Saturday, December 15, 2012

Women's Participation in Shul: A Reaction

A few weeks back, Rabbi Zev Farber of Atlanta wrote an article on Women's Participation in Ritual. Here's how I'd sum up his basic thesis:

We need a paradigm shift regarding women's participation in shul rituals, so that instead of non-participation being the default, participation is the default. The need arises because:
  1. A significant number of women "feel excluded and marginalized" in shul, and even in "the best of shuls" the efforts made to include them are insufficient. 
  2. Rabbis don't take the initiative to look out for women, which means that women who want to participate have to approach their rabbis and risk "humiliation and disappointment".
  3. (His main point) The argument of kavod hatzibur ("honor of the congregation") is based on sociological factors which no longer apply. Since women now have equal access to positions of power and respect in the public sphere, and it's no longer considered a "breach of etiquette", this should also reflect in Jewish life, so that the presumption is equal access to participation in rituals unless there's a specific Halachic reason to forbid it.
I first heard about R. Farber's article in a post from blogger Garnel Ironheart, When Only the Mechitza Is Left, which offers a critique on the article. I'd like to address his post because I think he presents an argument that many frum Jews resonate with. Here's how I'd summarize Garnel's argument against the "paradigm shift" proposed:
  1. The need for change is unfounded. A problem is being invented where none exists. R. Farber assumes that inequality means inferiority, and that's not the case.
  2. The motivation for change is inauthentic. It's not based on Halacha but on secular liberal values. Women don't really want to daven - they just want the same "rights" as men.
  3. The focus is misplaced. Shul is not the center of Orthodox Jewish life. The main thing is not access to a sefer Torah but access to a Torah sefer, and that's something every woman has. The greatest honor isn't getting a kibbud in shul - it's raising a Torah family.
Here's where I agree with Garnel: I don't think there is necessarily a problem. I think he's right that liberal values play a strong role. And I also think he's right in terms of the overall priorities of Judaism.

Now let me explain what I mean and where I disagree.

When I say it's not "necessarily" a problem, I mean that R. Farber's article is effectively a condemnation of the status quo. So when frum people out there living happy, meaningful lives read the article, many may feel as if they're being attacked as doing something wrong - conducting themselves in a way that's oppressive and antiquated. And not only doesn't it match their experience - it's insulting. And it's intrusive - they feel like "discontent" and the "need for change" are being foisted upon them against their will. Frum women generally don't want to participate in shul, and they're more than happy to let the men do their thing, while they do theirs. To the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox world, there is no problem. It's the proposed "paradigm shift" which is the problem.

(Mind you, I'm talking about shul participation. Things like the aguna issue, problems with husbands not giving gets, etc. are inequalities that I think a wider swath of Orthodox women are not happy about and would like to see change.)

However... Clearly there's a minority of women, particularly in left-wing Modern Orthodox circles, who aren't happy with the status quo in shul. They want to read from the Torah, go up for alliyot, lead parts of the tefilah - basically be counted as an equal part of the minyan to the extent possible. Some may only want to do that within the confines of normative Halacha, and others may want to see the Halacha change, or simply be bypassed. And yes, I think there's little doubt that part of what fuels that discontent is the influence of living in a free society where women have equal rights before the law, and where a person's gender doesn't determine whether they have something valuable to contribute in the public sphere. And this reality wasn't always the case, to put it mildly. Up until only very recently, it was a man's world. Laws regarding women and property ownership, marriage and divorce, access to birth control, equal pay, voting, holding public office - all of these were issues that women had to fight for. It may all seem like a vague memory now, but the world was very different in this regard only a few generations ago. And we consider it a bracha and a considerable upgrade to society that these changes have been enacted, not because we want "sameness" or to blur male-female distinctions, but because we consider it a more elevated, enlightened society where women's lives are not controlled by men, and where we judge a person's ability to participate and lead based on their capability, talent and desire, and not on their gender.

So naturally there are Jews who look at traditional Judaism, where women are not equal in Jewish law, and where women's leadership/participation in the public sphere is not welcomed, and they find this highly disconcerting (even if inequality doesn't mean "inferiority", which itself is debatable). Here they look to Judaism as a source of spiritual inspiration, and yet Judaism seems to be behind secular society in a very significant and tangible way. This fact weighs on some people's minds like a heavy cloud, and it disturbs their ability to derive full enjoyment and meaning from Jewish life. That goes for women who want to participate in shul, and yes, even for those who don't want to come to shul - it bothers them deeply. Just like if a city had a law on the books that said no Jews were allowed in a particular park - even if there wasn't a single Jew in the city who ever wanted to use that park, we'd understand if they were irked by such a law and found the city a less desirable place to live. And so for this Orthodox minority, there is a significant problem with the status quo, and a paradigm shift is not just welcome - it's overdue.

