Alternative Berakhot for Women’s Torah Reading – by Rabbi Zev Farber

September 24, 2013

Many Orthodox synagogues have women’s prayer groups, with one of the main features being the reading of the Torah. The halakhic issues with regard to this practice have been discussed and debated at length and I do not wish to rehash them here.[1] However, since Simḥat Torah is coming up, I wanted to offer a suggested solution to one sticky point that remains.

Since a group of ten or more women is generally not considered a minyan (halakhically recognized prayer quorum) in Orthodox communities, what is to be done with the blessings over the Torah reading? These blessings are considered devarim she-be-qedushah, prayers that are only to be recited in a minyan.[2] Although some have suggested that the women skip their own recitation of the blessing over the Torah in the morning, and recite it when called up to the Torah, I am not personally comfortable with that solution. There is a hint of something almost misleading about affecting to do one thing (recite the public Torah blessing) while actually doing something else (reciting the personal Torah blessing).[3]

Years ago, when my oldest daughter was being bat-mitzvahed, and we decided to do a minḥah bat mitzvah with Torah reading at our home, we were faced with this problem. Although a number of women’s prayer groups simply skip the berakhah entirely, we did not want to do this. Instead, I wrote an alternative set of blessings. (Others, like Rachel Levmore, have done this as well.) These were designed to approximate the form of the berakhot as they appear in the standard Torah reading service, but without actually being technical berakhot in the narrow halakhic sense.

None of the words in the berakhot are mine; they were all taken from biblical verses. I tried to find verses that were relevant to the theme of blessing God or thanking God for the Torah. Furthermore, I made use of some verses that were recited by women in the biblical texts, in this case Deborah and Hannah. The main part of the opening berakhah was taken from an alternative form of birkat ha-Torah found in a genizah fragment and no longer in use.

Finally, the “ḥatimot” (endings) of each blessing make use of the two verses in Tanakh which begin with barukh atta a-donai, which allows for the form of the berakhah to approximate standard berakhot, but without bringing up any halakhic problems of berakha she-einu tzerikha (unnecessary blessings) or berakhah le-vatala (blessings recited in vain).[4]

Over the years, people have written me on occasion asking for a copy, so I decided that this year I would post them and make them publicly available. They are posted below with a translation and some annotation.

Ḥag Sameaḥ to all,

Rabbi Zev Farber

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Opening Berakhah over the Torah

Leader:

לִבִּי לְחוֹקְקֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמִּתְנַדְּבִים בָּעָם בָּרְכוּ יְ-הֹוָה.[5]

My heart is with the leaders of Israel, with the dedicated of the people – Bless the Lord!

Congregation responds:

בָּרוּךְ יְ-הֹוָה לְעוֹלָם אָמֵן וְאָמֵן.[6]

Barukh A-donai le-olam amen ve-amen.
Blessed be the Lord eternally, amen and amen!

Leader continues:

גֶּפֶן מִמִּצְרַיִם הֶעֱלָה אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ, וַיִטָּעֶיהַ.[7] מַיִם מִסִּינָי הִשְׁקָה אוֹתָה, וְנוֹזְלִים מֵחוֹרֵב.[8] בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֳ-דֹנָי, לַמְּדֵנִי חֻקֶּיךָ.[9]

Our God brought a vine up from Egypt, and planted it. He nourished it with water from Sinai and liquids from Horeb. Blessed are you Lord, teach me your laws.

Closing Berakhah

Leader:

אֵין קָדוֹשׁ כַּי-הֹוָה כִּי אֵין בִּלְתֶּךָ, וְאֵין צוּר כֵּֽא-לֹהֵינוּ.[10] בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ-הֹוָה אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִינוּ מֵעוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם.[11]

There is no one holy like the Lord, for there is none like You, and there is no rock like our God. Blessed are you Lord, God of our father Israel, from eternity to eternity.

[1] For more on the topic, see: Avraham Weiss, Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups (revised edition; Ktav, 2001).

[2] This is not the place to discuss Rav Shlomo Goren’s responsum, which claims that women can make their own quorum, nor is this the place to discuss the possibility that a quorum for Torah reading may be something different than a quorum for other prayers—both worthy topics but beyond the scope of this short post.

[3] Some have gone so far as to call this “ziyuf ha-Torah” (falsifying the Torah) but I think that is going too far.

[4] In fact, the Rabbis suggest that if one has begun a blessing and realizes that it will be in vain, he or she should switch the blessing into a recitation of one of these verses to avoid inadvertently sinning.

[5] From the Song of Deborah; Judges 5:9

[6] Psalms 89:53

[7] Adapted from Psalms 80:9

[8] This was originally an alternative version of the Ahava Rabbah/Ahavat Olam prayer mentioned in a genizah fragment. It ended with the standard “Ohev (amo) Yisrael”.

[9] Psalms 119:12

[10] From the song of Channah; 1 Samuel 2:2

[11] 1 Chronicles 29:10


Partnership Minyanim: A Follow Up – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 30, 2013

In response to my previous post, Rabbi Barry Freundel has written a characteristically thorough critique of my presentation. I am honored. Although Rabbi Freundel and I seem to be reading matters differently in a myriad of areas, I wish to take this opportunity to offer a brief reframing of my main point in order to further clarify the nature of my claim. I again apologize to Rabbi Freundel for not taking up all of his detailed critiques, with the hope that I will be able to do so some time in the future.

I argued in my first post that there are two types of shaliaḥ tzibbur (the person leading the synagogue service). The first is one who recites certain prayers or blessings out loud on behalf of the congregation or of individuals in the congregation. This person must be one who has the same type of obligation as members of the congregation whom said shaliaḥ tzibbur is representing. The second type of shaliaḥ tzibbur is someone who sets the pace for the congregation, chooses the tune for various songs, etc. This person is not reciting anything on behalf of the congregation (being motzi people in halakhic terminology) and, consequently, the limits imposed on who can be the shaliaḥ tzibbur in halakhic literature do not apply to this type.

