The Voice of Women in Holy Song and Prayer by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 12, 2018

In the beginning of this past week’s Torah portion,Toldot, the Torah writes, “These are the generations of Isaac…” Surprisingly, we are told in the next verse that there are no generations, that Rivka, like each of our ancestors, was  barren. The Torah comes to describe the empty space of no children and the need for prayer to fill that void. In the next verse Isaac prays for a child opposite Rebecca which Rashi explains to mean that Isaac and Rebecca each prayed on their own, he in one corner of the room and she in the other, – i.e. the first Shul.

 

Though communal prayer is something comparatively recent in Jewish history (since the destruction of the Temple), nevertheless it seems to play a central role in our public Jewish life today, and procedural concerns surrounding it can loom large in a community.   Recently, I was asked about women saying kaddish in shul and whether hearing the voice of a woman saying kaddish is of halachic concern.

 

The question of whether a woman may say kaddish for a loved one has been treated extensively in halachic literature.   Raav Yosef Henkin famously permitted it and this has become the normative practice in many modern orthodox Shuls, and indeed, according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was always the custom going back many generations.  Even so, for some the voice of women saying kaddish along with men sounds incongruous in an orthodox synagogue.

 

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote the following on the question a woman saying Birchat Hagomel in Shul with regard to the voice of women (Yichave Daat 4:15):

 

….In our times (genders are less separate) and women are together with men in the marketplace, and additionally, a Shul is a place where we stand in awe of the Divine, thus we do not have to worry about hearing kol ishah, the (sensual) voice of a woman (in shul).  As the Bene Yissaschar writes, in a place where the Divine presence is revealed, men and women may sing together. Furthermore, we can prove that a woman’s (singing) voice is not problematic in a synagogue from the following piece of Talmud (Megilah 23a): “All are called up for the seven aliyot to the Torah, even women….Though we do not do this due to kavod hatzibur, we see that in the essence of the law it is permitted.  Why is this not a violation of hearing a woman’s singing voice?…We thus must conclude that in a holy place the Rabbis were not worried that the singing voice of a woman would result in sexual thoughts.”

 

Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote the following regarding women coming to the Beit Midrash to say kaddish where there is no mechitza (Igros Moshe, OC, 5:12):

 

“Regarding the question of the need for a mechiza outside of a Beit Kineset, for instance in a house of mourning or in a Beit Midrash (where there is no mechitza) in which people pray on weekdays or at mincha on Shabbat …In all previous generations the custom was that at times a needy woman would come in the Beit Midrash to collect tzedaka or a woman who was mourning to say kaddish…If a woman will be coming every shabbat regularly to mincha then we should not be lenient and should require a mechiza.  If it is only periodic then perhaps we would permit her to attend without a mechiza, even up to two women, but more than two would require a mechitza.”

 

Recently a visitor in my Shul from a Charedi community in the New York area commented to me:  “I know there is halachic writing both ways about women saying kaddish. I am not addressing that. I am a Chasidisha yid from ____ and tonight as I was leading the davening in your shul it came time for Kaddish.  Suddenly not only were men saying kaddish but women also. In my community men and women do not interact socially at all. But, I thought to put myself in the shoes of the women in your shul work who in the larger world, work with men and lead organizations of men.  For them to walk into a shul and sit behind a mechitza must be very strange.”

 

Several years ago a woman in the process of converting asked me why in my synagogue women sing along with men during the davening while in other Orthodox shuls she had been to they do not.  I told her in Judaism there are opinions which do not allow women to sing in the presence of men and there are opinions which do allow women to sing before men in shul. When it comes to the honor of heaven, to involving all Jews in prayer, we must follow the halachic opinion which allows this.  If we do not, we may think we are being strict with regard to not allowing the voice of women in front of men but we are being lenient on prayer itself and its level of inclusion and inspiration, thus reducing the Kavod Shamayim, the Honor of Heaven.

 

As with all halchic decisions, when strict in one area we are simultaneously lenient in another.  Thus, we must weigh both sides very carefully to be sure we are producing the most kavod shamayim, honor to God, in guiding the Jewish people.

 

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Adam One as Paradigm for Communal Spiritual Leadership by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 30, 2015

 

Synagogue rabbis today are teachers, administrators, and pastors.  They give sermons, raise money, teach classes, facilitate Jewish lifecycle events, answer halakhic questions, coordinate meetings, occasionally change lightbulbs, absorb the anger and anxiety of individuals for the sake of the community’s greater health, assist Bar and Bat Mitzvah children with their drashot, comfort the mourner, support the orphan, the widow and the needy, give musar when it is required, and aid in facilitating conversations of leadership, planning, and diplomacy.  None of these are forbidden to women and in some of these roles, women may, in fact, be more adept.

 

The word “ordination,” when used for women in Orthodoxy, feels unorthodox.  Not because there is a halachic problem with the ordination of women.  In fact, the title of ordination today has few, if no, halachic repercussions. Today semicha, or ordination, is a degree.  It means one has studied certain sections of Jewish law and knows how to apply them.