So here you have two very different positions, one which doesn't want to see a change, and one that does. But the thing is this - neither one is without its reasonability! And neither one particularly wants to be judged, let alone have its interests and aspirations blocked. So I'd prescribe a very simple solution:

Let people decide for themselves.

Let there be shuls where the minhag is that women participate, and shuls where they don't. And let people be happy doing what they want to do. Don't make traditional Orthodox women feel "antiquated" and "oppressed" for watching from the sidelines in shul, and don't make women who want to be included in shul ritual feel like they're being "whiny feminists", merely wanting to imitate secular society without having any genuine spiritual motivation.

As for the argument that R. Farber's position is illegitimate because it's rooted in liberalism, I think that's the wrong approach. The point is not what "motivates" the desire to change - it's whether Halacha can accommodate it. If Halacha is flexible enough to allow for changes that make a segment of the Orthodox community feel more "at home", that comport more with their conscience and create a more enjoyable and meaningful experience, then why oppose it? To take strong opposition to something that's Halachically permissible and which would improve people's lives strikes me as a sign that one is taking their guidance not from Halacha but rather from the visceral attachment they have to a particular set of norms and taboos.

The idea of having a woman open the Ark and take out the Torah is something that strikes 99% of Orthodox practitioners as deeply wrong. And it's not because they can quote siman/se'if in the Shulchan Aruch. The reaction has nothing to do with Halacha. It's just somehow... wrong, unnatural, bizarre, out of place. Well, that is what we call a "taboo". It's an emotional gut reaction based on something we're not used to experiencing. And that is every bit as "non-Halachic" an influence on what we do or don't do as liberalism or feminism, or any "ism". But... I would also say that it's a legitimate reason to do something or not to do something in Jewish practice. There's no "mitzvah" to make every person in shul cringe just because something is permitted in Halacha. In fact there's a mitzvah against causing that kind of discomfort. It's called ona'at devarim, not saying or doing something which causes another person to suffer emotionally. Which is what would happen in 99% of shuls if a woman came up and took out the Torah. People would be upset. I'm not apologizing for it - it's just a fact, and it's something we need to be sensitive to.

That said... In a shul where that taboo doesn't exist, where the majority wouldn't cringe, and where if anything the prevailing discomfort comes from the lack of women's participation, we have a very different situation. If there's a way to arrive at a solution within Halacha* for women to participate, then gey gezunt! Let people live and be well and do their thing.

*(Now, as someone who doesn't ascribe divinity to Halacha, I'd go further and say there's no problem whatsoever with bypassing Halacha completely if it goes against our conscience. But we have to recognize that there's always a price to pay by going outside the system, so we need to think about whether it's worth it in a given situation. But for purposes of this conversation, I'm assuming the more normative Orthodox view of Halacha as sacrosanct and therefore something which most religious Jews don't want to bypass.)

So I've touched on the first two points I enumerated regarding Garnel's critique, the need for change and the question of authenticity and liberalism. About the third point, misplaced focus in Judaism, I agree that shul isn't the center of Orthodox Jewish life (even though it does have a very central communal role). And getting a kibbud in shul is certainly not the biggest "honor" to strive for as a Jew. However, I can be cognizant of these priorities and yet still appreciate an alliyah in shul. And I assume that a woman is every bit as capable of doing the same - and it doesn't mean she's misprioritizing or taking the kibbud out of proportion any more than I am. And lastly, a mussar point: It's for me to shun my own kavod (honor) if I so desire - but it's not for me to shun someone else's kavod. It's not for me to tell someone what kind of kavod they should or shouldn't seek. That goes for shul-related kavod, and it goes for men as well as women.

What's my point with all this? It's a suggestion - that we stop expending so much effort trying to delegitimize one another's practices and preferences (whether they're liberal or traditional or anything else), and simply see our main "avodah" (job) as looking out for people's happiness and well-being. If we can do that, I think we stand a much better chance at arriving at solutions that work for people, and we'll be a happier, healthier people as a result.


