Until last month, the exclusive Muirfield golf club in Edinburgh boasted an all-male membership. Threatened with exclusion from competing in the Open, the club instructed its members to vote and finally admit women (pictured). So what does the Torah say about excluding women from society?
The Torah never overtly excluded women from male environs. Priests functioning in the sanctuary were male. However, in the second Temple, it appears that Heman the Levite brought his entire family, sons and daughters into the Temple orchestra.
Similarly, a musical theatre troupe of women and men sang and acted out the Torah readings in first-century Alexandria on yom tov afternoons.
Philo of Alexandria states that these were not alternative secular services, but actualisations of the Scripture, without which the obligatory Torah reading in the synagogue was considered unfulfilled.
Women did not usually join the ranks in military service – although Deborah the prophetess led them – but Maimonides states that women should be called up to army service in times of existential threat.
Both women and men sang in the palaces of David and Solomon and returned to Judea with Ezra. Thus, the Talmud ascribes the prohibition against seclusion of the sexes to the Beth Din of King David, but women were very visible and musically audible to his dayanim!
The concept of protecting kevod hatzibbur – congregational dignity – has kept women out of the male prayer zone altogether. However, even in the male minyan, the ruling of the 13th century Rabbenu Gershom of Rottenburg – “Meor HaGolah”, “the light of the Diaspora” – is to call up women to the Torah in certain circumstances.
There is nothing Jewishly honourable about sexism. Men, like women, need and are entitled to their space, but community belonging means that gender inclusivity, and not exclusivity, must prevail.
υ Ariel Abel is rabbi of Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation