Orthodox Judaism can be “terrified of reform” but equality is still “not the main goal,” according to leading Israeli rabbis speaking about the role of women.

The comments came at an event in London earlier this month featuring Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, the head of a large West Bank yeshiva, and Rabbi David Stav, chairman of a major Zionist rabbinical association.

The 250-audience at Ner Yisrael in Hendon also heard Stav and Lichtenstein address concerns about men refusing to grant their ex-wives a ‘get’ (religious divorce), suggesting they were powerless to change the system.

“I am 1000 percent for every trick in the book to solve [the problem of] women who are not given a Get,” said Lichtenstein, whose yeshiva is based in Alon Shvut. “But to change the value system of giving Gets is something we can’t do.”

The talk, which saw the two men disagree about the pace of change, was organised by Mizrachi UK in conjunction with The British Friends of Yeshivat Har Etzion, The Judy Back Women’s Institute for Torah Studies (The Midrasha), LSJS and Stav’s Tzohar organisation.

Lichtenstein reminded the audience that the idea of women learning high-level Torah in a Beit Midrash (Jewish study hall) was “only a dream 50 years ago, the blink of an eye from an historical perspective,” and encouraged “evolution not revolution,” implying that societal norms were forcing chance upon the community.

“What is evolution and what is revolution?” he asked. “Part of the answer is in motivation. How much is it an organic extension of current practice and how much is it an attempt to overhaul the current system?”

He said equality was “a value but not the main goal,” this instead being to get closer to God. “Judaism doesn’t necessarily have equality as its primary value,” he said. “Look at how the Torah has evolved over thousands of years. It puts a completely different perspective on things.”

Stav however said Orthodox leaders need not go slow, saying: “Not everything needs evolution. Take Rabbeinu Gershom, who completely changed the family structure when he said a man can only marry one woman. This is a revolution, and it requires a big rabbi to say things can’t go on like this anymore.”

He said Jews should ask how the Torah can exclude women from inheritance “and therefore not be equal to men,” explaining that the rabbis formed Halachic processes to solve these issues.

“Sometimes the biggest obstacle for Orthodoxy to evolve in the right way is because we are terrified of the word Reform,” said Stav. 

“We need to answer the questions this generation is asking. They are not prepared to accept the answer that is too revolutionary. They deserve from us sincere answers to challenges they put in front of us.”

Interviewer Rebbetzin Lauren Levin said: “We have a biblical prohibition of anointing a queen, but we also have a biblical precedent of having a woman judge. How can this be and how can it help us define our new role of women leaders in Orthodoxy.”

The lively discussion, which was followed online by scores of people around the world via a live video feed, was heralded as a success by organisers. 

Rabbi Andrew Shaw, chief executive of Mizrachi UK, said: “It was a great honour to host two of the leading thinkers of our generation, interviewed by someone who is leading the way when it comes to women leadership within Orthodoxy. We hope this will lead to further discussion of relevant and important issues.”