My colleague Rabbi Andy Bachman wrote about his first experience at Shira Hadasha over this past Shabbat. Andy focused on the large number of American Reform rabbis he noticed there, and wondered why these non-Orthodox rabbis (many of whom, I imagine, were in town for the Hartman Institute’s annual summer learning program for American rabbis) were drawn to a self-described Orthodox synagogue. “I thought of the collective hunger of my colleagues,” Andy writes. “I wondered if they’re spiritually lonely.¬† I wondered if for them, leading services back home is just another way of teaching; and so they justify the seeming separation between the selves that seek and the selves that enable the seeking of others through this duality.”

I don’t think this is limited to Reform rabbis–I think it’s true of American rabbis in general. Even in an Orthodox shul, where we like to think of ourselves as serving a more Jewishly-educated laity (a claim which I think is generally true, and one of the major attractions of Orthodoxy), most rabbis I know still feel “on,” performing a role. The Orthodox rabbis I know who attend Shira Hadasha while in Jerusalem report a similar sense of “vayinafash,” uplifting and renewal, as a result of the davenning experience there.

I went to Yakar for Shabbat morning this past week. In many ways I see Yakar as a precursor to Shira Hadasha: a place that has been singing beautiful, harmonious, slow melodies, creating the kind of musical aesthetic for which Shira Hadasha has become famous, for a generation. And they still have it: fabulous singing and harmony, a rich feeling of tefillah. (For davening snobs: they actually sang Shlomo Carlebach’s Mimkomcha–the one from the 1950s that he recorded on HaNeshama Lach–which you almost never hear anyone try, certainly not in the U.S. at any rate.) And at this point Yakar feels like a retreat from the tourist attraction that Shira Hadasha has in many ways become.

But I missed the sounds of women’s voices at Yakar. Though I know they were singing, the setup at Yakar–with a front-back mechitza dividing men from women–makes it hard for the men to hear the women (I don’t know how it is for the women). And aesthetically I felt something missing, which I identify as the thing that makes Shira Hadasha very special during its best moments: the actual feeling of a whole community, men and women, praying together. It’s not just that people know the words, that they know the tunes, that they can harmonize; it’s not only that they can keep themselves from clapping at the wrong times or letting the tempo get carried away. Those things describe Yakar as well as Shira Hadasha (and some other minyanim too). The difference at Shira Hadasha is that I can really feel the whole kehillah, the whole congregation.

Most of the students who have gone to Shira Hadasha this summer have focused on the experience of having women actively leading in parts of the service, which is an unusual sight in a shul with a mechitza. When they ask what I think, I tell them that I think the expansion of women’s roles is not the primary issue at Shira Hadasha, but that it acts along with and in service of the broader issue of offering our best tefillot, our deepest and richest communal prayer. To focus simply on when a woman is leading is to miss the point. The greater point is that Shira Hadasha, at its best (and there are moments when it falls short), creates a space for avodat Hashem, the service of God, that is uniquely inclusive, beautiful, and inspiring.

 

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As the person who forwarded this piece to me said in her email, “You likely don’t read the Jewish Press, but I thought you’d be interested in this.” True. (An old joke comes to mind about reading the Jewish Press in the bathroom… but I digress.)

It turns out that one of my more widely-read posts in recent months was this one some months back on Tova Hartman’s visit to NU, which took place when all the sh-t was hitting the fan about Sara Hurwitz’s non-ordination as an Orthodox rabbi. So there seems to be some interest among ye gentle readers about this topic. Good.

So on to today’s post: Rabbi Michael Broyde, a serious halakhic thinker and authority and former head of the Beit Din of America, writes a pretty darn good essay in the Jewish Press. Aside from his little dig at my teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, I applaud him for this article. As a good friend of mine pointed out back when all the stuff was happening with Sara, why is it that everyone evidently expects YCT’s folks to do something like this, but no one is asking what YU and the rest of the orthodox community are doing? (This was largely in response to Jonathan Mark’s angry rant about Rabbi Weiss’s capitulation in not calling Sara a rabbi.)

