Guest post by R. Dr. Barry Freundel
Rabbi Barry Freundel is the rabbi of Kesher Israel congregation in Washington, DC, Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Liturgy at Towson University, Vice President of the Vaad of Washington and head of the conversion committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His books include Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of a Jewish Prayer and Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response To Modernity.
I. Supporting Literature
I appreciate Rabbi Zev Farber’s respectful response to my paper on Partnership Minyanim and particularly his recognition that a blog post is not really the best venue for a full treatment of what I presented. Nonetheless, what he posted is really the first serious attempt to offer a halakhic defense for Partnership Minyanim in writing that I know of.
Rabbi Farber takes me to task for making this claim in my presentation, but in fact the literature I have read, including the items he cites, do not address Partnership Minyanim in a thorough, serious scholarly or halakhic way. They either, by the author’s own words, represent a preliminary reaction or deal with women’s emotions (which certainly are important- see below), but are not dispositive in a halakhic or academic sense, or with Kol Isha which is not the central issue here (I do not mention it in my article at all), or present a practical guide to Partnership Minyanim with little or no halakhic analysis, or, in the large majority of cases, with women receiving aliyot.
Many proponents of Partnership Minyanim cite this last group of writings, as does R. Farber, but as I say in the article this is insufficient. Even if one were to accept their approach (which I do not), Torah reading is not the same as leading services. As I point out in my article, Meiri, who allows pre-Bar Mitzvah age boys (he is silent on women), to receive aliyot, EXPLICITLY says that this does not apply to leading prayers. Therefore, citing him, as those who argue for women’s aliyot do, and then extending his approach to women (in itself a stretch), while then not respecting his statement that his rationale concerning aliyot does not apply to prayer seems a bit disingenuous. So too, writ large, citing articles on women’s aliyot as a defense for Partnership Minyanim fails to provide a bridge that crosses the gap between Torah reading and leading prayer. Therefore, I stand by the claim that there has been no serious thorough written attempt to defend Partnership Minyanim within halakha.
II. Slighting Women
R Farber takes up my discussion of women feeling demeaned by traditional services but does not quote that point as I make it, nor the entire discussion that I bring. Instead he takes several sentences from my text and prefaces this with the claim that “barring them [women] completely is hurtful” (emphasis mine, since making this a fact begs the question I am asking and prejudices the answer). He indicates that he has no statistics for me but he has anecdotes and published statements. I, of course, don’t deny that some are pained; I assume it. But to claim that halakha and halakhic practice should change under the rubric of Kevod Habriyot for this “pain” requires at the very least that we first know with some degree of accuracy what percentage of Orthodox women (and men, if you want) feel that way.
As I write in the article itself: “Certainly there are some who do feel this way and that should be taken seriously—but there are also many who do not feel this way at all”. If you are going to seek change based on distress you, at the very least, need to measure the parameters of that distress or else the claim loses legitimacy. I do not know the answer to the question of how widespread this pain is, but taking it a step further what does it mean if it is only a minority of Orthodox women (and men) who feel this way? What happens if it is only a small minority? Is it legitimate to expect to perform significant surgical alteration on halakha and create the potential schism that has appeared concerning Partnership Minyanim in that case? I would think that a study of this question (along with an investigation of the several other issues that I raised in this section of the article) would be of crucial interest to those objectively pursuing the idea of Partnership Minyanim.
This brings us to what R Farber calls the main halakhic point in the essay. I would reject that characterization as there are several other and very different points that I make. In fact I could accept R. Farber’s entire analysis whole cloth (which I don’t as described below) and it would make only a small dent in my arguments and halakhic concerns. Nonetheless I will respond to what he chooses to write here.
I will also mention briefly that R. Farber conflates different arguments that I make into a single presentation and misses several points either entirely or presents them as part of a larger rubric rather than as stand-alone issues that each must be dealt with individually. I would urge those interested to read my entire article, where I believe this is quite clear.
R. Farber posits that there are two different functions for the Shaliach Tsibbur: 1) The classic function to say certain prayers out loud either on behalf of the congregation as a whole, e.g. Kaddish and Barkhu, or on behalf of individuals who do not know how to recite the prayer on his or her own,… 2) to set the pace and melodies of the prayers. He then assumes different rules for the individuals who perform these two different functions.
