Women Torah readers at French synagogue threatened, insulted

(JTA) — Women who read aloud from the Torah at a synagogue in Marseille were subjected to threats and insults by congregants after local rabbis condemned the event.

The dozens of threats and insults, made on social networks and in emails, started coming in Saturday night after the group of half a dozen women read the Torah at the Fleg Jewish Center that morning, the French community center’s president, Raymond Arouch, and director, Martine Yana, wrote in a statement Monday.

The threats were of “all kinds of assaults” and were “intolerable,” Arouch and Yana said in the statement, which neither identified the women nor contained examples of the abuse. They said the synagogue at the community center was nondenominational and open to all Jewish streams, including Reform Jews, who worship in an egalitarian manner. However, men and women were seated separately inside the synagogue during the reading, organizers said.

The incident prompted passionate statements from supporters and critics of the women’s actions, which some Orthodox Jews believe contradicts what they perceive as a prohibition on the vocalization of Torah portions by women at synagogue. The news site JForum called the fallout of the incident “a scandal” in an article Thursday.

“The reading of the weekly portion by a woman in the framework of a religious ceremony is not permitted in the Halakha,” the chief rabbi of Marseille, Reuven Ohana, wrote in a statement Thursday upon hearing of the women’s plan to stage a public reading on Saturday. “We ask the people involved not to offend the sensibilities of the public,” added the rabbi in a letter co-signed by two other spiritual leaders from the rabbis from the city.

The rabbis wrote they are “disturbed and terribly perturbed and furious” over the event.

But the rabbinical intervention prompted a pushback from some Jews in Marseille, which is home to France’s second largest Jewish community of approximately 80,000 members and overwhelmingly Sephardic and Orthodox.

“Have you applied any measures benefiting women in synagogue?” Liliane Vana, a prominent member of the community and a Talmud scholar, wrote on Friday in an open letter addressed to the rabbis. “For girls during their bar mitzvah? Anything?”

She accused the rabbis of remaining silent on injustices involving “chained women” – wives who are unable to obtain a Jewish divorce because their husbands refuse.

Vana added that she, too, is “disturbed and terribly perturbed and furious” by the rabbis’ reaction.

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