Rabbi Freundel, in his critique of my response, argues that I have woven these categories out of whole cloth. Where are the sources, he asks, for allowing women to lead services in the capacity I call shaliaḥ tzibbur type II? The problem with these questions is that it is not I who has invented a new category of halakha, but Rabbi Freundel. I was simply clarifying what has been the given among writers of halakha.[1]

To explain: Rabbi Freundel argues that once a prayer service is generally said in the synagogue as a part of a minyan it becomes either a tefillah be-tzibbur, or at least, a tefillat ha-rabbim. This is a ḥiddush (a novel interpretation) and hardly a consensus position. He then makes the leap that once a given prayer service has attained this status, anyone who leads it must be “obligated” in this prayer service. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that a halakhic category of “leader of Qabbalat Shabbat” or even Pesuqei de-Zimrah exists. In fact, in many yeshivot, nobody leads Pesuqei de-Zimrah, and Rabbi Freundel notes (p. 16) that “in some corners of the world” (some of these “corners” being Jerusalem and New York, I might add) no one leads Qabbalat Shabbat either.

Customs as to whether someone leads these services or not vary because there is no halakhic requirement for anyone to lead them. There is no halakhic requirement for a leader because these services are themselves only customs and they are performed by each individual in the congregation reciting the service to him- or herself. Nothing that these shliḥei tzibbur say is said on behalf of anyone, hence such a shaliaḥ tzibbur has no halakhic status. Finding a text that discusses who can be the shaliaḥ tzibbur in cases where a shaliaḥ tzibbur is unnecessary would be rather difficult.

One may then ask: Why is the prevalent custom for these services to have a shaliaḥ tzibbur? I think the simple answer is that we are accustomed to praying in this fashion, and it makes the experience feel more “community-like” if someone sets the pace and chooses the tune for everyone. I called this (non-halakhic but prevalent) practice shaliaḥ tzibbur type II.

Allow me demonstrate this point with a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that after reciting Barkhu (or the repetition of the Amidah, or any prayer with the status of davar she-be-qedusha) the shaliaḥ tzibbur disappears—it turns out he had been a hologram (I’m a Star Trek fan, mea culpa). The congregants turn to the rabbi and ask whether the congregation had fulfilled its obligation to have Barkhu recited? I assume the rabbi says no. If then asked whether someone else should go up to the amud and recite Barkhu again, I assume the rabbi would say yes.

Now let’s imagine the same case, but immediately after Lekha Dodi, as the mourners enter the synagogue, the hologram shaliaḥ tzibbur disappears, and the rabbi is asked whether the congregants have fulfilled their “obligation” (to use Rabbi Freundel’s concept) to recite Qabbalat Shabbat. What would the rabbi say? I assume he would say that since everyone recited the proper Psalms together, the congregation has indeed fulfilled its requirement to recite the Qabbalat Shabbat service, and that the congregation may proceed with the evening service without the need to repeat anything.

However, I assume the rabbi would add that he believes that having the hologram lead Qabbalat Shabbat (or Pesuqei de-Zimrah) was inappropriate and should not be repeated. The reason, I believe, he would say this is because it is not kavod ha-tzibbur (in keeping with the dignity of the congregation) to have a hologram lead the services. This point, that the customs adopted by a congregation should be in keeping with their “dignity” has gone unspoken in the debate thus far, but is an important one because it answers the second of Rabbi Freundel’s questions: Why hasn’t anyone until recently discussed the possibility of women leading these services? The answer is that until the feminist revolution, such conduct would have been considered “undignified” for the congregation as well as for that woman.

This is why the Mendel Shapiro article, which Rabbi Freundel consistently claims is irrelevant to this discussion, is, in fact, very relevant. Rabbi Shapiro’s point is that, in modern times, the leadership role of women is a sociological given and, therefore, not a violation of the congregation’s “dignity,” unlike the hologram in my thought experiment. In short, I repeat my previous conclusion. Since there is nothing halakhically speaking barring women from leading these services, and there is no longer any fear that their doing so would be beneath the congregation’s dignity (again I apologize for the us-them language), whether women lead such services is a matter of custom and convention. Personally, I would encourage synagogues to allow women to lead things like Qabbalat Shabbat, but, in the end, such decisions are in the hands of each individual community and the community’s rabbi.

This brings me to one final point. Rabbi Freundel writes that he is well aware of the fact that there have been a number of other debates about women’s issues in halakha, but that this one differs from these others since, in his words, it does not follow “legitimate Orthodox halakhic epistemology.” This is an exceedingly subjective claim.

It is well-known that Rabbi Freundel has championed a number of “changes” on behalf of women in the synagogue that he considers acceptable. He mentions that Kesher Israel (R. Freundel’s synagogue) has a female president, something that many (including the National Council of Young Israel) believe to be forbidden halakhically. It is also well known that Kesher Israel has a women’s prayer group, and one that includes a women’s Torah reading service, something many Orthodox rabbis (including a number of YU Roshei Yeshiva) have vociferously opposed and claimed to be forbidden.[2]

I have great respect for Rabbi Freundel having taken a stand on these issues. Furthermore, although I do not agree with his position on women leading Qabbalat Shabbat, I respect his right as a scholar and rabbinic leader of a community to say that he does not believe a certain practice is halakhically acceptable and will, therefore, not allow that practice in his synagogue. What bothers me is that Rabbi Freundel does not extend this same courtesy to the people on his left, but argues that since he does not agree with their reading of the halakha, this means that they are not “really” Orthodox.

