This week I will be addressing, in the Shabbat morning service, the role of women in our services. As many will know it’s a discussion that has been through a number of iterations at New London. At our last major engagement, two years ago just as I arrived at New London, a General Meeting split 71-70 in favour of making no change to our current arrangements. More recently I was asked by Council to provide some rabbinic leadership as we plot a way forward. In the most recent Newsletter I asked for anyone with feelings on the issue to contact me. I am available for meetings, phone conversations as well as e-mail. As I am firming up the recommendations I will make to the Services Committee and Council I feel it is vital that I understand as well as I can the fullest range of feelings in the community.
It is, of course, no surprise to find this issue bubbling away at our Shul. New London, of course, was founded on the back of a change in our understanding of the history of our Torah. Rabbi Jacobs acknowledges that an intelligent person simply couldn’t accept a ‘pre-modern’ theory of how our most important text arrives in these most modern times. He is of course right, but biblical archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern philology are not the only schools of thought that have transformed our understanding of our religion. At a time when many of the great ideological revolutions of the last century lie largely broken (Communism, Nationalism…), feminism retains, if not all the burning power of its foundational rhetoric, nonetheless a transformational hold over the mind of the intelligent modern. In an era where both Israel and the United Kingdom have known women Prime Ministers, it’s simply not possible to look at any woman in a position of leadership as an affront to men unable to lead the community themselves – as Deborah suggests to Barak in this week’s haftorah. This much is clear. But the implications of these transformed conceptions on our religious practice is less easy to plot. On the one hand our founder Rabbi claimed that there was no need to change religious practice just because our theology had changed. On the other hand Rabbi Jacobs dedicated much of his scholarship to showing how Judaism does change as societal influence impacts upon our tradition which has never been closed to the world around us. Rabbi Dr Elliot Cosgrove brings a fascinating example of Rabbi Jacobs advocating change in the face of societal change dating back to 1948 when, in the aftermath of the foundation of the modern State of Israel the question arose of how, religiously, to treat this new arrival. In an article entitled ‘Organic Growth vs Petrifaction’ Rabbi Jacobs insists that, “every thinking person must protest against the attitude which bids us to relinquish the project [of change in Judaism] merely on the grounds that we of this generation have not the merit to take an important step unknown to our ancestors.” And goes on to offer this extra-ordinary analogy.
“A year or two ago a process was discovered by means of which the paintings of the old masters in the National Gallery could be cleaned. At first there were shocked
outcries of “sacrilege.” Many of those who protested seem to have considered the very grime that had accumulated through the ages to be an essential part of the pictures. The protest went unheeded, the pictures were cleaned, the grime removed, and new beauties formerly obscured, were revealed to the eye. We should keep this in mind in our approach to the renewal of Jewish life. We must never identify the dust of the ages with the living Jewish faith; but as traditional Jews, while attempting to remove this dust, we must ever be on our guard not to wreak irreparable damage to the picture of Judaism by removing its paint with our too vigorous cleansing.”
We must neither wreak irreparable damage, nor must we venerate accreted grime. The balancing act that has always been at the heart of our journey as a community continues. I urge us all to play our part in it.