Broyde is essentially making the same move: Why shouldn’t we be demanding of “centrist” Orthodox institutions–institutions that train women in advanced Talmud study, Jewish law, philosophy, etc.–that they create a clerical role for these women? Fine, don’t call them rabbis. As Sara Hurwitz well knows, she cannot lead services from the bima (though a major Orthodox rabbi here in Chicago has recently publicly stated that he sees no reason why not) and cannot serve as a witness in most halakhic matters. But Sara can teach Torah, counsel, and answer halakhic questions just like the rest of us–and probably better than many men who have lousy voices or poor synagogue skills, and who might be illegitimate witnesses for other reasons (see the “rabbis” arrested yesterday for a case in point).

Essentially Rabbi Broyde is saying that the real revolution already happened, and that came when women were given equal access to learning as men. All the rest is commentary–important commentary, but commentary nonetheless. Go and learn.

It struck me as wonderful timing that while the Modern Orthodox world is abuzz with the news of Sara Hurwitz’s impending non-ordination as a rabbi, Tova Hartman, a founder of the Shira Hadasha minyan in Jerusalem, is here at Northwestern for a guest lectureship. She spoke to a group of students at Hillel last night, and will deliver a public lecture this evening.

As Dr. Hartman (she prefers to be called Tova) pointed out, the big change of Shira Hadasha had much less to do with women getting called up to the Torah or participating in other ways in an Orthodox prayer service, than in opening the process of decision-making to women and men in an Orthodox environment. From a textual standpoint, the greatest innovation in the last hundred years in terms of women’s place in Judaism has been the opening of high-level scholarship to them, which was completely forbidden before the twentieth century, and even now remains off-limits within Haredi communities.

Yet we don’t tend to focus on that. Our lines of division–between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, between Haredi/Centrist and Modern Ortho–all seem to revolve around how much women are visible or invisible within the synagogue. And this is probably¬† because, as Tova put it last night, the synagogue is where most people live the bulk of their religious lives–even in Orthodox circles. Even though every denomination of Judaism makes serious ethical claims that apply throughout the day, week, and year; even though every denomination of Judaism makes demands on family and home life; even though every denomination of Judaism advocates for text study–despite all of this, the synagogue remains the defining space for religious identity. And so, while women’s access to Torah learning is the real revolution within Orthodox Judaism, the big fights are over the symbols of access in the synagogue: aliyot, leading services, counting in the minyan, serving as president, and serving as the rabbi.

For me, the decision to be Orthodox was not one I made because of my views on gender egalitarianism. If that were my criterion, I probably would have gone to a different rabbinic school. What Orthodoxy inspires me with is its devotion to the rigorous study and application of Jewish law, and its preservation of the value of talmud Torah keneged kulam: Torah study outweighs all other pursuits. I saw how hard my friends at more liberal schools had to work to get the intensive kind of text education I wanted, and that was really what pushed me into my Orthodox commitment. That came at a price with regard to my views on gender, but it was a price I was willing to pay.

One of the ironies of Tova Hartman’s talk last night, to me anyway, was the fact that for her, the creation of Shira Hadasha is in some profound ways an aesthetic exercise. Because there is no professional associated with the shul, and thus no one’s livelihood is on the line, and because there are a gazillion other Orthodox prayer options in her neighborhood of Jerusalem, she feels perfectly fine letting attacks against Shira Hadasha’s Orthodox bona fides go unanswered. Like me, she believes that this is one path, and she’s not prescribing it for everyone. Yet here in America, people’s livelihoods are on the line: Plenty of people already make spurious and ignorant comments about YCT graduates, to the detriment of the ability of some of the job prospects of some of my fellow musmachim. Those within the YCT community who are pressuring Rabbi Weiss not to call Sara a Rabbi are right that their livelihoods may well be affected. (Never mind, btw, that many of these same people were willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of workers in Postville for another moral/halakhic crusade.)

The irony comes in the comment of my teacher, Rabbi Levi Lauer, that I’m fond of quoting. In trying to convince me to make aliyah, Levi said, “Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.” In other words, because the Zionist project involves putting your body to work and your life on the line for the sake of your Jewish identity, it transforms Jewishness into a meaningful non-aesthetic category. Yet in this case, it is the reverse: the Diaspora makes aesthetic concerns charged with urgency, at least when you’re a Jewish professional.

Perhaps it’s time to be thinking about aliyah again.