Granted that the idea of women leading any part of the service is a sociological departure from what has been, but the question of who leads Qabbalat Shabbat seems a rather trivial one halakhically speaking, and it is only Rabbi Freundel that seems to believe that it is really “halakha” that is at stake here. In my opinion, most Orthodox rabbis, even the ones who oppose women leading Qabbalat Shabbat, would admit that it is not a question of halakha but one of sociology or public policy. Even though Rabbi Freundel disagrees, and believes it is one of halakha, for him to put such stock in his ḥiddush such that he can dismiss a large swath of halakhically observant men and women—even some rabbis—from the Orthodox camp is disappointing.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta


[1] See, for example this random sampling of modern day Orthodox responsa (1, 2, 3) where each author explicitly assumes that Qabbalat Shabbat is not a “real” halakhic service and that the issue of who may lead it is one of minhag and/or public policy.

[2] See: Nissan Alpert, Abba Bronspigel, Mordechai Willig, Yehuda Parnes and Zvi Schachter, “Teshuva be-Inyan Nashim be-Hakafot ve-khu,” Ha-Darom 54 (Sivan 5745): 49-50.


Partnership Minyanim: A Response to Rabbi Barry Freundel – by Chaim Trachtman

January 30, 2013

[Chaim Trachtman is the editor of Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives. Dr. Trachtman is a pediatric nephrologist, a graduate of Haverford College and University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He is currently the Director of the Division of Nephrology at NYU Langone Medical Center and is the principal investigator for NIH-funded clinical trials in glomerular disease.]

Rabbi Freundel has weighed in on the topic of partnership Minyanim, opening his review with a lament that halakha has been “the silent partner in the development of Partnership Minyanim”, and concluding that there is no halakhic justification for women to lead tefillah.  I suggest that Rabbi Freundel check out Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectivesa book published in 2010 by KTAV and JOFA, and welcome him as a new partner in the dialogue.

Rabbi Freundel chooses to focus his review on tefilla be-tsibbur and specifically on the halakhic permissibility of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat. He asserts that the groundbreaking article by Mendel Shapiro (Edah Journal 2001) only addresses women being called to the Torah to get an aliya or to read a portion. However, Rabbi Shapiro does distinguish between parts of the tefilla that involve dvarim she-bi-kedusha such as borchu, the amidah, and kedusha versus other parts of the tefilla. He posits that the former category can be led by women while the later portions mandate leadership by men with a quorum of at least ten men. This is the key point that must be considered in analyzing Rabbi Freundel’s position. If tefilla be-tsibbur is invoked anytime ten men constitute themselves into a group for prayer and covers everything from start to finish then Rabbi Freundel is correct and there is no space for women.  However, is there intellectual room for Rabbi Shapiro’s interpretation? I think the answer is yes. For one, the Rabbis clearly distinguished parts of the tefilla with regard to prohibitions about allowable conversation and interruption, indicating that the tefilla is not one homogeneous activity. In addition, as Rabbi Freundel acknowledges, it has been customary in many synagogues to allow underage boys to lead parts of the tefilla. Rabbi Freundel may disagree with this practice but it does support the notion that there is a gradient in intensity within the tefilla service. This variability in the sanctity of the tefilla provides a halakhic basis for decisors to justify the inclusion of women in select portions of the prayer service.

Rabbi Freundel appears to take a maximalist position of what constitutes tefilla be-tsibbur to include anything done that includes the word tefilla in it, such as tefillat ha-derech, tefilla ketzara. If ten people on a flight to Israel decided to say tefillat ha-derech together does that imply that that he would prohibit a woman from leading the recitation? Moreover, he goes even farther and asserts that the category of tefilla be-rabim, prayer said in a public setting, constitutes a diminished form of tefilla be-tsibbur, but a form of tefilla be-tsibbur nonetheless. As such, women would not be allowed to lead any such service. He uses this logic to further disqualify women leading Kabbalat Shabbat. But consider other forms of public prayer from which he is thereby excluding women. Communal services for Kristallnacht or Yom Hashoah usually include recitation of tehilim and conclude with Kaddish. Would Rabbi Freundel prohibit a woman from leading the recitation of the chapters of tehillim? The fact that women regularly participate in and lead services like this in many Modern Orthodox settings suggests that the community has a broader conception of tefilla be-tsibbur than Rabbi Freundel does.

Once Rabbi Freundel has decided what constitutes tefilla be-tsibbur, the key argument that he applies to prohibit women from leading the tefilla is their lower status as non-commanded versus men who are commanded in community prayer. The operative legal principle is that one who is not commanded cannot fulfill the obligation of one who is commanded to perform a mitzvah. However, Rabbinic classifications can and do change. The most compelling example is the movement towards inclusion of deaf individuals into full participation in Jewish life without exception. This Rabbinic adjustment flies in the face of the frequent Talmudic linkage and exclusion of minors, mentally incompetent, and deaf individuals as a class from the performance of mitzvoth and is evidence of the inherent dynamism of halakha. Moreover, it demonstrates the Rabbinic appreciation for the value of social inclusion, for the importance of ensuring that all members of Klal Yisrael feel like they are part of the collective. Indeed, there are Rabbis who feel that the same sensitivity should be applied to women, for whom the pain of social exclusion is no less poignant than that of the deaf. Some suggest that a new class of women should be created to acknowledge the profoundly different status of women in modern society – in secular and religious contexts. Partnership Minyanim reflect an acceptance of this position by a group of men and women in Israel and around the world.

Rabbi Freundel briefly addresses the issue of kevod ha-tsibbur and kevod ha-briyot in the justification for Partnership Minyanim. He speculates that there is no “evidence” of significant numbers of women to warrant the modifications to the traditional tefilla that are practiced in Partnership Minyanim. However, this rationale is problematic. For one, Chazal did not generally require hard statistical evidence to justify changes in practice. Second, the standard phrase used by the Rabbis is “go out a look” and if, in fact, we were to do just that we would find that most major American cities with significant Orthodox communities currently have at least one Partnership Minyan. According to research done by William Kaplowitz, there are some 25 or so Partnership Minyanim, and the number is growing all the time.