But R. Farber presents no sources for this dichotomy in halakha or for women being allowed to fill role #2. He presents two rationales in Rishonim for the repetition of the amidah that might fit definition #1, but no sources that discuss or present model #2. Most importantly, he presents no sources that suggest different rules for who may perform this second function, which again he creates whole cloth without a textual basis. It may well be that his role #2 is an assumed part of what a chazzan does in any role he may have and not something with a separate halakhic reality. Also, wouldn’t a metronome and a list of tunes be able to serve as achazzan of type #2 according to R. Farber, even though the role of chazzan seems to require a human being? And would someone filling this role when he and a friend are praying alone be a chazzan? If so what has happened to the portrayal of the chazzan as a Shaliach Tsibbur? There seems to be no element of community in any of this, though the chazzan is portrayed in the literature as functioning within a tsibbur.
R. Farber does present a partial discussion of the Tosefta passage cited in my article that clearly excludes women from the Shaliach Tsibbur role, and claims, again without source or substantiation, that this speaks only to Shaliach Tsibbur type #1. However the Tosefta passage goes further than he describes. It doesn’t just speak of men as chazzanim. It compares and contrasts men’s roles in several areas with women’s roles. If women had the ability to function as chazzanim in any way at all, here is the place that some indication would need to appear since the source does speak of men filling that role. No such indication appears either here or anywhere else in rabbinic literature. And that presents a very significant problem for his position despite his attempted answer in his post.
IV. Communal Prayer
Further, as I show in the article from a number of sources, the presence of a Shaliach Tsibbur does have a second function (there is a chazzan #2 if you will) that applies for any prayer regardless of its era of origin or when or where it is recited, and which faces none of the problems I have raised here with R. Farber’s formulation. This role is that the presence of a chazzan transforms what would otherwise be individual prayer on the part of ten or more individuals into tefillah betsibbur which, as is well known is a spiritually higher and more “readily acceptable to God” way of praying at any point in the service. (This is true even if we are discussing something which constitutes Tefillat Rabim. As discussed in the article, that too is a form of Tefillah Betsibbur). Think of the difference between reciting Tehillim privately as opposed to having a communal recitation in times of trouble. The experience is different and the chazzan is necessary to create the communal prayer experience and not just to set the pace or choose the tunes. Since women are not chayyavot in communal prayer, they cannot fill this role in any service where men and women are both present. This is all in the article and R. Farber does not comment on it.
To put this affirmatively: Pre-partnership Minyan and the need to find a justification for those services, when someone put on a tallit (which, as my article shows, can be done after sunset only because we are talking about Tefillah Betsibbur), and came forward to lead Kabbalat Shabbat, we all understood that he was the chazzan leading Kabbalat Shabbat in communal prayer. It is only with the coming of Partnership Minyamin that R. Farber’s model #2 with its claim that Halakha (without ever mentioning it) knows of a chazzan whose job is only to set the pace and choose the tunes and (again without mention in halakhic sources), that chazzan can be a woman, appears. That type of post-facto justification that alters the accepted understanding is very questionable.
V. Talmudic Prayer
I have already satisfied the principle of Ockham’s razor with this presentation, but R. Farber makes the issue even more complicated. He again commits the genitive fallacy by citing Talmudic era prayer as a source for his current approach. Everyone should understand that there are far too many centuries, poskim and community customs (none of which, incidentally, allowed women to serve as shaliach tsibbur in any mixed gender setting) to make the jump from the Talmudic period to today. (Parenthetically, the reality of Talmudic era prayer was far more complex and by all available evidence was far more varied and diverse than his statements of universal liturgical practice in that era would suggest. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the Shemoneh Esrei in the Talmudic period and his statements about prayer in that time frame ignores the fact that, for example, the recitation of the weekday Shemoneh Esrei was not considered a mandatory individual daily requirement in Babylonia until almost the end of the Amoraic period at least. That fact alone challenges much of the history and halakhic conclusions from it that he reports. The chazzan could not have been fulfilling the individual’s requirement under those circumstances because there was no such requirement. However he could well have been convening those in attendance for communal prayer in which venue Shemoneh Esrei appears to have been a daily requirement in that time period. According to R Farber only his type #2 chazzan would have been known in Babylonia in this era. His type #1 would not have existed. If so why is there no mention of chazzan #2 in a Babylonian source or anywhere else in rabbinic literature?)
