TORONTO — Women took part in the Torah service at Beth Tikvah Synagogue this past Shabbat for the first time ever at the Conservative shul.
The change was timed to coincide with the congregation’s annual Sisterhood Shabbat, after congregants voted in favour of implementing “Torah egalitarianism” at a special general meeting last week. The move allows women to participate in all aspects of the Torah service, including aliyot (except the first two), hagbah (lifting the Torah) and gelilah (tying and dressing), and leading the Torah service.
The decision was the culmination of a process that began last year, when the 1,100-family congregation asked Rabbi Howard Markose for his position on women’s ritual participation. The process continued with a congregational survey, town hall meetings, educational sessions and focus groups.
Last September, Rabbi Markose became the congregation’s interim senior rabbi and, as such, its halachic decisor. Rabbi Wayne Allen is on sabbatical and will retire in June.
In January, the synagogue’s board of governors adopted resolutions in favour of implementing Torah egalitarianism, as recommended by its ritual committee, and the congregational vote was held at a special general meeting Feb. 7. There were 230 people at the meeting, and 83 per cent of the 224 voters were in favour of the change.
Arlene Anthony, Beth Tikvah’s immediate past sisterhood president, said the shul has been examining the role of women and ritual for many years.
In 1981, an adult education series on women and ritual was organized under the auspices of Rabbi Avraham Feder, the shul’s first rabbi. As a result, some changes were implemented, including Saturday morning bat mitzvahs.
Over the years, various speakers have addressed the issue, which arose again last year because of the change in rabbinic leadership.
“We were hoping this would all happen in time for Sisterhood Shabbat,” Anthony said. Betty Rumberg, age 100, was scheduled the first of three women to receive an aliyah to the Torah.
Merle Goldman – a past president of the congregation, and its first female president – said she is very excited to see Torah egalitarianism at Beth Tikvah. Goldman was part of the 1981 committee that organized the first adult education series on women and ritual. “I think that I’d like to say Shehecheyanu. I’m very happy.
“If we’re going to survive as a Conservative synagogue in Toronto, we had to do this,” she added.
Rabbi Markose told The CJN in a phone interview from Israel that he advised the congregation last year that it is permissible for women to have aliyot, to read from the Torah and to take part in all aspects of the Torah service.
However, he said that counting women in a minyan or having them lead a service is forbidden.
Rabbi Markose said that anything forbidden or obligatory is not open to debate, but if something is permissible, the congregation has a responsibility to determine whether to implement it.
He said that Torah participation by women is found in the Talmud and also in later rabbinic works.
It wasn’t his mandate to make the change or encourage women’s participation, he said, just to provide a halachic ruling that would allow the congregation to make a decision. He also educated congregants on the issue in a variety of forums.
“I’m happy that the will of the community was done, because this is something they wanted and we were able to find a halachic way.”
The argument of kavod hatzibur (respect due to the congregation), often used to justify women not participating, is “one that the congregation can determine itself how it understands it,” the rabbi said.
In 21st-century Canada, he noted, men and women have equal opportunities for Torah learning, and day school is open to both boys and girls from a very early age. The argument of kavod hatzibur “does not obtain in our day for Beth Tikvah.”
When it comes to being counted in a minyan, however, “even though there have been responsa written by my colleagues in the Conservative movement, I have not found a way to see the full halachic validity in their tshuvot,” Rabbi Markose said.
Although more than 80 per cent of the voters were in favour of Torah participation – the same percentage as in a congregational survey last summer – others have expressed disappointment that women will not be counted in the minyan, or – conversely – that things are not staying as they were, the rabbi added.
Robert Weill, Beth Tikvah’s president, told The CJN that the consultation process with the congregation was “very, very open.”
The survey was sent to each individual member, and almost 40 per cent responded, “a very large return.”
“Sisterhood Shabbat is a very appropriate time to do it,” he said. “And if we’re going to do it, why delay?”