Another difficult claim is Rabbi Freundels’ presumption about what is in women’s minds. He argues that the modest changes that have been made in Partnership Minyanim are unlikely to satisfy women interested in participating in tefilla. Considering the sheer excitement with which women everywhere embrace their new-found practice of leading services and reading Torah, this is a very difficult claim to sustain. (See, for example, the beautiful description of the powerful effect that newly discovered Torah reading had on a group of women in Toco Hills, Atlanta, this past Simchat Torah.) Moreover, I can imagine many women taking offense at this analysis. Rather than using the advent of Partnership Minyanim with its limited changes as evidence that the women are trying to adhere to a halakhic framework while embracing expanded roles in tefilla, he patronizingly dismisses their spiritual yearnings and the meaningfulness of the practices that have been adopted.

Finally, an interesting aspect of Rabbi Freundel’s review is his assertion that that irrespective of the origins of Kabbalat Shabbat in Kabbalistic prayer services in the 15th and 16th centuries, it is now a staple of tefilla be-tsibbur. He justifies this by prioritizing a survey of current practices about Kabbalat Shabbat which show that Orthodox Jews around the world go to shul Friday night and say Kabbalat Shabbat and end it with Kaddish. Therefore, it is an integral part of the tefilla and can only be led by a man. But, if we give such credence to current practice, that undermines one of the key criticisms of Partnership Minyanim, namely that the fact that it was not done in the past is the strongest halakhic proof that is it impermissible.

It is important to note that most Partnership Minyanim are self-constituting. They always represent the product of a choice made by a community of like minded people and are never imposed from the outside. As Rabbi Sperber has correctly written, they will not seem necessary or be satisfying for many people. But for those groups of women and men who embrace this as a form of tefilla, it is important to acknowledge that there is substantive halakhic basis for them to draw upon and that the social need they are addressing is immediate and legitimate. Moreover, the decision to form a Partnership Minyan should not be viewed as an intellectually dishonest stitching together of random sources to create something from nothing. As David Berger points out in an thoughtful essay in the new book “Radical Responsibility” dedicated to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbis who adopted novel positions did not see themselves as capitulating to external circumstances but rather as formulating  responses that they thought were right, that were compatible with their conception of the overall objectives of halakha. So too for those like Rabbi Sperber and Shapiro who have written in support of Partnership Minyanim. I fully respect Rabbi Freundel’s detailed response. But I would hope that he see Modern Orthodoxy as broad enough to include those who adopt practices that differ from his own.

Chaim Trachtman, New Rochelle, NY


Partnership Minyanim: A Defense and Encomium – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 25, 2013

Partnership minyanim such as Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and Darkhei Noam in New York, wherein women lead certain parts of the service, are becoming a significant force in the prayer experience of the Modern Orthodox community. Although these currently exist only in the biggest Jewish communities, they also exist on numerous college campuses, and as time goes on the phenomenon will probably expand. For some, like me, this is an exciting possibility. However, those in the Modern Orthodox camp who believe that women’s leadership of any part of the synagogue service is a violation of halakha, are concerned.

This concern has recently been expressed articulately and forcefully by Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel, noted author and Rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington D.C.,  in an article titled, “Putting the Silent Partner back into Partnership Minyanim,” available on Hirhurim. I commend Rabbi Freundel for his thorough analysis and critique of the phenomenon and will use his piece as an opportunity to share my own thoughts on the subject in the spirit of collegial debate. (I apologize in advance for responding to a 35 page paper with a blog post, and for inevitably skipping over a number of details.)

Rabbi Freundel opens with the surprising assertion that there has been no “formal attempt in writing” to discuss whether the partnership minyan’s practices are indeed halakhic. Although Rabbi Freundel may be making a unique contribution to the discussion with this article, he is actually part of a larger conversation that began with Rabbi Mendel Shapiro’s article on Women’s Torah reading (which Rabbi Freundel cites) and moves on to other aspects of tefillah as well. Dr. Chaim Trachtman has an edited volume on the subject, with essays by a number of authorities, Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives, and Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber has an entire book on the subject, On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations. The very issue Rabbi Freundel wishes to discuss, women leading Qabbalat Shabbat, was debated by Rabbi Michael Broyde, Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat: Some Thoughts, and Rabbi Josh Yuter, Land of Confusion: A Response to R. Broyde on Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat.

It seems unfair to characterize halakha as the “silent partner”, implying that not much thought was put into teasing out the halakha from the sources. It is my understanding, from speaking with people who were involved in the process of designing these minyanim, that halakha committees were formed and many discussions held, with sources analyzed carefully and thoughtfully. Although not all their analyses were written up, there is an entire booklet—as Rabbi Freundel himself references—put together by Michal and Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegel, and available for download on the Kolech website, which describes in detail the practical findings of these committees. In short, Rabbi Freundel’s characterization of halakha as the silent partner, and his article as the first, seems “ungenerous.”

Before getting to the main halakhic point, Rabbi Freundel addresses the question of whether it is incumbent upon the Orthodox community to allow women’s public participation in the synagogue service since barring them completely is hurtful. (Note: I am aware of the “us-them” language here and the fact that this debate is yet again two men talking about women – but I see no way around this as Rabbi Freundel and I are both men.) To this, Rabbi Freundel writes:

“We would need to know who or what group is entitled to speak for women—all women, all Jewish women, observant women, Orthodox women, etc. It is also necessary to have a clear idea of what percentage of women actually feel demeaned, troubled, or unhappy at not being able to lead services, and what percentage is happy or unconcerned with the status quo. To my knowledge no one has made a formal presentation of the data that exists on these questions—if any does exist. Absent an attempt to gather that information scientifically we are dealing with anecdote and hearsay.”

