Bnei AkivaÂ Perth hosts a weekly learningÂ session in a contemporary setting for its members.Â In a well promoted panel discussion, “targetting the difficult issues”Â a lively debate was held this evening on theÂ role of Women in JudaismÂ
Panellists includedÂ Shlicha NoaÂ Recht,Â teacher Aliza Bensky, Rabbi Marcus Solomon, and Simon Lawrence, PHC Youth Director.
A number of issues were discussed, includingÂ examplesÂ such asÂ Agunot, women’s tefillah, and public leadership roles as matters which impact Jewish women’s religious expression and statusÂ today.
Despite the naturally emotive topic, there was a good deal of consensus over matters such as recognising the boundaries of halacha, the notion of interpretiveÂ change through halachic innovation – and the conservatism of poskim in advancing this.Â Â It was suggested that whilst over time the role ofÂ women in Judaism mayÂ not haveÂ dramatically changed in purpose, the expressionÂ of that role in today’s Jewish world has definately changed in many areas, and isÂ quite rightly expected to continue to do so.Â How that occurs, consistant with both theÂ letter of the law and the traditions of Jewish living, was the emphasis of much of the discussion from the Bamba panel.
It was pointed out many times that certain issues get drawn out of perspective as Jewish women’s issues, in isolation to the system of Judaism that surrounds that.Â For example some women are religiously troubled by women dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah (a Rabbinically mooted matter), without sharing any level of concern for driving to Shule on Yom Tov (a halachic imperative).Â Or in Rabbi Solomon’s example, concern over Agunot in isolation from concern over other critical issues such as assimilation.Â
One encouraging aspect of the discussion was the level of regard paid toÂ the sensitivities of women seeking various forms of manifest spiritual expression through Judaism.Â I was suggested that halachic egalitarianism is not always necessary to meet such needs.Â Free thinking modern orthodox Rabbis recognise both the desires and limitations experienced, butÂ an expression of frustration toward the inability of Rabbinic leaders to effect change was a notable sentiment that flowed through this entire discussion.Â
Finally, it was recorded that the differing but no less important role of women in Judaism, less public than the men’s role in traditional Jewish societal structure, is offered great sanctity, respect, and honour within Jewish tradition.Â Much of that is expressed through the family structure, a point on which Aliza Bensky effectively won the debate by noting is at the centre of Jewish living in every respect.Â It is the Jewish home, not the Jewish community halls, that carries Jewish tradition from generation to generation.Â
Rabbi Riskin wrote in his Parshat Hashavua this week that men and women are created separately with different roles, each of which seek completionÂ through the other.Â Individuals will find their own comfort zone, and even withinÂ Torah observantÂ communities in Australia today there are innovations and facilities that can be found that give legitimacy to ritualised participation for Women in a mixed gender setting.Â These are undoubtedly solutions that are sought within the framework of contemporary halacha, but have yet to find mainstream acceptance within the Orthodox movement.Â
At the end of a debate such as this Bnei Akiva Bamba, participants will often be left with more questions than answers.Â Â This forum assisted participants toÂ acknowlege that Jewish Orthodoxy has come a long way in confronting gender equality, butÂ has futher ground to make up.Â There are some things that by nature of halachaÂ willÂ remain unchanged, but other movements regarding the communal practices of JewishÂ womenÂ that can, should, and must change for the sake of Judaism’sÂ embrace ofÂ modernity.Â
Bnei Akiva have done the community a great service by hosting the Bamba event, and demonstrating to the older members present their enthusiasm, maturity, and intellectual honesty in thinking through matters of real concern.Â This in addition to the unifying impact of bringing a cross section of Shule membership together.Â A broader audience and level of participation would further aid their efforts and objectives, and the Bamba learning program at a communal level is certainly worthy of greater support.