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Making Space for Women

03/06/2021 10:43:32 AM


Making Space for Women

It was the comment of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Lunshitz, the eponymous ‘’Kli Yakar," who lived in Poland and Prague in the sixteenth century which caught my attention once again as I studied this week’s Torah portion (Shlach, Numbers 14), about the twelve men sent to scout out the land of Israel before the Israelites entered it. He suggests the mission failed because God had wanted women to be included but that Moses chose only men. As he puts it - God said, ‘From My would have been better to send the women, who love the land, and would not speak ill of it.’  

Once again, I was struck by the visionary nature of this comment. While I don’t know if Rabbi Shlomo ever envisaged a time like ours, I do know his words strike a particularly sharp chord for our age. It speaks to our time, and it speaks to our Jewish community here in Melbourne and across Australia.

In June 2019 the Council of Jewish women launched a campaign called #Makespaceforher. This urged community organisations to sign a gender equality pledge to bring about parity at the highest levels of Jewish leadership. What emerged was that despite many organisations signing up, women were not equally recognised in schools and shuls. This was confirmed by the 2020 study of Sophie Deutsch and Rebecca Davis when they found that almost 40% of women said they did not have the same access to the same opportunities enjoyed by men in community organisations. 

Our Orthodox shuls are still failing when it comes to the leadership of women. As far as I know (apart from the still-controversial Shira congregation) there is, to the best of my knowledge, not one shul in Melbourne that has a woman as president at the moment. I don’t know of any Orthodox congregation in Australia where a woman is currently a spiritual leader of the congregation. Yes, there are now learned women who have the equivalent of a male Semicha or ordination in Australia, but they are working in other roles. There is also a recently formed chapter of JOFA, an Orthodox feminist alliance but its viability is yet to be tested.  

So, on the one hand, we seem to be making little progress in the advancement of women within our Orthodox community. On the other hand, if I look back over 20 years there has been movement and we may well be experiencing a sea change. Indeed, Corona has shifted many perceptions and it could well be changing the very direction of our community for the future.  

Some 23 years ago, shortly after arriving in Melbourne, I unwittingly found myself in the centre of a community storm. It all began when my small shul, Beit Aharon, introduced the passing of the Sefer Torah to the women of our congregation. It was introduced in response to a request from several women in the congregation. As far as I was concerned there were precedents for this in the USA and Israel and there was nothing Halachikally unacceptable in the practice. After all, in many congregations across the world, including Beit Aharon, women were already dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah. Following similar precedents we also introduced to Melbourne the idea that a Batmitzvah girl give a Dvar Torah discourse in the main sanctuary of the synagogue.  

I should have been prepared for the storm that broke across the Australian Orthodox Jewish community. After all, in my previous position in Auckland, I had promoted the right of a woman to be president of the board and encouraged the carrying of the Torah. It had generated much heat, debate and disagreement. Nonetheless, I seem to have walked right into a minefield in Melbourne and was frankly stunned by the outcome of what we considered a relatively modest, albeit novel, response to some women’s sense of exclusion in our community. Surely, as I wrote the time, “It may be an unusual shul practice but we are living in an unusual age – a time different from any other in Jewish history. A time in which women are more knowledgeable and active in the public arena than ever before; a time in which the Jewish people are choosing to walk away from Judaism in unprecedented numbers. In short, a time that calls out for legitimate Halachik responses to the legitimate needs of all Jews, but in particular of our wives and our sisters, our mothers and our daughters...”  

I was summoned to appear in front of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria. While it was ostensibly a ‘please explain', to a young newcomer, it felt more like an interrogation with shades of an inquisition. There was the underlying threat of sanctions, and I was publicly ridiculed by a senior rabbi as being an ignorant little ‘rebella’. He also went on to declare that women should not touch the Torah as they were not always in a pure state, a dubious legal position that was challenged by some of his colleagues. He also threatened me with letters from rabbinic authorities... Rabbi Ronald Lubofsky referred to the pressure as sanctified intolerance.
This little storm in a teacup preoccupied the Jewish News for several weeks. They moved on to other scandals, but I was left feeling bruised and battered. However, there was also an outpouring of support and expressions of relief. 

It certainly steeled me to fight the good fight, to promote that what is right and to strive to achieve a principled height! I like to think that I played a small part in advancing the inclusion of women in Orthodoxy in Melbourne. I feel vindicated by the advancement of women across the community, painfully slow as it is. 

I am heartened by the appointment of Rabbanit Shira Mirvis as spiritual leader of a religious congregation in Efrat, Israel. This is a sea change; this is what so many of us have been anxiously awaiting. This is not a woman partnering her rabbinic husband, this is not a woman enabling her rabbi husband. This is an entire Halachik community backed by Rabbi Riskin saying to all of our young women: You too can have an equal access to Torah learning, an equal voice in speaking for the Torah, speaking for Judaism and at the very least for Modern Orthodoxy today! 

At the dawn of creation, men and women were recognised as equals. Eve may have sprung from the side of Adam, but they both knew her side was of equal value. The image of God does not distinguish between male and female. God is neither male nor female. Each gender carries its unique power and potency. And when we put them together and work together, that power and influence increases exponentially. So let us send out men and women to champion for our Judaism, to scout out our future, to prepare us for this new challenging age we are living in. 
Shabbat Shalom 

Wed, 20 October 2021 14 Cheshvan 5782