Though I do not have any statistics to offer Rabbi Freundel, I do not think his request for data is to the point. The fact that the Orthodox service, and often the Orthodox shul, is designed for men only should be clear to any objective observer. I have written about this previously, in “Davening Among the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.” Some Orthodox women have also written about their experience in shul and the pain it causes them; the piece by Dr. Vered Noam (in Hebrew), a Rabbinics professor at Tel Aviv University, is a poignant example. Furthermore, Rabbi Freundel does not mention that a growing number of men are unhappy with this situation as well, a phenomenon one can read about in Elana Sztokman’s The Men’s Section. Simply put, many women and men find the complete lack of female public presence in Orthodox synagogue services to be hurtful. Many women and men wish for a change. These are facts, although not quantifiable; I do not see what more information is needed.[1]

This brings us to the main halakhic point in his essay. Rabbi Freundel describes the argument for the legitimacy of women leading Qabbalat Shabbat as two-pronged. First, Qabbalat Shabbat is not a Talmudic requirement, but a qabbalistic custom that began in the 16th century, so the question of whether women are obligated is irrelevant. Second, Qabbalat Shabbat does not require a minyan, so the question of whether women are part of the minyan is irrelevant.

Rabbi Freundel believes the above analysis to be mistaken. Qabbalat Shabbat, he argues, is a custom that was accepted amongst all Jews and is therefore as binding as if it were halakha. A discussion about when the service was instituted is of academic interest only and he believes such discussion to be an example of the Genetic Fallacy (i.e., assuming historical accident defines the essence of a thing.) Additionally, as the custom is to have a mourner recite Qaddish at the end of this service, it seems clear that it was instituted as part of the public synagogue service—Rabbi Freundel calls this category tefillah be-rabbim (public prayer)—and should be subject to the usual requirements that the leader must be “obligated” in the service and be part of the minyan, in other words, the leader must be a man.

With all due respect to Rabbi Freundel, I believe his analysis is dependent upon a category error. There are two possible functions of a shaliaḥ tzibbur (prayer leader). The classic function of the shaliaḥ tzibbur is to say certain prayers out loud either on behalf of the congregation as a whole, e.g. Qaddish and Barkhu, or on behalf of individuals who do not know how to recite the prayer on his or her own, e.g. the repetition of the Amidah (=ḥazarat ha-shatz) and the repetition (Rashi) or out-loud recitation (Rambam) of the Sh’ma service (=pores al Sh’ma, no longer practiced in most synagogues).

The second function of the shaliaḥ tzibbur is to set the pace and tone of the prayers. In such cases, the shaliaḥ tzibbur is not reciting prayers out loud in order to fulfill anyone’s obligation, but to enhance the collective prayer experience by keeping the various participants together, saying the same prayers, singing the same tunes, etc. This is how the shaliaḥ tzibbur functions in the Qabbalat Shabbat service as well as in the Pesuqei de-Zimrah service, for example, another staple of partnership minyanim. The leader will generally recite the psalm silently, like the rest of the congregants, but will say the last couple of lines out loud so that everyone will know “where they are.” Sometimes, the leader will sing one of the psalms and the rest of the congregation may join in.

This tone and pace-setting function of the shaliaḥ tzibbur is entirely different from the recitation-on-behalf-of-others function since the leader is not reciting any prayer on behalf of the congregation or any individual. Rather, each participant is reciting the prayers on his or her own. Therefore, even if Rabbi Freundel were correct in claiming that there is an actual halakhic obligation to recite Qabbalat Shabbat (I do not think he is), this does not mean that the leader of the service need share this obligation. The shaliaḥ tzibbur is simply setting the pace and tone for the service, he (or she) is not reciting anything on anyone’s behalf.

This point can be illustrated in two examples Rabbi Freundel brings to demonstrate the existence of a public recitation not limited to the classic Sh’ma and Amidah prayers: Magen Avot on Friday night and the ten-person zimmun after meals. The first, although instituted as a way of extending the evening service, was built as a kind of mini-repetition of the Amidah. For this reason the leader recites the prayer out loud on behalf of the congregation. The second is a classic example of a prayer said by one person on behalf of the participants. In both of the examples, the shaliaḥ tzibbur fulfills the classic function of reciting a prayer on behalf of those obligated in that prayer service (Ma’ariv and Birkat ha-Mazon respectively), and must be someone obligated in the prayer service in order to do so.

Another example referenced by Rabbi Freundel is seliḥot, which he correctly points out is treated as a davar she-be-qedushah (a holy service requiring a minyan) even though it is post-Talmudic. This is an excellent example because the function of the shaliaḥ tzibbur in this service is subject to interpretation. In some traditions, the leader recites certain parts out loud (the 13 attributes of God, the aneinu paragraphs, etc.) while the participants listen silently. In other traditions all of these are said together or privately. The difference between these two traditions is illustrative precisely of the difference between whether the shaliaḥ tzibbur is performing the function of recitation on behalf of the community or whether the shaliaḥ tzibbur is setting the pace and tone for the participants’ prayers. (Ostensibly, whether there is a restriction on who can lead seliḥot would be dependent on which custom one follows.)

Rabbi Freundel finds further support in his claim that a woman can never be a shaliaḥ tzibbur by pointing to the Tosefta (Ḥagigah 1:3; b. Ḥullin 24b) which states that for a male to be the shaliaḥ tzibbur he must have a full beard. Clearly, Rabbi Freundel points out, the text does not even contemplate the possibility of women fulfilling this role. Firstly, the fact that the Rabbis didn’t discuss it doesn’t prove that they thought it was halakhically illegitimate. More importantly, I will again point out that the Rabbis are talking about a shaliaḥ tzibbur who recites the prayers on the people’s behalf, not someone who sets the pace and chooses the tune. There was no Qabbalat Shabbat service or Pesuqei de-Zimrah service in the Talmudic period; the former didn’t yet exist and the latter was recited privately by individuals. In Talmudic times, the shaliaḥ tzibbur only fulfilled the function of reciting prayers on behalf of others—a very important role in an age before prayer books.

Considering the above, it appears to me that since the shaliaḥ tzibbur for Qabbalat Shabbat (and Pesuqei de-Zimrah) is not reciting any part of the service in order to fulfill the participants’ obligations, but is merely setting the pace and tone of the prayer service, there is nothing, halakhically speaking, to bar women from leading these services.

