10/24/2006

Feminist Halakhic Dilemmas

I’ve always found it useful to use dilemmas to generate discussion on particular issues. When discussing theory, it’s very easy to stake out an ideological position. When faced with a practical dilemma, though, the complexity of the situation makes ideological positions much harder to maintain, especially when there are clearly a number of values that conflict. The Gemara often uses this method for fleshing out the practical implications of issues. I tried a similar method, with some success, here. So here are some dilemmas related to women’s issues in general, focusing on Simchat Torah. Some of these dilemmas I’ve actually had, and I will note it when it arises.

1) An Orthodox Rabbi is installed at an Orthodox synagogue where the women have a tefillah group/ layn on Simchat Torah / dance with the Torah on ST, or otherwise practice something which, though technically muttar, is not something the Rabbi would a priori approve. Should the Rabbi try to put a stop to it? Should he give an ultimatum of a certain number of years (like Orthodox Rabbis in mechitza-less shuls in the 50s and 60s)? Should he express his disapproval but allow it to continue? Should he keep his mouth shut? Should he quit?

(at UMD, which is a bit different from a normal shul, I kept my mouth shut if the practice was muttar or if I knew there was no chance of stopping it)

2) A group of women approach the Rabbi about using one of the shul’s sifrei Torah to dance with in a discreet location on Simchat Torah. The Rabbi agrees to let them use it. When word gets out, an element within the shul threatens to break-away unless the Rabbi rescinds his decision. What is the Rabbi to do? Kowtow to the threats of that element? Stand firm, come what may?

(I know of a few cases where this happened. One Rabbi – a Ner Israel graduate and well-respected poseik – rescinded his decision, apologizing to the women that he initially had permitted to dance with the Torah. The second Rabbi went ahead with the women’s hakafot, and indeed several families bolted from the shul. In this instance, I happen to agree with the first Rabbi and disagree with the second. Of course, the size and prominence of the competing factions is a major factor, and you can’t please all the people all the time. I’d also add that the first Rabbi is very much not an ideologue, but was responding to his congregants as best he could. The second Rabbi had much more of an agenda.

3) An Israeli woman visiting the United States is asked to participate in a women’s Torah reading for Simchat Torah. She is essentially only observing one day, but is ‘faking it for the cameras’ on the 2nd day, Simchat Torah, as prescribed by the Shulchan Arukh. She asks her Rabbi whether or not she can layn on the 2nd day. Note that a man in that situation should NOT layn for a minyan of 2-day observing men (at least that’s the psak I received). The Rabbi is, in general, opposed to women layning, but that’s not the question at hand. Should he advise her not to participate in general? Should he withdraw from the question, since he can’t agree with the questions presumptions? Should he permit her to layn, specifying that if there’s no minyan present it’s not a real kri’ah anyhow, so the 1-day vs. 2-day issue doesn’t really get of the ground? Should he permit without specifying the reason? (I’m operating under the assumption that there would be no reason to forbid her from layning on the 2nd day specifically, though I’d be interested to hear if someone would advance an argument in favor of making that distinction)

(This actually came up. I asked a shayla from Rav #1 in dilemma #2 and he answered in the following, very tactical way: “A woman doesn’t have the same issues that a man has in layning on a day which for him/her is not Yom Tov”. I relayed that answer back, with greater explanation, even spelling out the implications for women’s kri’ah.

There are some other issues that I faced on campus, both on ST and during the year, that relate to issues of women’s participation in liturgical activity – particularly kaddish and Kiddush. Both great stories, but for another time.

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