Thursday, April 01, 2004

Women's Prayer Groups: Rav Soloveitchik's Position

The attitude of R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (AKA R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, R. Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, "The Rav") towards Women's Prayer Groups (WPGs) is a matter of contention, indeed hot debate. His opinion is very important because the proponents of WPGs are exclusively Modern Orthodox and R. Soloveitchik was largely the guiding light of American Modern Orthodoxy during the mid-twentieth century. His students are generally the current leaders of American Modern Orthodoxy and his shadow still looms large over the community. R. Soloveitchik's opposition to any practice is a major obstacle for any scholar to overcome.

The results of a major investigation into R. Soloveitchik's view was published by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer in their article "Women's Prayer Services - Theory and Practice" in Tradition Winter 1998. The two authors conducted dozens of interviews with people who had discussed the issue with R. Soloveitchik throughout the years and attempted to chart the historical development of R. Soloveitchik's views. Their report has not gone unchallenged, and I will try to sort through the evidence and arrive at what I believe to be the correct conclusion (which is not worth much because I never even met R. Soloveitchik, but this is my blog so I'll write my opinion). Two other important reports are those of R. Soloveitchik's grandson, R. Mayer Twersky, in an article titled "Halakhic Values and Halakhic Decisions: Rav Soloveitchik’s Pesak Regarding Women’s Prayer Groups", originally published in Tradition Spring 1998, and that of his nephew, R. Moshe Meiselman, titled "The Rav, Feminism and Public Policy: An Insider's Overview" and published in Tradition Fall 1998.

Establishing R. Soloveitchik's Opposition

The Frimers report that R. Soloveitchik "was of the view that a women's prayer service, if properly structured, could be conducted in accordance with halakha. Nonetheless, the Rav was most hesitant about women's tefilla groups as a general practice and felt that they should not be encouraged. Consistently, he would recommend to his students not to hold such services." The wording here is a bit soft. R. Soloveitchik "felt that they should not be encouraged" and "would recommend" not to establish them. From what I understand, R. Soloveitchik was quite adamant in his opposition to these groups. He did not recommend to his students that they not establish them; he told his students not to but when they disobeyed him he still maintained contact with them and answered all of their questions (R. Meiselman discusses at length this particular aspect of R. Soloveitchik's personality). R. Twersky refers to his grandfather's position as being a "consistent, unequivocal opposition to women’s tefilla groups." Similarly, R. Meiselman writes that "the Rav halakhically forbade, without equivocation, women's prayer groups." The soft wording chosen by the Frimers is misleading because, while technically correct, it gives the impression that R. Soloveitchik was not really opposed to WPGs and only gave friendly advice to his students who asked. The only evidence to support that contention is the parameters he offered to those who told him that, regardless of his opinion, they were going to hold WPGs and asked him for guidelines on how to do so. Rather than abandon them, as many would, R. Soloveitchik risked the possibility of being misunderstood and gave them guidelines on how to proceed. The Frimers report:

The Rav shared with R. Feuerstein that a group of women studying at Brandeis University had approached him on the matter. The Rav was not in favor of the prayer group, but it was clear to the Rav that the women were not prepared to listen and would proceed under any circumstance. The Rav consequently gave them halakhic guidelines similar to the ones he later gave to R. Wachstock and R. Riskin... R. Shlomo Riskin, then rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue, had been among the first people to discuss the women’s services and hakafot issue with R. Soloveitchik, sometime in late 1971... The Rav gave R. Riskin the same halakhic guidelines he gave to R. Wachstock... Nonetheless, the Rav expressed his view that women’s services were “tokenism”-to which the Rav objected... Moreover, the Rav believed that it was not worth “the political price.” Despite all the above, R. Riskin maintains that the Rav conveyed to him a sense that he had confidence in R. Riskin’s judgment of his community’s needs. Accordingly, for Simhat Torah 5733 (October 1, 1972), R. Riskin arranged for a women’s service to meet in the synagogue’s beit midrash.
In other words, R. Soloveitchik told R. Riskin not to hold a WPG even in the kiruv context of Lincoln Square Synagogue at that time, but R. Riskin did so anyway and followed R. Soloveitchik's guidelines for those who were not willing to listen to him on the propriety of WPGs. One has to really strain to find any positive attitude towards WPGs coming from R. Soloveitchik.

I. Public Policy and Halakhic Values

Rs. Frimer also state that R. Soloveitchik "also expressed concern regarding numerous other hashkafic and public-policy issues which relate to the fundamental nature of religious practice and community." This is a very important statement and, I believe, is key to unraveling the differing reports in R. Soloveitchik's name. The Frimers list a number of objections that R. Soloveitchik stated at one time or another against the establishment of WPGs (I list them below). However, they call those objections "Public Policy" issues as opposed to real halakhic issues. This, I believe, is a distinction that they have interpreted from the reports they received. A different interpretation, from a much more authoritative source, is that some of these issues are not "Public Policy" but are matters of "Halakhic Values." As R. Twersky eloquently explains, these are meta-halakhic concerns that deal with the "spirit of the law" and not the nitty-gritty details of the law (see also the letter in The Edah Journal by R. Twersky's pupil, R. Gil Student). While Rs. Frimer and R. Twersky agree that R. Soloveitchik opposed WPGs on grounds that are not technical halakhah, they differ on their interpretation of the grounds for opposition. Rs. Frimer consider them all to be merely "Public Policy" concerns while R. Twersky distinguishes some as having loftier halakhic values. I believe that they are both (or rather, all three) are correct in that R. Soloveitchik was certainly concerned from a "Public Policy" perspective but he was also very concerned with the distortion of "Halakhic Values" that WPGs represent. The Frimers are not to be blamed for this oversight but their interpretation of the evidence they uncovered, and their lumping all of the reasons together, should certainly not be seen as the final word on the matter. R. Soloveitchik's views on almost any subject were highly nuanced and it is the task of the student to uncover those fine distinctions. In support of my contention, I quote R. Meiselman who wrote, "[R. Soloveitchik] felt that they were halakhically prohibited; and he felt that they were also wrong and should be fought on grounds of public policy."

II. Deviation from Customs

The Frimers state that R. Soloveitchik "gave great credence to established Jewish custom and tradition, especially in the area of prayer and the synagogue... Women's prayer groups with Torah reading, hakafot, etc. was, for the Rav, a clear deviation from Jewish prayer forms. That alone was sufficient reason for the Rav to withhold his support for the emerging practice."

(Compare with R. Hershel Schachter's arguments VII & VIII)

R. Meiselman writes, "The fact that we have a mesora, a tradition from each previous generation, to praise and how to praise God, enables us to proceed. Halakha and tradition enable us to engage within prayer. The moment we deviate from these guidelines, our prayer loses its meaning, and more importantly, its justification."

He further writes, "In the area of the halakhot of prayer, minhag has greater power than in other areas of the halakha... For the Rav, minhag bet ha-keneset also had great significance..."

III. Beginning of Large-Scale Reform

According to the Frimers, R. Soloveitchik "was worried that if the rabbis gave in on those matters of synagogue practice where there was admittedly some room for flexibility, it might well lay the ground for a call for change in other areas of halakha as well-areas where there was little or perhaps no room for maneuvering."

This, I believe, can be seen today with the move in Orthodox feminist circles to call women to the Torah and the momentum gaining for the ordination of Orthodox women rabbis.

IV. Improper Motivations

The Frimers report that R. Soloveitchik was concerned over the motivation of the women proposing WPGs. The possibility was evident that they wanted not greater spirituality but "public peer approbation, conspicuous religious performance, or a sense of equality with men. If the real motivating factor was any of the latter, it was likely that a women's tefilla group would not truly satisfy their religious needs; on the contrary, the women's services would merely foster increasingly unfulfillable expectations, resulting in greater frustration and perhaps even a break with halakha." The motivation plays, according to R. Twersky, a much more important role in R. Soloveitchik's view. "The desire for and emphasis upon active participation and leadership are antithetical to genuine service of the heart and contribute to the extroversion of prayer." In other words, the motivation underlying WPGs -- that of more active participation by women in the prayer service -- belies a misunderstanding and distortion of the proper motivations for prayer.

(Compare with R. Hershel Schachter's argument VI)

V. Inauthentic Practice

The Frimers write, "[T]he women engaged in a women's service were missing out on tefilla be-tsibbur, the recitation of various devarim she-bi-kdusha, and a proper, halakhic Torah reading-available to them only if they attended a regular minyan. Granted, women are exempt from the obligations of public prayer, but the Rav was deeply disturbed that women who had consciously chosen not to stay and pray at home, but rather to participate in a women's tefilla group, were actively and deliberately opting for the inauthentic in place of the authentic."

