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In Modern Orthodox Circles, Idea of Female Torah Readers Catching on

November 13, 2002
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For most of her 88 years, Eva Oles has struggled to square her Orthodoxy and her feminism.

"I want to prove and show that halachah," or Jewish law, "is humane," and stretch it to empower women, Oles said through tears that reflected a life of spiritual turmoil.

Oles finally can consider herself validated as a new interpretation of halachah is breaking barriers for Orthodox women.

Female Torah readers are standard in non-Orthodox congregations, of course, and most Orthodox long have accepted that women can read from the Torah in women-only prayer groups.

But Jerusalem Rabbi Mendel Shapiro paved the way for one Israeli synagogue, an Israeli minyan and three New York prayer groups to adopt a new model of Orthodoxy that permits women to read and bless the Torah in mixed services.

In a controversial article published last year on the Web site of the modern Orthodox group Edah, Shapiro debunked the traditional Orthodox position that Torah reading by women would diminish the community’s dignity because it is improper for women to assume a public role.

Given women’s equality in modern secular society and their growing role in Orthodox life, female Torah readers and community dignity can be reconciled in many modern Orthodox communities, Shapiro said.

Various halachic concepts have barred women from Torah reading, such as the idea of "kol isha," which holds that the supposedly seductive nature of a woman’s voice could compromise the integrity of the prayer service.

Shapiro began researching the subject before his youngest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah three years ago, and came away confident that the event "was on a halachically sound footing."

At the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s annual conference in New York last weekend, plenaries on the topic proved popular.

"The impact has been quite extraordinary," said Blu Greenberg, president of the alliance.

Women’s Torah reading "will be increasingly adopted not because there are pockets here and there within communities" who do it, "but because of the reports by people who have experienced it," Greenberg said.

"Everyone who has participated in such a minyan reports on the experience of how natural it feels and how continuous with the tradition it feels rather than violating traditional sensibilities," she said.

Apart from Shira Chadashah, the Israeli synagogue that allows women to read from the Torah, an Israeli minyan and three minyanim in New York have followed suit.

Those in New York are the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a women’s center of Jewish learning; a new group called Darkhei Noam in Manhattan; and a minyan that began last weekend in Yonkers.

A group in Teaneck, N.J. also is discussing starting a service that permits women to read from the Torah.

An Orthodox congregation in Manhattan, Kehilat Orach Eliezer, currently is considering a resolution to accept women as Torah readers. If it accepts, the synagogue would become the first in the United States to do so.

According to Shapiro, the decision by Shira Chadashah to let women read from the Torah has "not created any antagonism" in Israel.

In U.S. Orthodox circles, however, resistance appears stiff.

"I’m truthfully not aware of any acceptable halachic authority who has granted permission" for women to read from the Torah during a mixed service, said Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinical arm of mainstream Orthodoxy.

Since those behind the movement "do not represent a significant proportion of the mainstream Orthodox community," Dworkin said, he doesn’t expect the issue to make much headway.

That’s precisely the problem Sarah Meyers faces at the predominantly male Orthodox services she attends at the University of Maryland Hillel.

"I could rebut these arguments but it would get me nowhere. There’s more of them, they’re bigger than me, and they’re at the bima already," said Meyers, 17, who began a women’s prayer service this year in her Orthodox neighborhood of Potomac, Md.

The group of 15 to 20 women meets each month. Ages range from less than 13 to over 50, Meyers said.

"I don’t see a problem with aliyot" for women, Meyers said. "The problem is in people’s heads."

Others say it’s old-fashioned to seek a rabbinical imprimatur.

Tali Aronsky, 27, a CBS producer who studied at the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, said she doesn’t "need a rabbi in his 60s to give us approval."

Women can simply sample from the new services that give them more participation, said Aronsky, who attends a new Manhattan minyan called Kehilat Hadar that is fully egalitarian and runs a traditional service.

Lisa Schlaff, a doctoral student in Talmud at New York University and one of the founders of the Darkhei Noam minyan, backs the grassroots initiatives but calls on rabbis to incorporate such changes into their own services.

It "pains me" that the drive for women Torah readers had to develop outside established synagogues, Schlaff, 27, said in a speech at the Jewish feminist conference.

When the rabbis of the Talmud were stumped on a subject, they would employ a Hebrew expression meaning, "Let us go out and see what the people are saying," she said.

"Go out and see the exuberance of a 50-year old woman who received her first aliyah two weeks ago," Schlaff said. "Go out and see the pride of an eight-year old girl after she leads the Anim Zemirot," a hymn of glory to God.

Yet changing established norms will be difficult, said Rabbi Adam Mintz of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, who spoke at the conference of the competing congregational needs that rabbis must balance.

Mintz said he respects the new movement, but added, "The only way these services will in any way be accepted is" with the approval and support of at least a segment of the rabbinic community.

Such acceptance is Greenberg’s goal.

"I don’t believe it’s going to be universal, but I hope it won’t separate communities that do and communities that don’t," she said.

Rather, she said, she hopes it will "be perceived as ‘these and these are the living words of God,’ " a Talmudic expression that renders each of two competing views halachically permissible.

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