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An Orthodox Woman on the Bima

I leave my comfort zone and accept an aliyah for the first time.

While the media persistently shout out fear-mongering headlines about the rise of fanaticism among Orthodox Jews, be it Jewish women in burkas, black-suited draft dodgers or bearded vigilantes herding women to the back of the bus, the truth is, something good is happening in Orthodoxy.

It’s not making headlines, and it’s not moving along at a breakneck pace, but rather, slowly and quietly, Orthodox Jewry is asserting its will to foster more gender equality in ritual and greater tolerance for diversity of opinion and practice.

Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan, is head of an organization called the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and one of the prime movers of the Orthodox Spring. Without much fanfare, the Institute has been publishing an influential journal called Conversations, in which distinguished Orthodox rabbis and personalities express a wide cross-section of eye-opening opinions on subjects ranging from Orthodox religious education to the state of Orthodoxy in family and gender issues, encouraging a new kind of leadership.

In its Autumn 2012 edition, for example, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow made a spirited case for reconciling the seeming contradiction between Jewish tradition and democracy: “The Torah recognizes that what is accepted by the enlightened nations of the world is something appropriate for emulation by the Jewish people.” Cherlow, a retired IDF major, heads a Yeshivat Hesder in Petach Tikva that combines Torah study with army service. In the same issue, MK Rabbi Chaim Amsellem argues passionately against the ultra-Orthodox war on conversions: “No one person has a monopoly on the Torah and the interpretation of halacha … a conversion judge must be lenient and not afraid to make the difficult decisions.” Similarly, Orthodox attorney Susan Weiss, head of the Center for Women’s Justice, outlines the problems in Israeli law and the rabbinic courts, arguing for sweeping reforms and maintaining that “we Israelis and Jews of all denominations, including the ultra-Orthodox, deserve a more hopeful, pluralistic and tolerant reality.”

To those who say that these are still just words, I present here my own personal Orthodox Spring.

For years, my husband and I have joined my eldest son Asher and his wife Anat at their self-defined Orthodox egalitarian minyan in Modi’in, a city halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It has the traditional mechitzah separating men and women down the middle, except that their mechitzah goes right through the bima, thus both virtually and symbolically allowing for the equal division of conducting the synagogue service between women and men, something I originally found shocking, as did some other Orthodox congregations in their neighborhood. Women read the Torah, are honored with aliyot during the Torah reading and even give the Sabbath “speech,” tasks that for my entire life I considered exclusively male.

I admit that at first all offers to hand me a sacred scroll, or to honor me by calling me up to the Torah, were met with an almost panicked refusal. What, me, a mere woman, hold a sacred Torah scroll that I have all my life only seen from a distance?  I might drop it! Or profane it. But then I thought: It’s not heavier than a child, and I’ve never dropped one of those. And what about me was less worthy than the average male shul-goer?

While I gradually became convinced that there was no halachic reason prohibiting my participation—the only reason given by the sages for any prohibition was that it would “dishonor” the congregation, something that certainly isn’t valid anymore—still, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Years of attending male-dominated synagogue services had atrophied some part of me. It was just too late for me.

“Maybe next year, Anat,” I’d apologize to my daughter-in-law.

“That’s what you say every year,” she’d sigh.

But after years of reading Conversations and meeting with Rabbi Angel, something happened to me this Simchat Torah. For the first time in my life, I accepted an aliyah to the Torah.  As I walked to the bima and saw the Torah scroll spread out, I realized that I had never in my life seen the inside of this most sacred object in Jewish life. I was surprised at the beautiful writing and the lack of any pointing. It had to be memorized to be correctly read. I was told to use a velvet cloth to touch the letters and then to kiss it. I was given the words of the bracha to read, which I did with surprising ease, the words being familiar to me from a lifetime of listening to the men say it. Grasping the wooden handle of the scroll, and then moving aside, I felt for the first time a sense of being worthy enough to enter the realm of familiarity with the most sacred rituals of my people. It was an unforgettable experience.

Anat, also brought up in a traditional Orthodox environment, surprisingly feels no such barriers. She’s learned not only how to read the Torah for the congregation but how to deliver Sabbath sermons, providing a wonderful role model to my three granddaughters.  Aviyah, the eldest at eight years of age, has already taken on the little boy’s role of leading the congregation in the An’im Zemirot chant that closes the service, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And for my granddaughters, and their daughters, it will be.

This article was first published in the November/December 2012 issue of Moment.

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25 comments on “An Orthodox Woman on the Bima”

  1. Peggy Berk


    I was engrossed by your story. My congregation here in New York has long extended the honor of aliyah to women, but for many many years I found it impossible to participate, even turning down the aliyah intended to honor the mother of the Bar Mitzvah, in my struggle to reconcile my Modern Orthodox upbringing and 13 years of Orthodox Yeshiva education with the practices of my congregation which had removed the Mechitzah long ago.

    My thinking changed years later, when, in a discussion with my Rabbi about the issue of gender equality in the synagogue , he told me that he believed the “dishonor” derived from the Jewish prohibition against embarrassing another – that to have a “lowly woman” show off her literacy in front of the congregation would embarrass the illiterate men among them. Certainly, I thought, no man today could be embarrassed by a literate woman.

    When I finally accepted an aliyah that Rosh Hashannah, I was overwhelmed by the experience. But it was less the act itself than the new perspective it imparted on what it means to be part of a Jewish congregation. Standing there in the center of the congregation, this sanctuary which had always seemed so vast to me as a member of the “audience,” and a bit impersonal as well as I sat on the periphery, at that moment became an intimate community and, for the first time in my life, I felt its embrace as one of their own, my “connectedness” to other Jews. It forever transformed the way I perceived my identity as a Jew and my understanding of what it means for every Jewish individual to become a center of Jewish life. It connected me to the Jewish community in ways that all of those years of Jewish education and observance of ritual never did, and clarified for me, finally, the relationship of spiritual practice to my identity as a Jew.

    I consider my first Aliyah to have been one of the most fortunate experiences of my life.

  2. Squashed Rebetzin

    Naomi, don’t be getting too uppity or they will squash you too, and you know very well who “they” are. Be afraid, be very afraid.

  3. marcella wachtel

    I wonder how many women, like myself, turned away from the pleasures of worshiping in the synagogue because of the feeling that we women were not worthy of the real business of the synagogue- taking part in the reading, participating in torah discussions,hakafot on simchat torah and Shavuot,etc., because as women, we were somehow inferior, no matter how well we were educated, how fluent we were in the language of the torah? I very rarely set foot in a synagogue today- weddings, bar mitrzvas and other ceremonies, but never to pray and to worship. I lost all desire to do so years ago. I hope the young women of today exercise their rights and change things so that the full joy of being jewish women are not withheld from them.

  4. Surak

    It’s time to weigh in again. It’s the drama that plays out in my synagogue, as in many synagogues around the world, I imagine. On one side: “Thank G-d we’re living in modern times and can do things the modern way, as modern people should”, vs. “That’s not Orthodox!” (By the way, let’s recall that the epithet “Orthodox” was a pejorative invention of the Reform crowd.)

    The central question for our people is straightforward: what is Judaism, and who gets to define it? The answer to this question is shaped by the answers to preliminary questions. 1) Do you believe in a unique, unified, infinite, eternal, supreme Creator? 2) Do you believe that the Creator communicated with the Israelites at Mount Sinai between 3000 and 4000 years ago? 3) Do you believe that the substance of that communication is an eternal covenant between the Creator and the Israelites, recorded primarily in the Torah, as well as certain supplementary, explanatory texts? If your answer to any of the questions 1 to 3 is no, you are not religiously Jewish, no matter what your ancestry or love of G-d may be.

    Once you assent to the assertions in 1-3 above, then the answer to the central question is straightforward: G-d has defined Judaism. Not everything is accounted for in the Written Torah, but that much is obvious from its text (“You shall slaughter the animal in the manner I have described…” – described nowhere in Tanakh, but rather in the Oral Law). The Torah also gives future judges the authority to regulate how the Torah is implemented, as Laser observed in an earlier comment.

    What about all of the new hashkafoth, like Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Messianic, etc.? How do we determine what goes too far? It is clear from the comments that many Jews accept a divergence between Surakism, Laserism, Naomiism, and all the other -isms that commenters have created. The key thing seems to be to do what we are comfortable with, and not to do what we are not comfortable with – rather than doing what G-d has asked us to do and not doing what G-d has not asked us to do.

    Who gets to decide how Judaism should be implemented? I propose a simple rule: the deciders should be those who have demonstrated that they accept G-d’s commandments, as per Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “And now, Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d require of you, but to fear the L-rd your G-d, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments of the L-rd, and his statutes, which I command you this day for your good?”

