By Elana Sztokman
Rabbi Daniel Sperber, the Milan Roven professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and rabbi of Menachem Zion Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, and author of several seminal halakhic works on women in halakhah, was commenting on changing gender roles in Orthodoxy at an event at the University of Pennsylvania organized by JOFA Campus Fellow Serena Covkin. The event, which was co-sponsored by Shira Chadasha at Penn and the Orthodox Community at Penn Scholar in Residence committee, engaged a crowd of one hundred busy students in a discussion of women’s inclusion in synagogue life. It was the best attended scholar-in-residence event in the community’s history.
“Just because a custom has not taken place regularly, it doesn’t mean it’s against halakha,” Rabbi Sperber said. “There is a notion that if things weren’t carried out in the past, the absence of this practice became a minhag (custom) and became sanctified. Partnership minyanim didn’t happen in the past, for many obvious sociological reasons. There weren’t literate women, they weren’t part of the male community, they didn’t go to shul, and if they did, they went to an auxiliary shul. There were times when women were not allowed into synagogues at all, when women’s sections did not exist. Synagogues change. That’s what has happened throughout history.”
Rabbi Sperber discussed the enduring impact of the 19th century adage by Chatam Sofer, “Hadash asur min hatorah” – what is new is forbidden from the Torah. Rabbi Sperber argued that this concept, which was originally meant to distinguish Orthodoxy from Reform Judaism, has had a disproportional influence on thinking in some Orthodox settings, and has led to an unnecessary and sometimes unhealthy resistance to change.
“There were synagogues at the turn of the century that refused to have electricity because they said, ‘hadash asur min hatorah,’” he said. “All these men would sit with icicles in their beards because they thought electricity was too novel to be acceptable within halakhah.”
This event was the first event organized this year by JOFA Campus Fellow Serena Covkin, a 21-year-old junior, originally from New Jersey who studied at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School and is now majoring in history. “I’m really enjoying my time as a JOFA fellow,” she said. “It was a great first program for me – and I hope it only gets better throughout the year.”
The JOFA Campus Fellowship, a program now in its third year, grooms female Orthodox college students for communal leadership while promoting Jewish feminist programming on campuses. The program is taking place on eight college campuses across the country, and has reached hundreds of participants.
Rabbi Sperber’s lecture was received with great enthusiasm and interest, and generated lively discussion. In the question-and-answer period after the talk, Penn senior Adam Pershan asked whether the grass-roots movement that has characterized the partnership synagogues is a good model for halakhicchange. Rabbi Sperber said that such grass-roots change has been less common in the Ashkenazic community, but has characterized many Sephardic communities. He explained thateven if grass-roots movements were uncommon in the Ashkenazic community, the changing needs of communities still impacted the rabbinic authorities. “At all times in Jewish and halakhic history, there was an interplay with the rabbinic establishment and the minhagei kehillot (customs of congregations). The people had a tremendous power in halakha in medieval times. In areas that we are very familiar with, such as taxation, the changes did not come from above but rather from below.”
Penn Junior Naomi Hachen asked whether it is permissible for a woman to recite the kaddish between the seventh aliyah and the maftir aliyah during the Torah reading on Shabbat. Rabbi Sperber replied, “The kaddish during leyning is one that is related to the keriat hatorah (Torah reading). Since only the first person and last person made brachot (blessings), all the intermediate ones are brachot hayachid (individual blessings) and not hatzibbur (communal). The kaddish is also related to the kriya (reading) itself, and therefore it is kaddish hayachid, and therefore a woman could do it if she had that particularaliyah.”
Penn junior Adriel Koshitzky asked whether a community can evolve into a partnership-style service if the majority is in favor of the change but there are some people who are not. Rabbi Sperber replied that ideally a group that wants this kind of service should create a new group rather than disrupt an existing community. “I have always said partnership minyanim should be created by groups of people who, through their learning and spiritual aspirations, form a new minyan. It shouldn’t grow out of an existing minyan. It shouldn’t destroy an existing congregation. In every congregation there are always people who move, that is a natural process.”
“I was so impressed with the openness of this discussion, with how many people came and how much genuine, open dialogue there was about this important topic,” Ms. Covkin said, noting that the campus partnership minyan Shira Chadasha, which has been around for over five years, is very popular. “It was so amazing to have such an important and instrumental figure talk to us about these issues. His perspective was invaluable.”
Elie Peltz, one of the co-chairs of Shira Chadasha at Penn added, “We were thrilled to have Rabbi Sperber at Penn. His breadth of knowledge, sensitivity to communal concerns, and cogent defense of the need for Partnership Minyanim were so impressive. Penn's Jewish community has been grappling with these issues for several years, and we were so excited to have the world's leading expert on Jewish Law and Partnership Minyanim come to address the halachic underpinnings of Shira Chadasha. The best thing about the event was the discussion that was generated in our community.”
”Even weeks later, I’ve heard students continuing to discuss Rabbi Sperber’s lectures, and thinking about how his remarks relate to our community at Penn. Now I’m getting excited for my next event—the weekend of November 16-17!” said Ms. Covkin.