MONTREAL — With his black attire, wispy beard and unassuming demeanour, Rabbi Daniel Sperber doesn’t look like someone who is trying to shake up the Orthodox Jewish world.
Yet, the 67-year-old talmudic scholar from Israel is doing just that with his outspoken advocacy of greater inclusion of women in Jewish ritual.
Most contentiously, Rabbi Sperber argues that there’s no prohibition in Jewish law against women being given aliyot and reading from the Torah in synagogue (other than those aliyot that are reserved for kohanim and Levites).
He is president of the Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University and rabbi of the Menachem Zion Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.
His rare recent visit to Montreal included a meeting with members of the Rabbinical Council of Canada (Montreal section), a public lecture at Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, and speaking with supporters of the Canadian Friends of Bar-Ilan University, which sponsored his trip.
According to his interpretation of the commentaries of the sages of the first four centuries of the Common Era, “it is completely permissible” for women – and children – to read the Torah during worship.
“The basic texts say all people, including women and children, can be called to the Torah,” he said in an interview.
“Like it or not, radical changes have taken place in society with regard to the status of women… Many Jewish women today are learned and are studying Torah at advanced levels. There is a thirst among them for spirituality and a means of expressing their religious devotion. Excluding them is an affront to the dignity of the individual.”
He said he understands the resistance to change, but believes it is inevitable.
Rabbi Sperber is viewed with great suspicion by his more traditional colleagues, and his assertions have even been called dangerous. He admits that his is very much a minority opinion, but he believes that in the not-too-distant future, it will be mainstream among the modern Orthodox.
“More and more congregations in Israel and the United States are gradually extending more opportunities to women. No doubt there will be more,” he said.
“The Orthodox establishment is trying to stymie this, but the consequence is that they are strengthening streams of Judaism that they object to.”
Although Halachah may contain no prohibition, Rabbi Sperber said women rarely were able to exercise their rights because most were illiterate in ancient times.
By the medieval era, Judaism had absorbed the larger society’s attitude that women were “chattel” and not really independent persons. Women’s participation in the synagogue came to be regarded as offensive to men, he said.
The British-born Rabbi Sperber holds a doctorate from University College in London in ancient history and Hebrew studies. He is descended from a long rabbinical dynasty, and his father settled in Wales before World War II, having come from Transylvania. The family was strongly Zionist and Rabbi Sperber made aliyah in 1968.
He said he respects the counter-argument that tradition or custom carries as much weight as the letter of the law, but he can’t accept it.
“The social situation has changed, and when circumstances change, tradition must change, too.”
Those are fighting words in some circles.
“The opposition has been extremely respectful,” he said. “We have agreed to disagree. The critics have found it very difficult to refute my arguments.”
Banning women from synagogue honours is more political than legal at its root, he said.
“There is a feeling that this is an alien import from the feminist movement, that it is a slippery slope and that women will make greater demands, and the whole nature of synagogue worship will change. Give them an inch and they will take a mile,” he said.
Rabbi Sperber said he doesn’t support mixed seating during worship, but he said there’s no need for men and women to be separate, for example, at weddings or lectures.
“This is something that only started about 50 years ago.”
He also said he can’t accept women being counted in a minyan, because that would be a violation of biblical text, which is not subject to change.
Rabbi Sperber does believe women can act as advisers on all aspects of halachic issues, as well as sit on synagogue councils and religious affairs committees, and work as mashgichim.
As for women rabbis and judges of a rabbinical court, Rabbi Sperber said that “each issue has to be examined in its own right.”
He sees the boundary between the left wing of Orthodoxy and the right wing of Conservative Judaism starting to blur, but he thinks any merger is unlikely because of Conservative Judaism’s “much greater degree of flexibility in interpretation” of the law.
“Modern Orthodoxy is the true hope for Judaism,” he said. “Unfortunately, it lacks a central leadership, and what leadership there is, is not particularly forceful or activist.”
Rabbi Sperber has little regard for the right wing of Orthodoxy. “I regard the ultra-Orthodox as a sort of secessionist movement that is ghettoizing itself… In Israel, it is a very divisive situation. They are benefiting a lot from society, but not giving much.”