Article from 1957 Regarding Acceptability of Men and Women Sitting Together in Synagogue Under Jewish Law
From the Southern Israelite, July 19, 1957
Experts Disagree on Chevra Thilim Orthodoxy
New Orleans (AJP) - Judge Frank J. Stitch of section E, Civil District Court, received a liberal, though confusing, education in Judaism during the past ten days as attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants, in a suit brought against the officers and board members of Congregation Chevra Thilim, quoted at length from the Bible, the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch and various other commentaries. Without a doubt, Judge Stitch was treated to a far greater measure of the Jewish heritage, since the suit started, than most Jews today receive in a lifetime. Because the quotations were used to prove some particular point, Judge Stitch was unfortunately denied an insight into the elegance and wisdom, the deep understanding of humanity and the subtle humor the Jewish heritage is so replete with as the quotations cited were from the legalistic and rigid portions.
The suit being tried by Judge Stitch is one brought by a group of members of Chevra Thilim seeking an injunction to prevent the congregation from implementing a family seating plan approved by its members.
In addition to Rabbi Solomon J. Sharfman, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, three other experts testified on behalf of the plaintiffs. They were Rabbi David Hollander, a past president of the Rabbinical Council of American; Rabbi Eliezer Silver, a past president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbi’s of United States and Canada and presently chairman of its presidium; Rabbi Samson R. Weiss, national director of Young Israel and executive vice-president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.
In substance the four experts for the plaintiffs agreed in their testimony. They testified that the separation of sexes in the synagogue during services in a cardinal principle of Orthodox Judaism and that synagogues that permit the mixing of sexes could not be considered as Orthodox. They agreed that with the permission of the rabbi who ordained them, a rabbi may accept a pulpit in a congregation that has family seating, but with the understanding that he will try to convince the congregation that it should return to segregated seating and that if the rabbi did not succeed within a period of five years, the rabbi is expected to resign from the congregation or he is subject to expulsion from the Rabbinical Council of America or the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, whichever he may be a member of. They further agreed that no congregation had the authority to change Jewish law by a show of hands or even to interpret the law. Only duly ordained rabbis who have devoted many years to the study of Jewish law, they said, have the authority to interpret Jewish law. The only changes that can be made in Jewish law, they testified, were temporary changes to meet some emergency. They each quoted at length from various sources of Jewish law to substantiate their statements.
Rabbi Hollander, when quested about the enforcement of the ruling that members of the Rabbinical Council of America must resign from a congregation they failed to convert back to segregated seating after a period of five years, stated that during his term of office five rabbis were called before the Council’s “court of honor” to answer charges against them. These charges included serving mixed-seating congregations, but in no instance was it the only charge, he said adding that two rabbis resigned from the Council upon request and three were placed on probation. He state that he could not say whether such action would have been taken if serving a mixed-seating congregation was the only charge.
POINT OF DISAGREEMENT
There was one point of disagreement among the four experts for the plaintiffs. When asked whether Chevra Thilim Synagogue could be considered as being strictly Orthodox in as much as it does not have a “mechitzah,” a physical separation between the men’s and women’s seats; it does not have a center “bimah,” an elevated platform in the center of the synagogue from which the Torah is read, and it uses a microphone at services on the Sabbath and on holidays, Rabbi Sharfman and Rabbi Hollander unhesitatingly answered in the negative. Rabbi Sil-
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