During the post World War I era, Sarah Schenirer, a Polish seamstress with a passion for Jewish tradition, developed the first school system for Orthodox girls in history. By the eve of World War II, the network encompassed over two hundred and fifty schools with more than forty thousand pupils, primarily in Eastern Europe. Pictured here is the second graduating class of the Bais Ya’akov in Lodz, Poland, in 1934. Institution: Yehudis Bobker, Sydney, Australia

My discomfort with Orthodox women receiving the title Rabbi is that it feels like a blurring of the lines, differences between genders.  In Orthodox life, especially within the realm of prayer and mitzvot, gender lines are real and differences between male and female palpable.  The Torah itself certainly is interested in the differences between male and female as evidenced by the first chapter of Genesis.  Male and female in that first chapter, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, are created side by side as equals, made together in the image of God and together commanded to populate and subdue the world.  According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, this first chapter is not overshadowed by the second chapter in which Hava is created from Adam but independently stands as its own human paradigm.  Read the rest of this entry »


Different Roles-by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 29, 2014

I came across THIS ARTICLE by Rabbi Avi Shafran, my old 10th grade Rebbe.  There is a lot he writes in the public arena that I do not agree with, but this one I really did.  I articulated a similar notion in my post in this blog about Maharats HERE.  Indeed when our Maharat here at Bais Abraham asked me if she was expected to go to the weekday Schacharit minyan, I told her that of course she could but it was not expected, and perhaps she would like praying at home better and spending the time with her young children or learning.  

 

Men and women have different halachic obligations and as Orthodox Jews we believe that men and women are different.  Because the genders bring very different voices and points of view to the table is precisely why we must empower women to be Jewish leaders, to be learned, but we must take care not to push them to be the same as men.  This could send  observant Judaism down a dangerous path of erasing the distinctions between the genders, much as has happened in some more liberal Jewish movements.  Ultimately such a path does not honor women and their leadership, their power, and uniqueness nor does it honor men’s, but rather takes something precious away and creates fewer opportunities for both genders to bring their strengths to the community.  


Treating Orthodox Women as Equals, Guest Post by Ronn Torossian

August 11, 2013

As the father of young daughters who are blessed to attend Modern Orthodox yeshivas in Manhattan, my girls are taught that their potential is unlimited. At home and at school, they are constantly reminded that they can do anything, and succeed at whatever they choose to do in life. As girls living in the year 2013, we tell them that there are no doors closed to them. Doesn’t every good Jewish parent teach their kids similar values?

Today, Jewish girls go to day school, then Jewish high school, and then universities. Indeed, women – in Jewish life and elsewhere – can do it all. They are able to learn, study, and (gasp) even master materials that many men cannot.  And once they get there, should they then rely upon men for guidance on Jewish issues? NO.

With all due respect, is a woman special because of who she is – or who she marries? A Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) may indeed be a special woman – but shouldn’t we also have female Jewish communal leaders who are learned and well versed in Jewish issues? Shouldn’t Jewish role models be true Jewish spiritual advisers, whether they are men or women?

For these and many other reasons, I have been inspired after recently spending time with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox institution which ordains women as spiritual leaders. The women who learn at Yeshivat Maharat study high level curriculum – and are ordained as leaders of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah. For many years, while countless Orthodox women have learned Torah, there hasn’t been a path for them to follow to lead communities. How can our community be served when half of our community is being ignored?

How can anyone adequately serve the community without understanding both women and Jewish law?  Whether on issues of “taharas hamishpacha” (family purity), marriage counseling, bat mitzvahs, or simply understanding a women’s mind, shouldn’t female Jewish leaders who are learned and educated consult – and lead – on these issues? Shouldn’t female spiritual leaders help women? Can’t women spiritual leaders bring a perspective that men don’t see?

Many Orthodox Jewish leaders stand firm on this issue – and indeed form a silent consensus. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel wrote, “women can be the gedolim (the greats) of the generation and serve as halakhic decisors.”  And supporters of this view continue to emerge.

It is high time, in 2013, that women are encouraged to stand on their own. Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, and other women were ordained prophets. Much as Halacha is constantly interpreted, nowhere in our written or oral law is it determined that leadership or moral authority is restricted for women. Spirituality is not exclusively in the domain of men.

Strong, smart, learned, and accomplished Jewish women leaders are necessary for the advancement of Am Israel (the nation of Israel). This is about the future of our people.

My mother, Penny Waga, was a single mother who raised us alone. She was indeed the toughest, strongest, most spiritual person I ever met. She was a member of a woman’s tefiillah (prayer) group and taught us we could do anything and everything. Those of us with mothers or daughters need to teach Jewish girls (and women) that they can do everything and anything.

