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Yom Kippur Sermon 2013
Expanding Private Independent Services
Introduction: Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda is a unique congregation in the Ontario Jewish community. It has always been regarded as a traditional synagogue conducting its practices according to an open minded approach within the tenets of Halakha, Jewish Law. While retaining its traditional identity, BEBY has always sought to be inclusive and relevant to its membership. Over the years, our shul has offered two venues of religious services: Main services and private independent services. The main services include two daily morning minyanim, one sunset minyan, a Shabbat hashkama minyan, the Shabbat morning main service, Shabbat mincha-maariv, as well as festival services. Private independent services currently include Friday night, Saturday night (after Shabbat), and Sunday morning Bat-Mitzvah ceremonies; women’s minyanim, and the simchat torah women’s torah reading. Part of my vision for the shul has been to maintain BEBY as a traditional synagogue, evolving to meet the spiritual needs of our community in a way which is bound by the authority of halakhic process and which validates the principles of halakhic pluralism.
Part I: The basis for expanding private independent services: Over the last several years, I have been approached by member families desiring to conduct private independent Bar/Bat Mitzvah services or private independent non-lifecycle services which differ from the ritual of our main services. These requests have come in two forms: Those desiring to have a mechitza/separate seating and those desiring to have a mix gendered torah reading. Since neither request had been consistent with our main service ritual, I had reluctantly said no in the past. Now, looking toward the future of our shul, a changing demographic, and a desire to be relevant, I have spent the past several months evaluating these and other ideas. On the one hand, mechitza/separate seating has been part of Jewish prayer life for hundreds of years. In the Conservative Movement, that syle of seating has been considered a matter of custom. A responsum by Rabbi David Golinkin for the Conservative/Masorti Vaad Halakha in Israel and a responsum by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies have demonstrated the basis for family seating while acknowledging a mechitza/separate seating as a well established custom in Jewish life. On the other hand, mixed gendered torah reading raises all kinds of questions. The Conservative rabbinate has debated the topic of women reading torah and receiving aliyot with men for the past fifty years. Published responsa showing the different methodologies and conclusions are available. In recent years, Rabbi David Golinkin in Israel has written a responsum which permits, and Rabbi David Novak for the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism has written a responsum which prohibits. In the last few years, the same topic has been deliberated in Modern Orthodox circles. In a book entitled, Women and Men in Communal Prayer – Halakhic Perspectives, Rabbi Daniel Sperber and Rabbi Mendel Shapiro have written responsa which permit, while other authors in the book as well as on the website of the Jewish Orthodox Feminists Alliance (JOFA) challenge the methodologies and conclusions written by Rabbis Shapiro and Sperber. The legitimacy of the debate on mix gendered torah reading now exists within the Conservative and Modern Orthodox streams of Judaism. Because of the sensitivities raised by this issue, at least two scholarly rabbis I know of who serve in traditional congregations allow mix gendered torah reading in a private independent service but not in the main service of the synagogue. In addition, since some in our shul are requesting the option for mechitza/separate seating, while others are requesting the option for mix gendered torah reading, my position is to maintain our main services as they are and to allow these alternatives in private independent services.
Part II: Administrative process and ruling: I first presented a discussion on expanding private independent services to the regular meeting of the ritual committee held in December of 2011. The consensus was to establish a task force representing a microcosm of the congregation. The task force met twice in January, once to hear the general idea and once to study the halakhic issues. From there, I presented my ideas to the executive of the shul at its regular February meeting. The executive then scheduled a special meeting of the board of directors with participation of the ritual committee, which took place on Tuesday, March 13. The board of directors overwhelmingly voted in support of the following recommendations:
1) to permit the request of a celebratory family which requests to hold a private independent service with mechitza/separate seating for commemorating a bar/bat mitzvah.
2) to permit the request of a celebratory family which requests to hold a private independent service with mechitza/separate seating or mixed seating in which a bat mitzvah specifically and women in general are permitted to read from the torah and recite torah aliyah blessings in a mix gendered format.
Private independent services for commemorating bnai/bnot mitzvah would take place at a time when congregational services are not taking place and must be officiated by BEBY clergy.
3) Under the guidance of rabbinic authority, interested segments of the congregation and community could hold occasional or regular private independent non-lifecycle services conforming to the practices described above (ex: women’s minyan, service with mechitza/separate seating, service with mix gendered torah reading).
Above all, the entire effort is intended to fulfill the dictum “L’hagdil Torah U’L’haadirah – to strengthen Torah and to glorify it.”
Rabbi Howard Morrison