The problem becomes only more serious when R. Farber takes up Magen Avot. He ignores the large number of sources I cite to show that it was the very presence of a chazzan which made these paragraphs both obligatory and communal and refers to it as “a kind of mini-repetition of the Amidah.” While no one can deny the similarities to the Friday night Amidah only a small minority of scholars saw it as a mini-Amidah. The classic mini-Amidah, Havineinu, requires recitation of the first and last three blessings before and after the central paragraph to achieve that designation. In Magen Avot there are a few words from the first three blessings and no reference to the last three at all. In other words, to make his case, R. Farber needs the support of a small minority while he is challenged by the majority. As for me, neither the majority nor minority opinion here has a negative impact on what I am claiming. I am at home with either or both of them.
Similarly he cites my discussion of the post-Talmudic Selichot and its sacred status–which is undeniable. He then claims that in some traditions the chazzan here is only type #2 and therefore a woman could lead. First, there is no indication in previous halakhic history that this is true. No commentator or posek says such a thing and no one suggests that women can lead. Second, Selichot in every tradition ends with Kaddish Titkabel, which even proponents of Partnership Minyanim (including R. Farber in his discussion of chazzan type #1) agree cannot be recited by a female chazzan. Also in every Selichot custom there are sections that require a minyan, which again even for Partnership Minyan advocates can’t be led by a woman. If the purpose of the chazzan for Selichot is chazzan type #2 in some communities, these things shouldn’t exist in their customs–but they do. On the other hand, if the presence of the chazzan is to create the Tsibbur at prayer, none of these things are an issue in any Selichot rite regardless of how it is recited by the chazzan. In fact the chazzan’s presence is necessary for these elements to be recited.
R. Farber’s last point about responding to people’s feelings and about other debates being tolerable within Orthodoxy brings us to a critical point. The classic Talmudic passage about bringing Nachat Ruach to women tells us that responding to legitimate emotions is important. But in that particular case (the laying of hands on an animal before it is sacrificed), a limit was placed on how women did it so that they would not violate halakha, even as a mechanism was found to allow the laying of hands in some form. The Rabbis understood that responding to the feelings was important but that responding to a need or concern by stepping outside of the structure of halakha does more harm than good in many ways.
R. Farber’s list of debates that Orthodoxy has absorbed only includes people following legitimate Orthodox halakhic epistemology to reach their different conclusions. That sadly is not the case here. From written justifications that are nowhere near complete scholarly studies, to positing a category of chazzan not discussed in classic literature, to not defining the parameters of such a chazzan if it exists through halakhic texts, to relegating the Tosefta passage on the respective roles of men versus women to only one type of chazzan when nothing in that passage or anywhere else suggests this to be true, to ignoring what the literature does say is the second function of the chazzan, to accepting and even expanding a comment by the Meiri while ignoring the second half of that same comment, to relying on minority opinions, to mis-characterizing the role of the chazzan at Selichot with its sections that no one thinks can be led by a woman, to inaccurate historical claims–this is sadly not Orthodox halakhic epistemology. What it is, is an attempt to satisfy a real concern which is admirable. But it attempts to do so in a way that violates halakha, which is helping to create a schism and leading to other unfortunate consequences (cf. my discussion of Elliot Dorff’s responsum on homosexuality that uses Prof. Danny Sperber’s rationale for women receiving aliyot as part of its defense discussed in my article.) I am glad to work on solutions, but part of doing so requires analyzing and having the courage to admit that a proposed solution is halakhically unsustainable–even if for some that is politically incorrect. We need to know what doesn’t work along with what works.
I will end on a personal note: By coincidence unknown to me the same week Hirhurim posted my article, JOFA posted an interview with the President of my synagogue who is doing a great job in the position and who happens to be a woman. As part of that post one can find my synagogue by-laws that include a teshuva by me providing a halakhic rationale as to why a woman may serve as President of Kesher Israel Congregation (my shul). I am proud of that letter and of the approach we took that said: thorough objective halakhic analyses first; take action second. In that way I believe my community took an important step to enfranchise women within a legitimate halakhic framework. We would all be better off if those advocating Partnership Minyanim and other “advances” for women would do the same thing while allowing that the answer in any individual case might be “no”. There are things that halakha will allow women to do and we should explore that question objectively and from within an accepted and acceptable methodology of halakha. Partnership Minyanim do not meet that test and it is past time that this needs to be recognized.