One of the bizarre things that I learned as I became more religiously aware (even before I became more religiously observant) was the role of the Israeli rabbinate in the discourse surrounding certain aspects of Jewish (mostly Orthodox) life. There is a Sephardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, each acting as chief decider for their community, Spanish, Middle Eastern & North African or Eastern & much of Western European, respectively.
Last year, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, made clear his stance of women reading the megillah. He said that a woman may read a megillah for men, if there are no capable men present. His ruling was based on the idea that because women are required to hear the megillah reading, and that the chanting of megillah is not considered the kind of singing that would inspire sexual thought. (Women singing is considered in many circles to be very provocative, which could be the subject of many, many posts!). As My Obiter Dicta points out (here), this is not exactly a stretch for the Sephardic community, since many of the groundwork pieces have been in place for years, and, more importantly, this has very little bearing on the Ashkenazi community, which is by far the largest segment of the Jewish community in North America.
Given this, the ruling might seem without a lot of practical value, especially since many communities have been holding women’s megillah readings since the 1980s (as I mentioned on Monday). These gatherings have been an avenue for women who didn’t learn Torah trope or how to read in public to do so, and for me, have been a welcome outlet for my joy in chanting, which I first learned through Torah chanting in college. I think many women gain a sense of ownership of their Judaism when encouraged to learn something well enough to read it on behalf of their fellow women, a very unique activity in the Orthodox community.
And yet, not everyone thinks they are positive. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, the Cheif Rabbi of Ramat Gan, a city in Israel, says (here) that women shouldn’t separate from the community to do this, citing the fact that the women leave their children with their husbands so that they can hear the reading uninterrupted, and that women do these readings for “social or feminist reasons.” His solution? Separate readings for men and women, scheduled at different times (clearly with a man reading) so that both groups can hear it without distraction. Somehow, and I would loved to be proven wrong, I doubt that this happens in any synagogue with which Rabbi Ariel has any affiliation. He is saying that although these women are doing something totally within halacha, that isn’t good enough for the rabbis. I don’t think the attitude and status quo that he promotes are “good enough” for a lot of women out there, either and I am glad that my megillah reading is staying exactly where it is.