Tag Archives: Torah scrolls

Orthodox Judaism and the ordination of women rabbis.

Here is one interpretation of a development of considerable importance:

On 22nd March 2009, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue in the USA, held a formal ceremony officially giving Ms. Sara Hurwitz the title “Maharat – Manhigah Halakhtit Ruchanit Toranit”. However, some Orthodox leaders, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and the Agudath Israel of America, opposed this move and said it was not in keeping with Orthodoxy; in any case, Hurwitz was not given the title “rabbi”. However, in June 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and, in keeping with newer policies, was given the freedom to choose her own title, and she chose to be addressed as “rabbi”.

June 2015 was historic for Jewish women. Orthodox women in both Israel and New York were ordained as clergy – although with a variety of titles from maharat to rabba to rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. While Yeshivat Maharat is now the veteran institution with a few years of experience at this, Yeshivat Har’el appears more liberal in calling women “rabbi” or “rabba”. Israeli Orthodoxy thus effectively caught up with and then surpassed American Orthodoxy, creating a bizarre and beautiful historic twist in which organisations seem to be racing against one another to demonstrate the greatest commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism.

The advancement of Orthodox women is part of a historical narrative around women’s leadership in the Jewish world. All the denominations have roots in the conception of Jewish leadership as exclusive men’s clubs. The fight for women’s inclusion in the rabbinate began in earnest with the feminist movement of the 1960s – although in reality it began much earlier. The first Reform woman rabbi, Sally Preisand, was ordained in 1972. The first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, was ordained in 1974. The first Conservative woman rabbi, Amy Ellberg, was ordained in 1985. The first woman rabbi in Israel, Naamah Kelman, was ordained in 1992. Three women received private ordination from Orthodox rabbis before Yeshivat Maharat opened: Mimi Feigelson in 1994, Evelyn Goodman-Tau in 2000 and Haviva Ner-David in 2004.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Here is a second interpretation of the same historically significant development:

On 16th June 2015, three Jewish women were ordained as Orthodox members of the clergy in the inaugural graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, which bills itself on its website as “the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities”. But even though Yeshivat Maharat also claims to be “actualising the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders”, its female graduates will not be granted the title of “rabbi”. Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier will instead be ordained with the title of “maharat”, a Hebrew acronym for “manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit”, or “female leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah”.

While the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements of Judaism have been ordaining women since 1972, 1974 and 1985 respectively, the Orthodox community has resisted this development, except in a few unofficial cases in Israel. Orthodox women have completed courses of study in Torah and Jewish learning, but they have typically been granted non-clerical titles, such as “yoetzet halakha” or “halakhic adviser”.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I remember reading many years ago in a book devoted to feminist appraisals of religion around the globe that, once Orthodox Judaism opens its doors to women studying the Torah just as men do, it will be impossible to resist the pressure to ensure that women in Orthodox Jewish communities eventually became rabbis. This is fascinating stuff. Let us hope this has a beneficial effect on other expressions of religion still far too patriarchal in their outlook.

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“Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good”, the Report of the Woolf Commission on Religion and Belief, December 2015.

The last few months have seen the publication of three major reports about religion and belief in the UK (two of the reports relate specifically to religion and belief in schools) and a high court judgement that makes it clear that secular worldviews such as Humanism must be treated on an equal footing with religions in the school curriculum in England and Wales (the high court judgement will eventually have a beneficial impact on RE/RS/philosophy and ethics’ syllabuses at GCSE, but its impact on locally agreed RE syllabuses will be almost immediate). Although all the reports and the high court judgement are important (they are largely in agreement about many of the most important matters addressed), I wish to concentrate here on only one of the four ground-shifting developments. Below, I provide the whole of the executive summary in the Woolf Commission’s “Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good”:

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The changing landscape

Over the past half century, Britain’s landscape in terms of religion and belief has been transformed beyond recognition. There are three striking trends:

  • The first is the increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities. Almost a half of the population today describes itself as non-religious, as compared with an eighth in England and a third in Scotland in 2001.
  • The second is the general decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice. Thirty years ago, two-thirds of the population would have identified as Christians. Today, that figure is four in ten, and at the same time there has been a shift away from mainstream denominations and a growth in evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
  • The third is the increased diversity amongst people who have a religious faith. Fifty years ago, Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is the fourth largest behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Although still comprising less than one in ten of the population, faith traditions other than Christianity have younger age profiles and are therefore growing faster.

