aliyyot - being called to
the Torah to make a blessing.
validity for this innovation is claimed by the prominent expert in Jewish
practice and Bar Ilan talmud professor, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, lately chancellor
of a non-affiliated Canadian rabbinical school.
Although a few authors have written in support of Sperber, none shares
his reputation and none has offered a significant alternative argument.
essence of Sperber's reasoning follows.
Some early sources (notably a view in the Talmud with RaN's 14th-century
gloss) opine that women may be counted among the seven called to the Torah on
Shabbat. Although this is cited in the
16th-century Shulhan Arukh, it is not known to have been practised; indeed, in
the same talmudic passage, the anonymous 'sages' disallow the practice because
of ‘dignity of the community'. Sperber
acknowledges that this has defined normative conduct from time immemorial. Yet he notes that today, women study Torah to
a high level and are as involved as men in many areas of religious and public
life. Applying 'dignity of the community' to exclude women from aliyyot causes
considerable distress, and, as such, can be overridden by the demands of 'human
dignity', something highly prized by Jewish law.
pastorally, Sperber's argument is appealing, it is halakhically flawed. An exhaustive and widely-cited critique of
Sperber was published in 2013 by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer. Among their comprehensive technical
rebuttals, the authors discuss Sperber's confusion of aliyyot with the Torah
reading itself and his misappropriation of the notion of 'human dignity.’ Sperber's approach also evinces methodological
irregularities. Halakhah works on a
system of antecedents - rulings built on an existing corpus of law and rules
for its application. As with all legal
systems, it includes a wide range of views: some have been incorporated into
the body of law; others, for whatever reason, have been excluded from it by the
halakhic process. One cannot simply
disregard centuries of process and re-integrate marginalised opinions as the
basis for practical innovation. This
equates to claiming that a long-disused judgement in 15th-century English
property law could be validated as the basis for contemporary practice. Yet this is precisely what Sperber does. In fact, his approach suggests the untenable
stance that any action not explicitly proscribed by halakhic sources is
permitted. Such claims undermine the
very system within which Sperber purports to operate.
Halakhah is a complex, multi-chromatic system, so doubtless
both Sperber and his detractors could muster additional arguments for their
respective positions. However, this is
effectively irrelevant, given the total lack of support for women's aliyyot in
a mixed service from significant halakhic authorities of any stripe. In fact, there is a rare consensus within the
orthodox rabbinate against this innovation.
In the USA, the senior halakhic authorities of Yeshiva University
categorically dismiss its credibility. Speaking
to his rabbinate (February 2014, re-iterated February 2015), Chief Rabbi
Ephraim Mirvis cited the Frimers' analysis in his unequivocal rejection of the
halakhic validity of 'partnership' services.
In Israel, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl
Henkin, a leading halakhist known for his sensitive and creative approach to
contemporary women's issues, offers the most damning repudiation: 'women's aliyyot
remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not
Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice.' As such, the practice lies beyond the parameters
of halakhah, its implementation a new denominational reality; similar reasoning
applies to women’s Torah reading in a mixed gathering.
For many, this will be a disappointing outcome and I remain acutely aware of the sense of disempowerment and frustration that some feel at the male-oriented leadership roles in orthodox services. Notwithstanding these sensitivities, the cloak of authenticity provided by Professor Sperber's reputation and undeniable good intentions can only impede the genuine collaborative partnership required to generate halakhically-credible alternatives. In a recent interview for the JC, Chief Rabbi Mirvis advocated developing Shul-based women’s prayer groups, something I consider a positive step, while acknowledging the need for other strategies. But however we address this challenge, it is among the issues that will define the future of centrist orthodoxy.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle
SourcesTalmud Bavli Megillah 23a
תנו רבנן: הכל עולין למנין שבעה, ואפילו קטן ואפילו אשה
אבל אמרו חכמים: אשה לא תקרא בתורה, מפני כבוד צבור
Commentary of RaN (Rabbenu Nissim) ad loc.
ומיהו השתא דתקון רבנן שיברכו כולם אשה וקטן קורין אפילו ראשון ואחרון וכיון דקורין ודאי מברכין
Arukh, Orah Hayyim 282:3
הכל עולים למנין שבעה, אפילו אשה וקטן שיודע למי מברכין
אבל אמרו חכמים: אשה לא תקרא בצבור מפני כבוד הצבור
Endorsement from the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue
position outlined above by Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski regarding Partnership
Services is unanimously supported by the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue.
Rabbi Baruch Davis
Chair, Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue