Monday, August 09, 2004

The Adoption of Heterodox Practices IV

Women's Issues

One of the burning issues of today is the role of women in Jewish ritual, whether and how much it should change. Reform adopted completely egalitarian practice long ago; Conservative decades ago. Currently, the only heterodox Jews who do not accept – in theory if not in practice – complete egalitarianism in the synagogue ritual are the non-denominational who fall between Conservative and Orthodox. Should the Orthodox take a step towards egalitarianism, this might be perceived as a sign that just like the Conservative followed the Reform to egalitarian practice so, too, the Orthodox will follow. Perhaps, even if the Orthodox have no intention of ever going that far, the adoption of a practice that might give such an indication would be prohibited as confirming the sectarians in their ways.

Already, two prominent posekim – the influential Rosh Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel at Yeshiva University, R. Hershel Schachter, and R. Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, one of the few Israeli scholars to achieve wide acceptance among many different segments of Orthodox Jewry – have ruled that the creation of prayer groups solely for women in which they participate fully, much like men do in regular synagogue services albeit with specific differences, is too reminiscent of the heterodox practice of allowing women to participate fully in the synagogue. Even though there are differences between these women's prayer groups and heterodox services, these posekim have weighed the issues and determined that these groups still give a sufficient confirmation to the heterodox and are, therefore, prohibited.[37] Certainly, the confirmation to the heterodox is greater with women's prayer groups than, for example, with the planting of flowers on graves that R. Weinberg prohibited. While in that case the Orthodox and heterodox practices were identical and here the practices are somewhat dissimilar, lack of equivalency is only significant if it removes the confirmation to the heterodox which, in our case, it arguably does not.

Other posekim, however, evidently disagree with this evaluation. Those who permit women's prayer groups, such as former Chief Rabbi of Israel R. Shlomo Goren[38] and the respected scholar and philosopher R. Eliezer Berkovits[39], certainly deny that the prohibition applies to this case, while those who forbid such groups but do not raise this consideration may implicitly disagree or may simply have been satisfied with their arguments and found no need to discuss this particular issue.[40] It is not clear at all, though, that any of these posekim are of the view that there is no prohibition against imitating sectarians. At most, one can infer that they deny its applicability to this particular issue, perhaps due to the dissimilarity between heterodox services and women's prayer groups.

A more recent case is the proposal to call women to the Torah in a regular synagogue service.[41] No major posek has sanctioned this practice while R. Yitzhak Yosef and R. Yehuda Henkin have opposed it in writing.[42] Setting aside the many primary halakhic issues involved, there still exists the real concern that adopting such a practice is not only an imitation of heterodox practice but is also the sending of an unmistakable message that the Reform and Conservative were correct in adopting complete egalitarian practice and the Orthodox will be shortly following their example. Indeed, not only halakhah but our heartfelt concern for our heterodox brethren demands that we consider the repercussions our actions have on their perceptions of Torah. Nevertheless, this author freely admits to a lack of sufficient qualifications to render judgment on such a complex and delicate matter. While it would come as no surprise if posekim consider the calling of women to the Torah a prohibited sectarian practice, we still await their evaluations of this aspect of the issue.

Innovation in religious ritual is a very delicate matter. Judaism's conservative nature has protected it from the passing fads and the more lingering deviations. However, while halakhah preaches moderation in making changes it does not close the door to all new practices. Yet, these innovations must not be taken on without due consideration of all the many implications, whether halakhic or meta-halakhic, internal to our communities or external. We must overcome the intoxication of innovation and look beyond our local concerns to evaluate how our actions will impact the entire Jewish community. We must consider not only the potential benefits and detriments our actions have on our own community, but also the wide ranging effects they have on the entire spectrum of Jewish society. Our deep concern for our fellow Jews demands no less.

[37] R. Hershel (Tzvi) Schachter, Tze'i Lakh Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon, p. 34; R. Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, "Tefillat Nashim Be-Farhesyah" in Tehumin, 5758 pp. 120-122. R. Yitzhak Yosef raises the issue in regard to reading the Torah in a women's prayer group in Yalkut Yosef, vol. 2 143:4.
[38] Cited in R. Aryeh and R. Dov Frimer, "Women's Prayer Services – Theory and Practice: Part I, Theory" in Tradition, 32:2 Winter 1998, n. 5.
[39] R. Eliezer Berkovits, Jewish Women in Time and Torah.
[40] For a comprehensive review of attitudes towards women's prayer groups, see Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer’s article "Women's Prayer Services" (above note 38). While one may be able to take issue with some of the authors' analysis, one can only praise their extensive bibliograhical research. See also R. Mayer Twersky, "Halakhic Values and Halakhic Decisions: Rav Soloveitchik's Pesak Regarding Women's Prayer Groups" in Tradition, 32:3 Spring 1998; R. Moshe Meiselman, "The Rav, Feminism and Public Policy: An Insider's Overview" in Tradition, 33:1 Fall 1998; the extensive discussion at
[41] Cf. R. Mendel Shapiro, "Qeri'at ha-Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis" in The Edah Journal, 1:2 Sivan 5761.
[42] R. Yitzhak (ben R. Ovadiah) Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, vol. 2 135:41; R. Yehuda Henkin, Bnei Banim, vol. 2 no. 11; idem., "Qeri'at ha-Torah by Women: Where We Stand Today" in The Edah Journal, 1:2 Sivan 5761. Cf. R. Moshe Meiselman, Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, pp. 141-144; R. Ahron Soloveichik, Od Yisrael Yosef B'ni Hai, p. 100. R. Daniel Sperber, professor of Talmud in Bar Ilan and author of the well-received Minhagei Yisrael, has written in support of this practice in "Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading" in The Edah Journal, 3:2 Elul 5763.

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