Furthermore, intrafaith and interfaith disputes are inextricably linked to today’s geopolitical crises across the Middle East, and in many parts of Africa and Asia. Many of these disputes are reflected back into UK society, creating or exacerbating tensions between different communities.

So, twenty-first century ethno-religious issues and identities here in the UK and globally are reshaping society in ways inconceivable just a few decades ago, and how we respond to such changes will have a profound impact on public life.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Learning to live with difference

The resulting uncertainties about national identity, cohesion and community can lead to over-simplistic conclusions about the negative impact of such changes on society. These, in turn, may feed the very anxieties about immigration and the fear of “the other” that need to be addressed. Certainly the development of public policy related to religion and belief has too often been piecemeal and kneejerk.

The report is intended to be an alternative to such approaches: systematic, consistent and rational, looking at the areas of education, the media, law, dialogue and social action. It seeks to provide a basis for deliberation and policy-making based on research and evidence, the needs of society and the daily experiences of increasingly diverse communities.

Learning to understand and live with differences is the recurring theme throughout the report. It argues that religion and belief are a combination both of conscious choice and of the circumstances of birth, community and public perception. Whether or not we might want to, we cannot ignore or escape the differences that religious traditions make to our sense of personal identity, narrative, relationships and isolation. Religious and belief identities, the report points out, can serve as forces both for good and for ill.

And so the challenge for policy-makers is to create an environment in which differences enrich society rather than cause anxiety, and in which they contribute to its common good.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Vision

The commission’s vision is of a society at ease with itself in which all individuals, groups and communities feel at home, and in whose flourishing all wish to take part. In such a society all:

  • feel a positive part of an ongoing national story – what it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today and all must be able to participate in shaping its meaning for the future
  • are treated with equal respect and concern by the law, the state and public authorities
  • know that their culture, religion and beliefs are embraced as part of a continuing process of mutual enrichment, and that their contributions to the texture of the nation’s common life are valued
  • are free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others
  • are confident in helping to shape public policy
  • feel challenged to respond to the many manifest ills in wider society.
London

London

Recommendations

The implications of such a vision for public policy are of many kinds, and are highlighted throughout this report. Prominent amongst them are those which are briefly summarised below. Each is discussed and explained in much fuller detail in the main body of the report.

A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life. It would take place at all levels and in all regions. The outcome might be a statement of the principles and values which foster the common good, and which should underpin and guide public life.

Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society and at all levels. The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge. The commission therefore calls on educational and professional bodies to draw up religion and belief literacy programmes and projects, including an annual awards scheme to recognise and celebrate best practice in the media.

The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.

All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed. The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.

Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character (“faith schools”) should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.

The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example, by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious flagship “Thought for the Day” to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.

London

London

A panel of experts on religion and belief should be established to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) when there are complaints about the media coverage in this field.

Relevant public bodies and voluntary organisations should promote opportunities for interreligious and interworldview encounter and dialogue. Such dialogue should involve Dharmic as well as Abrahamic traditions, young people as well as older, women as well as men, and local groups as well as national and regional ones. Clergy and other opinion leaders should have a sound understanding of the traditions of religion and belief in modern society.

Where a religious organisation is best placed to deliver a social good, it should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding to do so, so long as its services are not aimed at seeking converts.

The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious and cultural tribunals such as ecclesiastical courts, Beit Din and Sharia councils.

The Ministry of Justice should instruct the Law Commission to review the anomalies in how the legal definitions of race, ethnicity and religion interact in practice and make recommendations to ensure all religious traditions are treated equally.

In framing counter-terrorism legislation, the Government should seek to promote, not limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should engage with a wide range of affected groups, including those with which it disagrees, and also with academic research. It should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping and by speaking out in support of groups that may otherwise feel vulnerable and excluded.