    Good intentions are a good start. If those intentions are sincere, one will focus on doing G-d’s will rather than one’s own. The details may be found in Chumash, Talmud, Mishneh Torah, and Shulchan Aruch.

  5. A Sheina Yid

    In this case, the mara d’atra is chosen as he is chosen. No rabbi is ever loved by all his ballebatim, whether they have chosen him or not.

    No rabbi is required to recognize non-halakhic Judaism.
    Rav Lau is a talmid hakham and not a political hack. Just as his father, Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, is.
    Neither of these rabbanim would recognize Reform or Conservative as a legitimate expression of Torah. Your congregation, in the eyes of all poskim, as far as I know, is not a legitimate expression of Torah.

    • Naomi Ragen

      I don’t actually like to weigh in on these discussions, but this comment deserves a direct reply. “Not a legitimate expression of Torah?”

      When a man or woman goes up to the Bimah with love for God and the Torah in his or her heart and expresses that love by saying the proper brachot, I believe no one should belittle that, which is what you are doing. As for “legitimate expressions of Torah” I’m reading about the case against the Satmar “advisor” Nechemya Weberman who was a therapist who is on trial for raping the little girls sent to him, little girls who were deemed heretics because they challenged “the requirements for the thickness of their stockings.” If you want to take up arms against “illegitimate expressions of Torah,” why don’t you weigh in on that and leave God-fearing women alone? By the way, the other Rav Lau, the former chief rabbi’s nephew, is the Rav of my synagogue, which voted, with his approval, to allow women to dance with the Torah this year. Times are changing, whether or not you like it. It has nothing to do with halacha, because the whole halacha about women coming up to the bimah is based on Kavod ha Tzibur. What dishonors a congregation these days is simply different. Ask Rav Weberman.

      • Katie H

        Naomi, I have also experienced a “religion” where women are treated like 3rd rate creatures, fit only for fulfilling men’s needs and providing them with food and babies and cleaning up after both, and I understand your feelings after discovering that you’re a worthwhile human being too. Don’t let the self-appointed prophets tell you what you’re worth and what you can and can’t aspire to. We all know those frightened little rabbits are making it up as they go.

  6. A Sheina Yid

    What does Rav Lau, the rabbi of Modi`in, think about all this?
    Has he expressed an opinion?
    Would he attend one of these “Orthodox” services?
    Has he?

    • Asher Zeiger

      Rav Lau does not accept or recognize the kehilla. This is unfortunate, not because he should necessarily accept the halachic principles underlying the kehilla, but because his role is to be the Chief Rabbi of Modi’in – all of Modi’in, including those whose understanding and interpretation of halacha differ from his. He has chosen to only recognize and accept those with whom he agrees, thus alienating the majority of Modi’in residents.

      That he does not agree with our approach is truly OK. Most Orthodox rabbis don’t, although there are many who do. Partnership minyanim currently exist in a few cities in Israel (Modi’in was not the first) and around the world. They are very slowly gaining recognition among some halachic authorities, and hopefully will continue to do so. There is no hurry – most developments and changes withing the Orthodox have been slow to come to fruition. That does not make them any less valid, it only means that it is a different shitta that is not accepted by all. Those who do not accept or agree with it are certainly under no obligation to attend the services – plenty of alternative options exist for them.

      • A Sheina Yid

        I am not surprised that HaRav Lau does not accept or recognize your synagogue. Just as he would not accept or recognize a Conservative or Reform temple.
        You state that “his role is to be the Chief Rabbi of Modi’in – all of Modi’in, including those whose understanding and interpretation of halacha differ from his.”
        Precisely as he does not accept the Reform “interpretation of halakha,” so he does not accept that of your congregation. And since he is the mara d’atra of Modi`in, his rejection of your interpretation is the one that counts.

        • Asher Zeiger

          First of all, the chief rabbi of a city is a political appointment – which is not at all the same as being a mara d’atra, which is the religious leader chosen BY the members of his community.

          Secondly, there is (or, in theory, should be) a big difference between accepting hashkafot other than his own (which he is under no obligation or expectation to do), and recognizing that as the (politically appointed) rav of a city, his role is to accept and represent all of the Jews of the city – no matter what their hashkafot or level or manner of observance.

          • A Sheina Yid

            Asher Zeiger claims that the role of a city rabbi (often erroneously called the “chief rabbi”) is “to accept and represent all of the Jews of the city – no matter what their hashkafot or level or manner of observance.”

            I’m not sure I understand this. So let us take an extreme example and posit an individual or a congregation of “Messianic Jews.” Does Mr. Zeiger claim that the city rabbi must accept them? Accept them as what? As a legitimate expression of the Jewish religion?
            The answer may shed some light on how Mr. Zeiger expects the rav to accept his congregation.

  7. Asher Zeiger

    As a proud member of Kehillat Darchei Noam in Modi’in, I was thrilled to read of your experiences in our community – thank you!

    You are probably familiar with (and have likely read) the fascinating book by Elana Sztokman (a member of our kehilla and the Director of JOFA) entitled “The Men’s Section.” In the book, she acknowledges that it is easy to understand why women would be drawn to such a minyan, and she then explores (through several dozen personal interviews) what about a partnership minyan appeals to the men who participate.

    I mention the book because it seems to me that many people who enjoyed reading about your experience would also find this a fascinating read.


  8. Yael

    Dear Naomi,

    Growing up between conservative & orthodox judaism at school and grandparents (respectively), and secular at home, i had a few confusions in my mind on religious matters & women.

    However, while living in the US as a young woman in a very special congregation, I received my first aliyah. I cried. I could barely finish the brachot from the excitement.

    I have since then led services, had many more aliyot and danced with the Torah on simchat Torah. I have to admit that i am always moved by religious ritual and the prayers, but none can match the excitement of that first time that I felt that I was an integral part of the service.

    I stil feel somewhat odd about women in kippot or tallit, but not judgmental. I find that the great Jewish renaissance is happening before our very eyes.

    Yishar Koach,
    Yael Pedhatzur

    • Asher Zeiger

      Your “pattern of responses” consists of all of five women who responded, two of whom did not indicate an affiliation to any religious movement.

      Perhaps you should gather more data before “wondering” about what you see in the responses here….

      • A Sheina Yid

        Actually, Mr. Zeiger, you may not be aware that the comments you see here now are but a small sampling of all the comments that have appeared on this article.
        It is therefore difficult to observe a pattern when you cannot see all the comments.
        I believe that the comment about a particular pattern was accurate.

        • Asher Zeiger

          You are correct – I was not aware that were many more comments.

          What I can tell you, as a member of the kehilla that Mrs. Ragen discussed in the article, is that a significant number of the women who are members of Darchei Noam – some who take more active roles, others take lesser roles, are from Orthodox families in backgrounds, and as many are Israeli born and bred as are immigrants.

          I know this to also be at the “flagship” partnership minyan in Jerusalem, Shira Hadasha.

          So, comments on this blog post notwithstanding, in actual practice, many of teh women who are enjoying the honors (and taking on roles of leadership and responsibility as well) are in fact Orthodox women (many of the men of our kehilla are from Orthodox backgrounds as well), and it is certainly not just something that appeals to the Conservative, Reform and previously unaffiliated.

  9. R Landowne

    S. Levine states: In fact, we probably have more women congregants who are capable of reading Torah and leading services than men.

    Precisely the problem, when men start to share the honors with women, they start to drop out.

    • Asher Zeiger

      The problem isn’t that men are “dropping out” because they share the honors with women, the problem is that too many men are terrified to let go of one place where they (mis-)perceive that they should be in control by virtue of the fact that they were born with a penis.

      If the idea of sharing the honors (and the responsibilities) with women is threat to a man’s commitment to Judaism, then perhaps his commitment was never particularly strong to begin with.

  10. Emily Panzer DeRosa

    As woman who has not yet even made aliyah to Israel, I am surprised at the orthodox
    influence. I remember stories from the birth of Israel’s independence when Orthodox Jew’s refused to speak the Hebrew language outside of a shul or go to Jerusalem before Moshiach arrives! I realise that refugees fled to Israel
    after the war but I thought it was more
    religiously relaxed! Boy, am I stupid! Also,I hope peace returns, the lasting peace you all deserve.

  11. Nikki R

    Wish more congregations around the world were more progressive regarding women’s issues!!

  12. Bev M

    I am amazed that it took so much for you to be able to accept the fact that we women have the same religious rights as men. It is time for the mechitzah to be removed and that all Jews are equal. I guess that this may be a start but it has been a long time in coming.

  13. Chaim Abramowitz

    Great article. We are in US on business feeling isolated. Keep.up the good struggle.

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