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.

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Obama’s Advocacy of Gay Marriage: An Alternative Orthodox Response – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 22, 2012

In an interview with ABC News last week, President Barack Obama said, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Since then all hell has broken loose. In the Orthodox Jewish community alone, three different organizations reacted publicly to the president’s announcement. Agudath Israel announced that they are “staunch in their opposition to redefining marriage,” although they admitted that the president, like everyone else, has a right to their opinion.[1] The Orthodox Union expressed disappointment in Obama’s statement, stating that they “oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same sex unions.”

The most strident condemnation came from the National Council of Young Israel which expressed “deep disappointment” in the president’s statement, writing that they are “diametrically opposed to same gender marriage, which is a concept that is antithetical to the religious principles that we live by.” The NCYI ended their statement with the following: “As firm believers that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, we simply cannot accept a newfound social position that alters the value, definition, and sanctity of marriage as set forth in the Torah, which has guided us for thousands of years.”

Here is where I see the problem. Certainly the Torah has guided observant Jews for thousands of years. Nevertheless, the United States of America and its president are not bound to legislate in accordance with the Torah. Religious Jews are just one group in the plethora of religious communities in the United States and we can hardly condemn the president for not taking Torah law into account.

Taking a step back, it seems to me that—with all due respect to the various institutions quoted above—all of these statements are missing the boat. The most incisive analysis published on this issue thus far, from the Orthodox community at least, has been Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s piece in the Huffington Post, “The greatest threat to the future of the American family is not gay marriage but rather divorce.” I would add that this threat extends to “accidental families” as well, wherein the couple does not remain together, irrespective of whether they were ever married.

In contrast, same-sex marriages are of interest to a certain subset of the population, and do not affect the lives of heterosexuals who wish to marry their opposite-sex partners. The existence or legality of gay marriage should not be an issue for the Orthodox Jewish community, unless there is a fear that Orthodox rabbis would be forced to perform such weddings or that Orthodox synagogues would be required to treat such couples as “married.” However, if the NCYI is concerned about this, they should have raised this in their statement as the OU did:

“…we appreciate President Obama’s statement today acknowledging that in states where same sex relationships are legally recognized, such laws must carefully address and protect the religious liberties of dissenting individuals and institutions, and the President’s reported reference to the New York State law (on whose strong religious liberty provisions the OU worked) as a model for how such protections must be in place.”

This concern, at least, makes sense and falls under the purview of an Orthodox Jewish organization aiming to protect its own constituency. What is not under the purview of Orthodox Jewish institutions, or the institutions of any other religious group, is to demand that America enact legislation that is specifically in line with its own religious tenets. To paraphrase a quip made by a colleague, I assume the NCYI would not be shocked to learn that in addition to supporting gay marriage, President Obama also does not keep Kosher and drives on Shabbat.

Although I have no problem with all fifty states permitting gay marriage, Boteach makes an alternative suggestion that is worth considering. He argues that perhaps the government should leave the marriage business altogether and only do civil unions. That way any couple, homosexual or heterosexual, will receive the same civil status and legal recognition, and each can “consecrate” their union in a manner meaningful and acceptable to their own faith communities.

In truth, the implied claim that the legal status of a married couple in America carries some “religious weight” in the Orthodox community is disingenuous. The only reason couples married in America are considered married according to halakha is because they perform a religious Jewish ceremony. If they were married in a civil ceremony instead, then according to the vast majority of halakhic authorities (Rav Henkin being the notable exception) they would not be considered married according to halakha.

Furthermore, if a Jewishly married couple were to get only a civil divorce, there is no halakhic authority that I am aware of that would consider them divorced according to Jewish law. None. So in what way does the Orthodox community actually take the legal status conferred on a couple as binding in a religious sense? This is why it is hard for me to understand the extreme, almost visceral, reaction of much of the Orthodox leadership.

Two further points need to be made. First, as I wrote in a previous post, even in the Orthodox world-view, where homosexual congress is considered forbidden, there needs to be sensitivity to the fact that homosexuals—whether for genetic, hormonal, or psychological reasons—experience the same need for love and intimate companionship that heterosexuals experience. Homosexual men and women looking to marry are simply trying to establish a life of love and intimacy in a familial context in the same way that heterosexual couples that marry and have children do. Although the OU’s statement does mention that they condemn discrimination, overall this voice of concern and empathy for homosexuals is sadly lacking in the current discourse. To quote Boteach again: “Who does it bother to have gay couples granted the decency to visit each other in hospital during serious illness, make end-of-life decisions and receive tax benefits as a couple?”

Second, considering the current erosion of the stable family unit and its replacement either with rampant divorce or non-committed relationships, homosexual couples who want to form committed relationships are hardly the enemy. In fact, this type of relationship is closest in character to the choice made by married heterosexual couples in religious communities like our own. Contrary to the opinion of some fringe groups, people who feel they are attracted only to members of their own gender will continue to feel this way throughout their lives. Considering this fact, as a religious community deeply concerned about the strength of American society, whose goals are to solidify family values, shouldn’t the gay couples who wish to marry and bring up children be seen as our allies, not our adversaries?


[1] Everyone else except for Marc Stanley, apparently, whose statement the Agudah labels “outrageous, offensive, and wrong.”