Similarly, R. Meiselman writes, "First and foremost, halakha simply does not allow one to opt for a secondary level of religious performance. We are absolutely obligated to pursue excellence in our divine worship. One who opts for mediocrity in his religious worship is not only a second class citizen, but also has violated basic precepts in Jewish law."

(Compare with R. Hershel Schachter's argument I)

According to R. Twersky, this is more than just the non-halakhic choice of opting for a WPG over a minyan. By making this choice, women are demonstrating a lack of understanding of very fundamental principles of prayer. The inauthenticity of WPGs are due to the axiological incorrectness of their basic raison d'etre.

R. Meiselman goes even further:

The Rav often commented to me that women’s groups that introduced new rituals were misinterpreting the nature of halakhic rituals and confusing them with pagan ones. Pagan ritual allows the person to express certain concepts and beliefs through ritual activity. There is no intrinsic meaning to the ritual performance. The purpose of the ritual is to reinforce these ideas through ritual activity. The focus of the activity is exclusively the performer himself. The process is validated by the impact upon the person. Pagan ritual is spiritual self-stimulation.
According to R. Meiselman, the inauthenticity derives from WPGs having no halakhic status and, therefore, a choice for WPGs over a minyan is a choice for nothing over something. Additionally, those who advocate nothing -- WPGs -- are demonstrating that their own "self-stimulation" is more important to them than God's will.

VI. Distortion of Torah

The Frimers report, "At the same time, the Rav was equally perturbed by the attitude of the many women who viewed women's prayer groups as an authentic, alternative form of tefilla be-tsibbur (public prayer), or at least an authentic, valid alternative to tefilla be-tsibbur. Thus, the hashkama minyan, the main shul minyan, the beginners' minyan, the teenage minyan and the women's service were all being perceived as equally halakhically valid choices in the spectrum of tefilla be-tsibbur. This was clearly not the case, and the Rav charged that those rabbis who gave the women's prayer groups the 'go ahead' were misleading them."

This, I believe, is in harmony with R. Twersky's thesis. WPGs are a fundamental distortion of tefillah and the rabbis who authorize them are misleading the public.

(Compare with R. Hershel Schachter's arguments II & V)

VII. Non-Halakhic Agendas

The Frimers write, "While recognizing that many of the women involved in the groups were sincerely motivated by their desire for greater spirituality and kavvana, he expressed regrets that other women were co-opting the services for their own non-halakhic social agendas."

Similarly, R. Meiselman writes, "He saw in women’s prayer groups the use of prayer as part of an agenda alien to proper religious behavior, and felt that they should be fought. He felt betrayed by students who had involved his name in an issue that violated his very essence... He felt that they were laying the groundwork for a new and possibly more pernicious version of Conservative Judaism."

(Compare with R. Hershel Schachter's argument XII)

VIII. Heterodox Practices

Again, from the Frimers, "He further articulated his concern as to the confusion women’s services might generate in light of the general egalitarian movement within Conservative and Reform Jewry."

Unlearned (and even some learned) people will certainly ask that if WPGs are legitimate, perhaps other feminist innovations that the non-Orthodox movements initiated are also valid. Perhaps calling women to the Torah, having women read megillah for the entire synagogue or even female rabbis are legitimate. (Note that two of the three examples are already practiced by Orthodox feminists and the third is certainly on its way.)

Furthermore, what will the non-Orthodox think when we take a step towards their innovations and acknowledge that their egalitarian urges, to which we once objected as being inauthentic, are now correct? We will certainly be confirming them in their ways.

(Compare with R. Hershel Schachter's argument XI)

IX. Community Divisiveness

The Frimers also write, "He was also wary that allowing maximal diversity in religious experience might weaken the fabric and cohesiveness of the community."

This seems to me to be an extremely legitimate "Public Policy" concern. Great is peace for even God's name is erase for its sake.


What can be clearly seen, from three separate and even antagonistic reports of R. Soloveitchik's view, is that he was firmly set against the practice for a whole host of reasons. This has been confirmed from dozens of interviews and from the testimony of his close students and relatives. While he did not agree with everything that R. Hershel Schachter wrote on this subject, he agreed with his conclusion that WPGs are not allowed.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More