This brings me to my final point. Although this blog post has focused on questions of halakhic minutia, this really isn’t the main issue. The main issue is that the way Orthodox services and synagogues are run is hurtful to the sensibilities of a number of contemporary women and men, who have become accustomed to social parity in every place but the synagogue. Solutions must be found. Sadly, instead of trying to find a solution Rabbi Freundel—and he is just one example—goes to great lengths to create an issur (prohibition) where there is none. Now I do not know whether partnership minyanim will prove to be the solution; nevertheless, I believe they are halakhically defensible and sociologically critical.

Rabbi Freundel ends his piece by urging Orthodox people not to have partnership minyanim, and warning the reader that this phenomenon might “split the community.” In my opinion, offering an option that many Orthodox people (even rabbis) consider to be halakhically valid is not what splits the community. What splits the community is the threat from one group to declare the reasonably defended practice of another to be illegitimate. The Orthodox community has survived halakhic debates of more gravitas that who gets to lead Qabbalat Shabbat. There are debates about what foods are kosher and what actions violate Shabbat. These debates often concern real Torah prohibitions (not just customs) and yet both sides remain Orthodox. There are serious debates about whether day schools should be mixed-gender or separate or what prayers should be instituted to celebrate the founding of Israel. The Orthodox community has survived these as well. If the community splits over this issue as Rabbi Freundel predicts, it will not be the fault of the partnership minyanim.

The partnership minyanim are trying to offer a religious service to Orthodox people who feel uncomfortable with the level of participation available to women in the establishment synagogues. The disenfranchisement of women in our synagogues is a real concern and many women—and men—need a different venue. A short while ago I wrote about the need for a paradigm shift in Modern Orthodox prayer services. The presence of women in the synagogue needs to be felt, and their voices need to be heard. The partnership minyan is an excellent example of this type of necessary paradigm shift, and I, for one, wish to see them go mi-ḥayil el ḥayil, from strength to strength.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta


[1] Two technical notes: Rabbi Freundel states that he does not wish to discuss the already highly debated question of women reading from the Torah. Instead he limits his discussion to the Qabbalat Shabbat service. For the sake of this blog post, I will do the same and, as he suggests, will forego discussion of the oft-quoted Talmudic passage of kevod ha-tzibbur (the honor of the congregation), which forms the basis of the debate surrounding women’s Torah reading. Rabbi Freundel goes on to discuss whether kevod ha-briyot (human dignity) should be a mitigating factor in this debate – he thinks not – but I will skip over this issue for the sake of brevity, as I think it unnecessary to invoke kevod ha-briyot here.


Defining Equality in Judaism – by Rabbi Mark Goldfeder

October 25, 2012

The entire debate surrounding the ‘treatment of women in halacha’ seems to me to start with a rather questionable premise, namely that rabbinic law in general is hostile towards women. Take a step back; Jewish Law from the beginning enacted new religious legislation to improve the condition of women. (Just see Babylonian Talmud, Vilna Edition, Kesubot 47a, giving married women additional rights). Some of the grand advances that can be attributed to this legal system include the concept of divorce, the forbidding of marital rape, the idea that women could own property, and mandatory prenuptial agreements specifying a large alimony in the event of divorce. For hundreds if not thousands of years religious convictions were at the forefront of the development of rights for women. Even if you argue that our tradition is no longer at the forefront of democratic development, without the tremendous groundwork that Judaism laid it is very possible that these debates would not exist at all, and so any of these conflicts should be
approached with a sense of humility, giving the benefit of the doubt to the ultimately progressive nature of religious morality instead of immediately labeling particular practices discriminatory or unfair. When religious mores conflict with modern perspectives, we must think carefully and decide to what extent human rights are culturally and historically contextual, and therefore to what extent they should be culturally and historically imperialistic; that is, in what situations should modern ideas prevail over existing religious ideas.

The arguments I have read about women in Halacha more often than not seem to define the equality they strive for by simply requiring the removal of barriers to the rise of women to the same status as men and ignore the social and legal structures that have given rise to those different roles in the first place. They seem to accept the general applicability of a male standard and promise a very limited form of equality – equality defined as the ability for women to be just like their male counterparts. What we should really be striving for, ala Catherine Mackinnon, is a separately defined equality wherein women are given the ability to fully express themselves solely as women, without having to also compete for status in a male-centric structure. Women need their own standard, and while the phrase “separate but equal” may not be politically-correct in a post segregation society, when we ask for a standard that is different we by definition are asking for a standard that is in some ways separate. And yet, phrased differently, the application of a separate but equal doctrine in regards to gender is far from controversial. We might wish for a race-blind world, but we do not really want an entirely gender-blind world. Race separate restrooms, for instance, are of course taboo, but gender separate are de rigueur. On a practical legal front, family court judges consistently make custody decisions that favor mothers over fathers. The mere fact that a practice discriminates in some way between the sexes does not always have to imply inequality; it can sometimes be simple recognition of legitimate and appropriate difference. That difference when applied to men and women may sometimes be desirable, which is unlikely to ever be the case when applied to race.

I believe that rabbinic law is not just resisting a single canonical form of gender equality, but instead is expressing an alternate vision of equality, a sincere attempt to ensure that in being handed their equality women are being valued as women, not simply being given the permission and ability to go out and act like men.

The idea has been deeply ingrained in Western societal thought that there are very specifically gendered role definitions for the sexes. It is fair to say that, at least until recently, the idea that a woman’s ideal place was in the home and as a mother was a commonly held sentiment. No one can deny that in some areas, such as maternity, in order to combat unfair or discriminatory practices we cannot just ignore the difference between men and women, allowing women to be men. Here we must ask men to make a positive change in how they think and how they act; we need to tell men that having and raising children is not just the responsibility of the mother. Society should recognize that common responsibility and, to the greatest extent possible, share in that task while compensating instead of subtly punishing (and/or holding back) women for the time and the work that they put in.