London

London

The above is so important and insightful that some comments are essential. First, note the realities (“The changing landscape”) on which the report itself are founded and, in particular, that commitment to Christianity has declined a lot in recent years while the percentage of people devoid of any religion has risen rapidly. Second, note that ignorance about religion and belief is widespread in UK society (even among those who are, or project themselves as, religious authority figures). Third, note how there is an urgent need to engage with people of all religions and beliefs to agree the “fundamental values underlying public life”. Fourth, note that all pupils and students should have a nationally agreed statutory entitlement to a syllabus about religion, philosophy and ethics, and that the current daily act of collective worship should be replaced with a more inclusive time for reflection. Fifth, note the emphasis placed on gender equality, freedom of expression, freedom of enquiry, creating level playing fields for all religions and beliefs, and ensuring that religious courts and councils do not discriminate against individuals within their communities. Last, and in some ways perhaps the most important point of all, everyone in society should be “free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others”.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religion: does it facilitate or inhibit gender equality?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Why is it that so many expressions of religion deny girls and women the same opportunities as boys and men? Is it that God, gods, the supreme being/beings, ultimate reality and/or the divine are all too often described as if they are male? Is it that men and not women wrote all or most of the world’s scripture? Is it that men edited scripture in such a way that women’s contributions were suppressed? Is it predicated on daft ideas that the physically powerful (males) should always shape life for the physically less powerful (women)? Is it predicated on the equally daft idea, no longer sustainable of course, that males are intellectually superior to females?

Goddesses and women have played varied and significant roles in many religions throughout history, so why have they been nearly invisible in the official stories of most religions? In the contemporary world, women often make up the majority in any congregation/gathering for religious ritual purposes, but they are less well represented in leadership positions.

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

The qur'anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

The qur’anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

I am not convinced that religions are necessarily sexist in their beliefs, practices, predispositions or general character. By way of opening up discussion about this matter of supreme and fundamental importance about religious commitment (a religion that cannot treat males and females as equals is highly suspect and deserves condemnation of epic proportions to encourage it to mend its ways immediately), I will dwell on the case of Christianity, which, in its very earliest decades, looked as if it would present a formidable challenge to prevailing norms about gender roles. Too bad, therefore, that, in a relatively short time, males of sometimes questionable character (e.g. note in the first three or four centuries of the religion’s existence the disquiet expressed about the abuse of children, some of it of a sexual nature. Have things changed that much since?) seized the reins of authority and quickly marginalised women. In other than only a few fleeting instances thereafter, it was not until two centuries following the Reformation in the 16th century that some of the Protestant churches began to address the issue of gender equality in a holistic and serious manner (although, in fairness, some expressions of Christianity prior to the Reformation allowed women to attain positions of considerable influence, but only within monastic orders).

A general comment to begin with. To a very large degree, the Bible has been written by men for men about men (to what extent is this also the case in relation to scripture in other religious traditions?).

However, in John’s Gospel, women are active, innovative and ministers of the kingdom to come. They are affirmed in roles unusual/unacceptable in contemporary Middle Eastern society.

Books of the Bible written before John’s Gospel make it clear that women should be the bearers of their husband’s children and satisfy their husband’s sexual needs. Biology shapes women (and men of course) and determines their roles in society. In a lot of early Jewish literature, women are defined as unclean and sexual temptresses, and contact with women should therefore be avoided. Because they were “responsible” for male temptation/deviation from an ethnically sound life, women were barred from public life lest they cause men to sin. Because women were not thought to have the intelligence of men, they were discouraged from using their initiative. In fact, it was sinful for women to study the Torah. Moreover, because they lacked intellectual ability, they could not act as witnesses.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls women to public ministry despite male opposition to the idea. He engages in theological discussion/debate (“I am the messiah”) with a Samaritan woman (who is doubly suspect, for being a woman and for being a marginalised/distrusted Samaritan). He talks with Martha about resurrection. The news of his resurrection reaches the disciples via Mary Magdalene.

Jesus is happy to interact with a marginalised Samaritan who is also a woman, someone whom many Jewish people at the time would have regarded as unclean. But it is the unclean Samaritan woman who is persuaded that Jesus is the messiah – and she drops/abandons everything to share her knowledge with others. She is therefore a model for apostolic activity and would therefore seem to be on an equal footing with the disciples. Her role in John’s Gospel is described in the same way that John’s Gospel describes the disciples’ ministry.

The Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals himself as the messiah and she is the first person who acts on that recognition. She is therefore the recipient of important theological information. Jesus treats her seriously and responds to her comments patiently and thoughtfully. To a very real degree, therefore, she is a model of female discipleship. This seems to imply that women can be messengers of the kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, Marta of Bethany is introduced/described in such a way as to suggest that she is more important than Lazarus. Jesus delivers “I am” speeches to Martha and Martha’s response to them mirrors that of Simon Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. Simon Peter’s response is generally viewed as confirmation that he has a leadership role, which would therefore imply that Martha is like a leader within the Jesus sect. Jesus sees Martha as capable of perceptive and discerning faith.

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus’s Cathedral, Prague

If Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel is taken at face value, it would seem to provide the ultimate confirmation that Jesus is the resurrected Christ, the Son of God. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Mary Magdalene is told to tell Jesus’ brothers the news of the resurrection. She is therefore entrusted with the supremely important message of Jesus’ triumph over death. It is due to this role that Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle of the apostles. A woman is informing/teaching the male disciples about the most basic tenet of the Christian faith, about the most startling mystery at the heart of the religion. One is therefore compelled to ask, “Is Mary Magdalene the equal to Peter?”

In some key respects, therefore, Jesus in John’s Gospel is revealed as distinctly radical/revolutionary in relation to the cultural norms of his age. He seems to suggest/confirm that women do not seduce men and that they should have access to public life. He seems to say that women should benefit from education. However, the Bible very soon confirms that all the disciples are male. Does this therefore confirm that Jesus is really a man of his time despite the above? Or does this merely confirm that others who came after him subverted his original intentions?

There is an indication in Chapter 12 verse 2 of John’s Gospel that Martha may have served at a table, perhaps as what became known as a deacon or, eventually, a minister in a house-church.

Although the earliest Christian texts attest to the importance of women in Jesus’ entourage and in the running of the first Christian house-church meetings, women rapidly disappear from the official history of church leadership (is this so because leaders within the church conformed with Paul’s hostility to women playing an active, public role in society/the church comparable to that of men?). However, sufficient evidence exists (historical and biblical) to confirm that, in those early days of innovation, Christianity accorded to women a role within the emerging religion that was indistinguishable from that of men. Consequently, far from the Church of England’s recent ordination of a woman as a bishop being a departure from early Christian tradition (of course, women bishops have existed for some years in the Episcopalian Church, the US version of the Church of England), Anglicans have simply brought practice within their denomination into line with the seeds sown in the decades immediately following the execution of Jesus.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For a number of years now, the synagogue has had a female rabbi

Although the great majority of religions worldwide discriminate against women in favour of men, or withhold opportunities to women that they grant to men (can anyone come up with examples of sexism that are more blatant?), the Church of England, the Episcopalian Church, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church are among the Christian denominations that have female priests/ministers, and within Judaism all “schools” except Orthodoxy encourage women to train as rabbis. Men and women share priestly responsibilities in ISKCON and in many manifestations of what is collectively called Paganism. Women also play a key role in rituals associated with the religion known variously as Vodou, Voodoo or Vodun (e.g. female Vodou priests are called “mambos”). In some manifestations of Sufism, men and women assume an equal role in ritual practices, and monasticism for males and females exists in many forms of Christianity and some forms of Buddhism.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Can anyone identify the other religions around the world which accord women exactly the same opportunities as men to play a full/leading role within their faith? I’m not interested at this stage in those religions which say women are equal to men (this is frequently alleged by expressions of religion, but quite rarely carried through in practice); I seek instead evidence that this is so in terms of their authority within the religion. Put another way, if authority figures within a faith are men, can women fulfil exactly the same roles? And if not, why not? If they can’t fulfil such roles, don’t tell me it’s mere tradition because, if it is, tradition needs to be challenged yesterday. Slavery was traditional, but it no longer exists in most parts of the world (it is most common in India, however, where an estimated 14 million people – yes, 14 million people – suffer from different types of bondage/false imprisonment, children and women primarily). Female infanticide was traditional, but it is rarely encountered today (it appears to be most common in the People’s Republic of China). The burning of witches was traditional, but today it seems to be confined to only a few places in Africa and Melanesia. Human sacrifice was traditional, but it would appear to have died out everywhere (except in Louisiana, if “True Detective” is to be believed).

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certain what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?