JOFA Supports Australian Women in Fight for Torah
By Mark Baker
It began at Melbourne’s Mizrachi Shul when a woman was handed a sefer Torah to dance with on Simkhat Torah. Within seconds, Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen had wrested the Torah away from her arms. The following Shabbat he delivered a p’sak from the pulpit: Women were not permitted to handle a sefer Torah. His reasoning, published for communal consumption in the Australian Jewish News, was based on a stringency of the Remah which stated that the minhag for Ashkenazi women was to refrain from matters of Torah during their menstrual days. Rabbi Cohen's main concern, he stated, was the fear of a sudden emission of blood which would diminish the honor of the Torah.
At the same time, Rabbi Ralph Genende, a former member of the Johannesburg Beit Din, had given women a Torah to dance with in his Orthodox shul in Melbourne, and even permitted the Torah to be passed by women through their side of the mechitzah on a regular Shabbat. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council summoned Rabbi Genende to a meeting. While Rabbi Genende held his ground, the Council voted unanimously that women were halakhicly prohibited from handling a Torah.
The following week's issue of the Jewish News was filled with articles by women protesting the ruling. The articles answered the halakhic concerns of the rabbis, and showed these concerns to be politically motivated. Orthodox women and men of all shades responded to the ruling, lending strong vocal support to Rabbi Genende's lone stance.
When Blu Greenberg, president of JOFA, was contacted for advice, she and vice president Carol Newman immediately mustered the support of JOFA, which placed a large advertisement in the Jewish News. (see below) Many women responded to the advertisement with tears, finding joy in the international chorus that added strength to their local protest.
The spurious arguments against women holding the Torah have still not been set aside, although the head of the Rabbinical Council wrote the following week that their stringent prohibition was out of concern for where things would lead. Many of us in Australia share with JOFA the vision of a new path for the future of women's relationship with Torah. Our concerns grow out of our commitment to Torah and halakhah. We thank JOFA for helping to illuminate where things can, and will, lead.
Mark Baker is editor of Generation Journal and lectures in modern Jewish history at the University of Melbourne.