Jewish Law has recognized this idea for well over two-thousand years. One particularly striking aspect of Jewish law (as defined by the Torah, the Talmud, and the Shulkhan Arukh) is the very noticeable and deliberate absence of a specific role definition for women. Had the Law intended to preclude for women all roles but that of mother, it could easily have done so; just as the Law clearly prescribes the obligations of a husband to his wife and vice-versa, and the obligations of parents to children and vice-versa, it could have also made mandatory for women not only marriage and procreation but also the entire range of household duties which would have defined an exclusive role for them. The law as it stands though is that women are not obligated to marry or procreate, nor to perform any household duties if they choose not to do so.

On the other hand, while Jewish law does not then define a “proper” or “necessary” role for women, it does assume that the continuation of a people depends upon the voluntary selection by at least some women of that role of mother. Recognizing that women could easily be disadvantaged by that position, the Law attempts to even the playing field somewhat and encourage the exercise of that choice. It does so by religiously incentivising motherhood, making sure that women who choose to enter motherhood are societally appreciated and socially compensated to the greatest extent possible. In practice the civil and religious demands made upon Jewish women by Jewish law are relaxed in order to assure that no legal obligation could possibly interfere with a domestic role; if a woman does in fact elect to discover some aspects of her own personal fulfillment in the act of becoming a mother, no law or policy will stand in the way of her performance of that sacred trust.

The primary category of commandments from which women were exempted for this reason were those which would either require or make urgently preferable a communal appearance on their part. (See Saul J. Berman ‘The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism’ Tradition, Volume 14:2 1973.) As noted, the underlying motive of exemption is not the attempt to unjustly deprive women of the opportunity to achieve religious fulfillment. Rather, these exemptions are a tool used by the Law to achieve a particular social goal, to assure that no legal or social obligations would interfere with the selection by Jewish women of a role which was at least temporarily centered in the home. Male members of the community are required to pick up the slack by ensuring that there are in fact quorums that regularly meet, and that the communal responsibilities in general are constantly being fulfilled. It is vital to emphasize that despite the exemptions discussed above, the mother role, although a protected role, is not the mandated or exclusively proper role, and that women are also free to participate communally if they choose to do so.

Do not for a second think that Judaism alone as a legal or social system struggles with these questions. The American lawyer, for instance, who is given optional maternity leave, can exercise that right, but because they have only nominal equality and the role of motherhood is not really a common responsibility for which they are compensated instead of subtly punished, they may then still be forced to watch as their male coworkers, who do not have two sets of responsibilities, advance without them. Article 5(b) of CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (perhaps the most prominent international normative instrument recognizing the special concerns of women, insofar as it goes further than simply requiring equality of opportunity and also demands equality of result) tasks member states ‘To ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function and the recognition of the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children, it being understood that the interest of the children is the primordial consideration in all cases.’ Judaism understood the importance of Article 5 a long time ago.

Which leads us back to the uncomfortable technicalities of dealing with an internally consistent system of law. In Jewish law, any exemption (male or female) from religious obligation necessitates a balancing loss in religious power.   The exemption that women have from the commandment to participate in certain forms of communal service, for example, results in their disqualification from being counted towards the quorum necessary to engage in such worship.  Similarly, in civil matters, the fact that women are relieved in certain situations of the obligation to testify results in their inability to be part of the pair or team of witnesses who bind the fact-finding process of the court. (Note, however, that women are believed; it just does not fall under the technical category of halachic ‘testimony.’ Most of what we colloquially call ‘testimony’ in Beth Din nowadays is also not technically testimony, and women are able to participate there as fully and completely as men). Such exemptions and disqualifications are not limited to women; for example a Jewish king may not participate in judicial proceedings since he is exempt from being prosecuted by a religious court.  The exemptions that women are given from religious obligations are meant to foster women’s ability to productively choose their roles and to spread responsibility more evenly as opposed to simply telling to be men as well as women, to give birth and not miss a day of work or worship. However, whatever the motivations, an internally consistent Jewish law system cannot avoid the technical legal consequences of exemption. The inability of the court to compel a woman’s presence results in the correlative loss on the part of the woman (in certain situations) of the power to compel the court to find the facts in accordance with her testimony, or to serve as a judge and compel others to appear.

Seen in this light, the lack of mitzvot for women in the public sphere is not intended to discriminate; on the contrary, it arises from a particular religious vision of separate but equal gender norms – a vision that allows women the freedom to be fully effeminate and not just occupy male space with identical male communal responsibilities. This is a vision that is likely different than that of the some female members of society, but it cannot be called inherently biased. It is practically impossible to construct a realistically gender neutral society. Gender equality, unlike race equality, must inherently involve some aspects that are separate and unequal, and which must then be balanced carefully against each other. As we noted above, almost everyone agrees to some level of gender discrimination. Halacha is and always has been a prescribed set of values, which defines itself in terms of duties and obligations, not rights. What halacha does, by telling us what is and is not a mitzvah, what we are and are not commanded to do, what is and is not a fulfillment of God’s will in a particular situation such that we receive reward for doing it, is to show us where Jewish law really thinks that line of difference ought to be drawn, rather than just enforcing a canonical vision of equality. This line, in regard to the equality of men and women, cannot be compared at all to other minhagim, where we are more likely to add or subtract non-essential, non prescribed, or non proscribed ritual actions based on new ideas; unlike almost any other accepted minhag, this is a line that is central to halacha’s understanding of the family, and to halacha’s vision of Jewish life.

Yes, any attempt to foster a particular social goal through class legislation, lumping together and defining the status of an entire segment of the community universally and extrinsically by law rather than by contractual agreement is going to be unduly restrictive of some individual self-expression. But that is part of buying into a system and its vision. Regardless, the anger and accusations in this debate are just sad. Genuine and committed people are rushing to conclusions, missing the subtleties of well-reasoned religious analysis. Whether you think that the line should be halachic recognition of a practice as positively good by its definition as a mitzvah, or halacha’s recognition of a practice as an acceptable possibility by virtue of the fact that it is not forbidden, I would hope that people can approach this discussion with an open mind, recognizing that each of these are sincere (and each undoubtedly to some) imperfect attempts to draw a line and find a balance wherein men and women are both able to live their lives and their Judaism to the fullest.

Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, Atlanta


Davening Among the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 9, 2012

Several months ago, a guest speaker visited our synagogue for a talk on current events in the Middle East. I enjoyed the talk and after services I asked my wife what she thought. She responded: “Did you notice that the speaker never once turned his face towards the women’s section? He had his face turned away from us the entire time, as if we weren’t even there.”

I had to admit that I had not noticed this. Why didn’t this man, a modern person speaking about Israel, turn towards the women? He was a secular Jew, so it could not have been due to “extreme piety” of the ignoring-women variety. I am sure that there is no other speaking venue where he would distinguish between men and women in this way.

Perhaps the placement of the podium in the room had something to do with it. Like most (not all) Orthodox shuls, our podium is situated in the men’s section, so naturally, the speaker faced the men. A slight angling of the body is all it would have taken for the speaker to face the women as well, but my guess is that he absorbed the subconscious message of the building’s logistics: “The people in the main section—the one opposite the podium—are the important ones. Face them.”

Watching the Flintstones with my children one day, it struck me that our synagogues have an uncanny resemblance to lodge no. 26 of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, where Fred and Barney go to have a men’s night out. I say this in jest, but it is illustrative. The men of the LOWB wear a special garb, they have a special code and gestures which they use, and there are no women. Although our synagogues are a step advanced from the Stone Age lodge—we let our women watch—the resemblances are worth noting; only the men have the special garb, only the men know the secret handshake, and when the Grand Poobah speaks, his podium faces only men.

To be fair, the synagogue I attend is quite modern and sensitive to women’s issues, and our rabbi is overwhelmingly so. In addition, the architectural plans for the new building include a fifty-fifty split with a podium in the middle. However, I think the anecdote is illustrative of the pernicious message which is unconsciously and unintentionally being sent to the women and girls in our community: “You are not really here.”

Of course, the placement of the podium is only one way—albeit an obvious one—that Orthodox synagogues communicate to their participants that women are not really in the room. This message is also communicated by access to the holiest and most central feature of the synagogue, the Torah scroll, which is removed from the ark, inevitably by a man, during Shabbat morning services. The Torah is then handed to the man leading the services and carried around so everybody can touch it and kiss it… well, not everybody.

It is true that in some Orthodox synagogues the Torah is either passed to a woman to carry through the women’s section or is carried through the women’s section by the man leading the services. However, in most Orthodox synagogues the Torah is carried only through the men’s section; the message being that access to the Torah is only for participants in the prayer services, not for onlookers. Some synagogues that are sensitive to the problem decide on the awkward solution of carrying the Torah slowly near the meitza (barrier). The women can then scramble to the meitza and vie for access in Darwinian fashion.

Traditional garb is another way Orthodox synagogues send the message that the men are the real participants. Men’s ritual accoutrements, special prayer shawls around their shoulders or over their heads, and leather straps and boxes on their heads and arms, are significant ritually and spiritually. Needless to say, the average Orthodox woman does not wear tzitzit or t’fillin and has no ritual equivalent of her own.

Other ways the second-class position of women in the synagogue is communicated are even more complex, as they appear hardwired into the halakhic system and changing or tinkering with them would be more than a little problematic for the halakhically observant.

Firstly, for the prayer service to start, or at least for certain special prayers to be said, there needs to be a minyan (a prayer quorum) of ten men; women do not count. Without ten men services cannot be held, but services can run from beginning to end without even one woman present. This, of course, is in compliance with the halakhic rulings found in the Talmud; nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that women generally show up late, if at all.

Secondly, women do not lead anything; not just the special minyan prayers (devarim she-be-qedusha) but activities that are not minyan-related at all, such as misheberakhs for the US government or the State of Israel, opening the ark to take out the Torah, or reciting birkot ha-shaar.

Modern Orthodoxy is in a bind when it comes to women in the synagogue. In a world where gender roles are constantly shifting, it becomes rather difficult for a religious group that is both modern and Orthodox to navigate the many tensions that exist between traditional practices and modern egalitarian values. Sometimes these tensions express themselves around halakhic issues: women leading devarim she-be-qedusha, wearing t’fillin, counting for a minyan, or participating in the Torah-reading ceremony. Other times the issues appear more sociological: bringing the Torah through the women’s section, women holding or carrying the Torah, placement of the podium, or women speaking from the podium.

The halakhic issues require textual analysis and remain extremely divisive and I am not suggesting here that Orthodox communities should make radical breaks with halakha. Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakha and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.

In my opinion, wherever one falls out on the halakhic issues—and the spectrum is wide—none of our synagogues really want to be sending the message that women are only spectators. Therefore, I strongly suggest that we take a close look at the messages the structure and culture of our synagogues are sending to women. If the overwhelming message is LOWB-like, what changes can be made, commensurate with the halakhic views of the rabbi and the culture of the institution, to make women feel like they are part of the services and not just watching? Can the podium be placed more centrally? Can the Torah be brought to the women’s side? Can a woman carry it? Can she hold it after g’lilah? Is the meḥitza too tall or difficult to see through? Is there anything at all that a woman can lead or recite out loud during services so that a woman’s voice can be heard as part of the prayer experience?

It is my hope that every synagogue will take this message to heart and think constructively about how to create an Orthodox synagogue experience loyal to halakha and welcoming of women; where women feel like participants instead of spectators. In her famous essay, “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question,” Cynthia Ozick wrote: “My own synagogue is the only place in the world where I am not named ‘Jew’.” I am sure that no Modern Orthodox rabbi or synagogue wants to send this message, and yet unconsciously—but systemically—we do. For the sake of our women, our girls and the health of our communities, the message needs to change.