  1. One of my biggest complaints about living in an Orthodox community is the focus on what other people are doing. Why should I care what my neighbor does about covering her hair?

    If Garnel doesn't want to be part of a shul in which women participate, he doesn't have to be. Simple as that.

  2. Replies
    1. HH, if you'd like to explain your comment I'd be happy to respond.

    2. You said

      "Don't make traditional Orthodox women feel "antiquated" and "oppressed"

    3. The charge is often leveled that Orthodox women are "oppressed" (i.e. controlled/made to suffer via the power/authority of others). What I'm saying is that for those women who are truly content in their life, who don't feel the least bit oppressed, I can understand how this would come as an insult.

  3. I like your simple points that people should decide for themselves, and that it's fine for someone to shun a kavod (honor) for themselves, but not on behalf of others.

    One form of argument that I hate is justifying global restrictions by pointing to an Orthodox woman who says, "I have absolutely no desire to do X". Well, so what? I have absolutely no desire to do scrapbooking, but I'm not stopping you from doing it.

    The focus on "evil feminist intentions" goes back to the ruling of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. An excerpt from his ruling on women wearing tallit:

    "Every woman is indeed allowed to fulfill even those mitzvahs which the Torah does not command them to do, and they earn reward for performing these mitzvahs; in fact, according to the Tosefos, they can even recite a blessing over the mitzvah, and [the Ashkenazi] custom is for them to perform the mitzvah of shofar and lulav [i.e. the Four Species], and they recite a blessing on them.

    Therefore on the mitzvah of tzitzit is would also seem to apply if a woman wants to wear a four-cornered garment – though it should differ from typical men’s clothing – and tie tzitzit to it and carry out this mitzvah. Only in the case of tefillin did the Tosefos write (Eruvin 96a) that they should be prevented from doing so…But this is clearly if she has a heartfelt urge to keep mitzvahs, even when not commanded. However, since [in the present case] this is not the intention, but rather resentment toward Hashem Yisbarach and His Torah, this is not an act of performing a mitzvah at all, but the very opposite: a prohibited act, the prohibition of heresy, for she thinks Torah laws can be replaced."

    I think that a fundamental error since then has been to automatically assume that women who seek to do more Jewish rituals are doing so as an act of protest against G-d. I see this as violating the principle of judging other favorably, since this assumption is made in many cases where actual motivations are not known. Today, if a woman wants to be fully equal in terms of ritual in a synagogue, there are plenty of Reform and Conservative options. It's no longer considered a radical act of feminist protest. Choosing to attend an Orthodox shul, therefore, means choosing something that is more demanding in terms of halacha (Jewish law), so it's highly unlikely that someone would go through that effort merely for the sake of rebellion. At the same time, those Jews raised in egalitarian communities are not seeing women engaging in all Jewish rituals as being rebellious protestors - they are seeing it as normal. Just as many Orthodox Jews would find women's participation to be jarring to the sense, so too would many egalitarian Jews find it jarring to suddenly be silent observers behind a mechitza. I think this fundamental inability to appreciate the POV of others in behind much of the controversy.

    1. This is a fascinating tshuva from R. Feinstein. Thanks for bringing it.

      The question I have is what is "rebellion", "heresy", "resentment", "thinking Torah laws can be replaced"? And which of these things really goes against Halacha? Does "rebelliousness" mean a person has no spiritual motivation? And who gets to define what that is? Is wanting to change the status quo to give women a choice NOT a spiritual motivation?

      And so for instance, how do we (or Halacha) regard:

      a) A woman who states that she wants to put on a tallis because she wants to AND she feels it's a woman's right to do so.
      b) A woman who states that she doesn't care whether she wears a tallis, but does so because she feels it's a woman's right.
      c) A woman who wants to wear a tallis, but is resentful at her shul who brands her as a heretic.
      d) A woman who puts on a tallis and wants to change the minhag of her shul.
      e) A woman who puts on a tallis in a shul where the minhag already supports it.

      We could come up with a zillion different scenarios with different psychological characteristics, different motivations, and likely very few if any would be "rebellion for rebellion's sake", or wanting to "replace Torah law". As I said in the post, I think a lot of this discussion is an issue of extreme negative visceral reaction to a long-established communal taboo. And so all the "motivation" talk gets thrown in, with very little consideration as to psychological subtlety and definitions.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  4. Hi,

    Sorry it took me so long to check back. I think my response to your response can focus on this statement you made:
    >Let there be shuls where the minhag is that women participate, and shuls where they don't.
    Absolutely. We live in a free society and in fact there are already such places. Toronto, for example, has a small "partnership minyan" where women participate almost equally in services. Very nice, let them do what they want.
    But here's my rebuttal point: how can you call this Orthodox?
    For example, a woman may want to stand on the bimah and lead psukei d'zimrah. Far from a gut feeling that this is wrong, there are halachic responsa explaining why it's not allowed. Partnership minyans either are unaware of them, ignore them or find one obscure posek who approved it and announce "We hold like him!" This may provide legitimacy in their eyes but it isn't proper Orthodox behaviour. If 99.99% of modern poskim say "X" is forbidden then that becomes the standard of practice in the Orthodox community no matter what the secular community presents as enlightened or fair.
    So these woman in LWMO communities can read from the Torah. There are no police officers that will stop them. But they can't properly call it Orthodox.

    1. Garnel,

      I appreciate the distinction you're making between letting people do what they want vs. counting it as "Orthodox".

      A couple of thoughts. First, I deliberately chose the example of taking out the Torah, since I'm fairly sure it's more "innocuous" from a Halachic perspective than leading parts of the davening. And we can even go a step further (to avoid the issue of women touching a sefer Torah) and say that all she does is open the Aron, after which a man takes out the actual sefer Torah. Point being, even if there's not much (if anything) Halacha would say about this, there would still be strong opposition both from congregants as well as rabbis. Do you really think that keeping women entirely out of shul ritual is exclusively an issue of Halacha?

      To answer your question "how can you call this Orthodox?" I'd first and foremost say because they consider themselves to be Orthodox. They are shomrei mitzvot, and while some may be more educated about shul/tefilah-related halacha than others (just like in any community), they understand what they're doing to be halachically acceptable.

      I agree it may not be "normative" Orthodoxy, in the sense that normative is what vast majority of people do/don't do, and in terms of what the vast majority of poskim permit/don't permit, but neither is starting a minyan "chassidishe style" way after the zmanim, where in fact there's less to rely on halachically than having a woman say psukei d'zimra. Yet you don't see people (I'm talking normal people) questioning whether or not chassidim should be classified as "Orthodox". And I'm sure there are plenty of examples along these lines.

      Also, every community has its own poskim. MO poskim are different than charedi poskim. Poskim are not mathematicians, deriving halacha from strict quantitative formulas. They speak to the sensitivities of specific communities and permit/forbid accordingly. I think it's perfectly reasonable that LWMO should have its own poskim, it's own responsa, it's own halachic process, just like everyone else. The fact that it identifies itself as being halachically-rooted/oriented means they're Orthodox - no, not charedi-Orthodox, not yeshivish, not Satmar, not RWMO, but their own category of Orthodox.

      So yes, I do think there's a lot more "hashkafa" and gut reaction to this kind of thing than people are willing to admit.

      Thanks for the response!

  5. > Do you really think that keeping women entirely out of shul ritual is exclusively an issue of Halacha?

    Well part of halacha is holding by "existing arrangements". The gemara discusses situations in which there are local customs to forbid something and why those local customs should not be changed. If the local shul has never ever let women open the aron then that itself is a halachically valid reason to continue the practice. Consider the very first chapter of Yoreh Deah in which the Shulchan Aruch straight out says women can be shochets. But you'll never meet a female shochet because there is no actual precedence.

    > I'd first and foremost say because they consider themselves to be Orthodox.

    I could point out that Conservatives call themselves halachic. From an Orthodox perspective intentions don't mean anything. A completely sincere, decent, honest and kind individual who eats bread on Pesach and BLT's on Yom Kippur even while helping out at the local homeless shelter is still sinning.
    There is also the matter I raised earlier of how halacha is decided. The process is complex and not something laypeople just engage in. YCT, for example, does not have a single posek-level authority I'm aware of yet they are paskening halacha as they see fit. It takes more than being the rabbi of a shul to pasken. A rabbi can asnwer shailos, sure, and this is his important function but innovating, answering questions in new situations or authorithing changes to centuries-old practices isn't part of that authority. This is simply not acceptable according to Orthodox perspective.
    I agree with your final statement about hashkafa and gut reaction as well but I would then point out that the need to have a real posek look over any innovating situation becomes imperative. If the posek says "Sure, it's allowed" then the gut feeling can be dealt with. That has not happened in these LWMO cases.

    1. As far as the Gemara being against changing the minhag hamakom, it's not entirely simple how to apply that nowadays, in the same way that "lo titgodedu" is hard to apply now, because the same locale usually has multiple minhagim, multiple batei din, etc. And if you want to call an individual shul a "makom", then 1) a new shul/minyan wherein women participate from the outset would presumably have less of a "change" issue, and 2) even an existing shul can potentially change its minhag if it's something that the people wanted, or if the demographics were to change, in the same way that a shul's nusach can change under certain circumstances.

      In terms of people calling themselves Orthodox, we're clearly not talking about people eating BLT's on Yom Kippur. We're talking about people who are shomer Shabbat, kashrut, niddah, people who invest themselves in limud Torah and try to hold by the Shulchan Aruch.

      Regarding the question of psak, I can't speak to the level of lamdut and responsas that exists in the LWMO world and which goes into their halacha l'ma'aseh. I will say though that I'm wary of prejudging and not taking it seriously, the same way that the charedi world typically doesn't take MO (e.g. YU) lamdut seriously.

    2. > it's not entirely simple how to apply that nowadays, in the same way that "lo titgodedu"

      This is a fascinating point but for a different reason. Technically speaking, if I move to Kelm, I have to take on the minhagim of Kelm if I decide to stay there. This is a very clear halacha. Yet nowadays, as you noted, we have the opposite. A Lubavitcher moves to town where everyone davens Ashkenaz, he isn't going to change his nusach or his customs. It's almost like people do the reverse of what the classic halacha says to do. I think this speaks to insecurity in religious practice - people will think that if I change from Ashkenaz to Sefard, for example, that I'm admitting that my previous practice was inferior instead of being based on location of residence. And when people are insecure about their practice, they're far more aggressive about it. Something to explore perhaps...

      As for lombus within the LWMO, leaving the Chareidim viewpoint out of the equation there are standards for who gets to be a posek and the limits of the authority of a posek. As far as I know, YCT has none on staff and hasn't produced any. This is a significant problem for a movement that wants to radically change Orthodoxy.

    3. There's also the issue of saying Kaddish in different shuls. If I'm not mistaken, halacha for Ashkenazim is to say kaddish according to the nusach of the shul, and halacha for Sefardim is to say their own kaddish regardless of the shul's nusach. Yet often (usually) you see Ashkenazim omitting "vayatzmach purkanei" in nusach Sefard shuls, and "viyshua v'nechama v'shezava" part in Sefardi shuls.

      Part I think is ignorance of the Halacha (and seeing others do the same), and part is more like you say, about identity issues. People get VERY attached to their practices - so much so that it feels like they're somehow betraying their identity if they say a different kaddish.

  6. Make no mistake about it, the Partnership minyan movement will continue to grow dramatically, although it's unclear they will easily cross the gap into building new brick and mortar facilities (rather than piggybacking on existing college and other facilities) and long term stability. From my perspective, some of the "Modern Orthodox" congregations and the central authority, the OU/RCA, missed opportunities over the past few decades to support and encourage women's participation that easily fit within the existing halakhik boundaries. The list would seem to include: Torah processions through the women's sections, dancing with a sefer Torah on Simchat Torah, recitation of qaddish - and I don't mean whispered, and giving devrei Torah either before or after the Torah service on Shabbat/Chagim. I know full well some congregations do some of these items (some for many decades) and that UTJ most notably allows the devrei Torah. However, the lack of a clear and consistent halakhik proclamation from the OU/RCA effectively setup the more radical "rebellion" movements that will now require ongoing battles. It was a mistake to not offer such honors and respect within the general context of existing legal understandings.

    1. I agree, it will only grow. And at the same time that these minyanim are thinking about renting or building spaces for themselves, more liberal LWMO shuls will already be morphing their way toward partnership.

      As far as the OU/RCA not being clear about what women can do halachically, I think besides what I said above about "taboo" being a strong factor here, there's also the sense of MO feeling like the charedi world's little brother, and wanting to be respected and included. So if anything they have to try to be more frum than they'd be if they were acting purely from an ideological/halachic position.

      Thanks for the comment,