Today, women are equal to men. At a recent graduation ceremony at the Ramaz Jewish school, the graduating women were reminded:  “As you walk, remember that you are not alone. Ruth, Rachel, and Abby. Know that as you march forward, we– all of us—this entire community, walks with you.” Indeed, more members of our community need to celebrate and support this great blessing for the Jewish people that is Yeshivat Maharat.

For more information on Yeshivat Maharat email info@yeshivatmaharat.org or call (718)796-0590.

Ronn Torossian is an entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. He is a self-described Type A personality – who believes women and men are different – yet both holy, and both capable of leading.


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


Learning from Hillel and Shami

June 3, 2012

A Brooklyn based newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, has recently tried to cast more inclusive sections of Orthodoxy in a negative light.  Instead of understanding Rabbi Zev Farber’s recent Morethodoxy post about the cultural place of women in shul as a tension between two competing values, that of traditional prayer architecture and process on the one hand and that of the desire by the halacha to honor and include all Jews (even women) on the other, Yated saw only one side.

In the Gemara (Shabbat 31a) Hillel and Shamai argue regarding conversions.  Convert after convert comes to both Shami and Hillel and each convert presents themselves as insincere, desiring to convert to only some of the laws of the Torah or to convert for selfish reasons.  Obviously the decision to accept or reject such converts lies again in a tension between two competing halacic values, on one side the need to not dilute the Jewish people and their commitment to Torah, and on the second the Jewish value of embracing others and not mistreating the stranger.  Shami emphasizes the first value over the second in an extreme way, so much so that he chases the would be convert out with a stick, and Hillel emphasizes the second value, so much so that he immediately embraces the seemingly insincere (yes I know what Tosfos says)  convert and converts them all right away.   Which is right?  Both are legitimate Jewish opinions, both the word of God, but only one is the halacha, the path we as Jews are to follow, that of Hillel.  Indeed the Talmud explains that the law is like Hillel due to his embracing, tolerant personality (Talmud Aruvin 13b).

Today Yated is suggesting YCT Rabbonim continue to be excluded from the RCA. In times past their camp suggested the RCA be excluded from Orthodoxy.  Today they suggest YCT’s future talmide chachomim are illegitimate, in years past they (or papers like them) suggested the RCA’s Godol was illegitimate.

When I was growing up in the Charedi world I heard only slander about the RCA and Yeshiva University.  That YU was a, “Rabbi factory” and that their musmachim knew nothing.   I think I was 15 before I realized that “JB” was not a famous criminal but a Gadol Ba’torah, Rabbi Yosef Dov Solovetchik.

Any orthodox person who is over 30 and grew up to the right of modern orthodoxy remembers these things.  But the RCA did not become a new movement as people feared; the RCA saw itself as legitimately orthodox and in the eyes of much of the orthodox world remains so.

Less tolerance for fellow Jews and human beings, a less embracing attitude toward the would-be proselyte, dismissing ways within halacha to include women in traditional tefilah, these things, though perhaps sounding pretty frum, do not make one more of a Torah Jew.  Just ask Hillel.


Rabbi Lopatin clarifies his respect for Rav Shai Held

May 7, 2010

Friends,

As an addendum for more comments regarding Rav Schachter’s shiur at the RCA, I wanted to clarify a few things:

1)      I have tremendous respect and admiration for Rabbi Shai Held who wrote the critique of Rav Schacter, at least in terms of “chidush”.  Rabbi Held is a talmid chacham and already an accomplished Jewish thinker and liturgist.  I have used his liturgy on the Tsunami disaster in my shul!  So any rejoinder I have to his critique is said timidly and humbly.  I apologize that I may not have come off sounding this way in my zeal to defend the “chidush” nature of Orthodoxy.  I look forward to continuing discussions and debates with Rav Held in the future.

2)      Rav Schachter himself, in this same shiur at the RCA conference, allowed for disagreement with his points.  Rav Schechter emphasized how any halachic authority could disagree with another halachic authority, from an earlier time or contemporary, and therefore, I felt exhilarated after his speech as it legitimized my decision to  follow halachic authorities – in the Orthodox world –  who disagree with his stance on the ordination of women to the rabbinate.  Every posek (halachic decisor) must rule what his or her understanding, and every individual must honestly chose which decisor they follow: there will be disagreements, but no one is bound by anyone else’s truth.  If the Gaon from Vilna could disagree with the Gaonim 1000 years before his time, we can certainly feel OK in ruling according to a contemporary posek – or poskim – who disagrees with Rav Schachter.

3)      Thus, I do not think that there is any halachic prohibition on ordaining women as rabbis, and while the time may not be right in Orthodoxy at the moment for this practice, I look forward to the time when it will be appropriate.  In the meantime, within Orthodoxy, I hope to see more and more shuls with full time women in the clergy, and I hope there Yeshivat Maharat, and the programs which confer other titles to women, such as Yoatzot Halacha, will continue to grow and thrive.  I hope that Orthodox leaders step up to the plate to fund those programs and those positions.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin