Women’s Prayer Groups: R. Hershel Schachter’s Position

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Prefatory Comments

When a question is posed before a posek, there are a whole host of considerations for him to take into account. This is particularly true when the underlying issues are subject to dispute and can go either way. The posek, then, has the right to rule according to whichever opinions he believes to be appropriate. If a posek believes that the contemporary context requires stringency then he may certainly rule strictly on any questionable matter. Furthermore, if he believes that there is a general laxity in an area of practice he may even prohibit something that is techincally permissible. For example, the Amora Rav found that people were insufficiently careful regarding forbidden mixtures of meat and milk so he went even further and prohibited the consumption of an animal’s udder (Hullin 110a). An overly strict approach does not not make a posek‘s ruling illegitimate and, indeed, in many cases is the most responsible and traditional halakhic approach.

This, I believe, is a necessary introduction to R. Hershel Schachter‘s important 1985 responsum on the issue of Women’s Prayer Groups (henceforth, WPGs). Responsum is the correct description, not article. R. Louis Bernstein, at the time the president of the RCA, had submitted the question of Women’s Prayer Groups and R. Hershel Schachter wrote this responsum to explain his opposition to this new practice. It was first published in the 1985 Yeshiva University journal Beis Yitzhak under the title “Tze’i Lakh be-Ikvei ha-Tzon” and has subsequently been published as a chapter in R. Schachter’s book Be-Ikvei ha-Tzon (Jerusalem: 1997).

The knowledgable reader will certainly be struck by two things when reading this responsum: First, how expansive and overwhelming R. Schachter’s mastery of the whole range of halakhic literature is. Second, how he consistently rules strictly on every issue. It is clear that R. Schachter is of the view that Women’s Prayer Groups are an improper and even dangerous innovation, as he makes clear in his article, and therefore rules strictly on every related issue. This is an entirely legitimate approach and, quite possibly, the optimal handling of the matter. Let me be clear. He is not stating that technical halakhah permits Women’s Prayer Groups but other “public policy” considerations prohibit them. Rather, he is using public policy considerations in determining the direction in which to take his technical halakhich considerations. What results is a strict ruling on the issue based on technical halakhah. His conclusions can certainly be debated but only a scholar with similar or greater authority can rule differently. Personally, I would never pasken against R. Schachter and I know a number of rabbis, even roshei yeshiva, who also humbly defer to his authority.

This was certainly the approach of the Hasam Sofer and his students when dealing with the innovations of the nascent Reform movement. But it was also the approach of more moderate scholars. R. Azriel Hildesheimer, one of the founders of Modern Orthodoxy, advocated such an approach in his response to the 1865 pesak din released by R. Hillel Lichtenstein and signed by many others, including R. Shlomo Ganzfried and R. Hayim Halberstam of Sanz. R. Hildesheimer wrote:

Just as it is forbidden to allow that which is prohibited, so too it is forbidden to prohibit that which is permissible, as explained in the Shakh (Yoreh De’ah, end of ch. 242). However, in order to safeguard matters (le-migdar mil’sa) it is permissible to even be lenient against a biblical prohibition — as explained in Yevamos 90b and in the Rambam (Hilkhos Yesodei ha-Torah 9:3) — and even moreso to be strict. The Rambam already suficiently explained this in ch. 2 of Hilkhos Mamrim. It is without question that these illustrious rabbis knew that in their region it is proper to institute a safeguard even in a matter in which no prohibition can be found in Shas and posekim. Even though we do not enact a gezerah on the community if the majority of the community cannot uphold it — as explained in chapter Ein Ma’amidin and in Rambam, Hilkhos Mamrim 2:5 — these rabbis certainly know that in their region the majority of the community can truly uphold these enactments, and a judge has only what his eyes see…

(R. Azriel Hildesheimer, Gesammelte Aufaetze [Frankfurt a. M.: Hermon, A. G. 1923], pp. 24-25)

Let us now proceed to R. Schachter’s arguments.

I. Incomplete Mitzvos

R. Schachter here makes a very simple and clear point. Women who attend WPGs do not fulfill completely and optimally the mitzvos that they are trying to do. Thus, they lack a minyan and all of the prayers limited to a minyan may not be recited. Women who attend WPGs miss out on kaddish, kedushah, barekhu, repetition of the amidah and an official reading of the Torah.

One can also add that women who pray in a WPG also miss out on tefillas ha-tzibbur. It can be countered that even if one does not pray in a shul, as long as one prays at the same time as the general community one’s prayer is part of the community’s. However, that is at best a bedi’avad situation. If one cannot attend communal services then one should at least try to pray at the same time as the community.

One can counter that none of this is really relevant since women are not obligated to pray with a minyan. If so, and certainly many, many women of the frummest varieties do not regularly attend synagogue during the week or on Shabbos, then why would anyone object to women going to a WPG instead of staying home? I believe the answer to this question is as follows.

It is true that women are not obligated to pray with a minyan (it is also a matter of debate whether men are obligated to do so). However, when women get all dressed up on Shabbos and leave their homes to pray in an organized service, and they choose to go to a WPG instead of a minyan, they are choosing a sub-optimal mitzvah over an optimal mitzvah; they are actively rejecting the more complete fulfillment for the lesser. If they stayed home, they are opting to pray alone rather than put in the effort to go to shul. However, when they put in that effort but go to a WPG instead of a synagogue, they are making a statement that they prefer the lesser fulfillment over the greater. They are figuratively being ma’avir al ha-mitzvos, stepping over a mitzvah. That, I believe, is sufficient reason to label a WPG a distortion of Torah principles. If most of the attendees of a WPG are actively choosing it over a minyan, the WPG is an instrument of misguided Torah principles, a teacher of distorted values.

II. Distortion of the Torah

In some places, WPGs are intended to demonstrate that women can also count to a minyan as long as it is a “women’s minyan”. This is incorrect and is a distortion of the Torah.

However, I do not know of any such WPGs anymore. It must be kept in mind that R. Schachter’s article was first published in 1985, a generation ago. Things have changed since then and I am not certain that this particular concern is a viable critique today. A similar argument to this is offered by R. J. David Bleich in his Contemparary Halakhic Problems but that, too, is a dated work.

III. Breaking from Normative Halakhah

Normative halakhah is that women may not lead services, read from the Torah, etc. By breaking away from a synagogue in which this is observed and creating a group where this will not be practiced, these women are intentionally doing the exact opposite of what halakhah demands and establishing their own environment in which they can contravene the standard practice. They are essentially saying, “Your rules apply over there. Let us follow our rules over here.” This is not only dangerous divisiveness but, in a sense, rebellion against normative practice.

IV. Be-rov Am Hadras Melekh

There is a general principle that prayer should be in the largest group possible because a large gathering of praisers is a greater glory for God. Therefore, as some prominent posekim have ruled, one is forbidden to institute “break-off” prayer services absent extreme necessity. Women who go to WPGs are choosing to pray in smaller groups rather than with the larger group in the community synagogue.

One can easily counter that this is simply not the standard practice. Beginning with Hassidic shtiebles in the 18th century and continuing to hashkamah minyanim today, it is very common for “break-off” prayer services to be started. Indeed, it is not uncommon for shtiebels to temporarily break a minyan in half so that two mourners may each lead their own service. In this case, normative practice seems to significantly limit the application of be-rov am hadras melekh. However, R. Schachter still retains the right to rule strictly on this matter if he feels that a stringent ruling is necessary.

V. Misunderstanding of a Complex Principle

There is a general rule in halakhah that a mitzvah is best performed by the individual who is obligated and not his messenger (mitzvah bo yoser mi-bi-shlukho). This has, in the past, been used as an argument for why WPGs are beneficial. With this innovation, women will be able to perform these mitzvos on their own and not require a “messenger.” However, this reasoning is incorrect because the principle is limited and certainly does not apply to leading prayer services. If women misunderstand this concept then we must educate them about the proper intent and encourage them to live their lives in consonance with this Torah value.

VI. Innovating Practices

R. Schachter is adamant that innovation of practices is not necessarily a bad thing. However, such innovation must be done with the purest of motives. If, however, a practice was started without such pure motives, particularly if it was begun by those who are not entirely loyal to traditional Judaism, then the practice must be rejected even if, on its own, the practice is beneficial. A new practice, therefore, must have the following two components to be valid:

1. It must be similar to and consonant with the values of established biblical and rabbinic practices, an evaluation of which requires extensive knowledge and understanding of halakhah.

2. The innovation must be instituted in a way that guarantees that it was done out of pure motivations.

This was not the case with WPGs and two of the greatest scholars of the past generation, R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, were opposed to WPGs (more on R. Soloveitchik’s view in a subsequent post). Indeed, WPGs fails on both criteria. It is neither consistent with halakhah nor its values, and it was not instituted with entirely pure motives.

WPG advocates will, of course, deny these origins of the practice but to anyone whose memory extends beyond twenty years ago this history is extremely clear.

VII. Established Custom

Custom in the performance of mitzvos is extremely important and cannot be overlooked. As posekim throughout the centuries have ruled — including most recently R. Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg, the author of Seridei Esh — we cannot institute practices that contravene established customs. Women have never attended WPGs in the past and even such a negative custom has normative value (cf. Shakh, Yoreh De’ah 1:1). Of course, not everything falls into the category of custom. However, exactly what does and what does not requires the judgement of an experienced and expert halakhist.

Some will object that negative customs do not have power — lo ra’inu eino ra’ayah — and that the Shakh quoted by R. Schachter is disputed by the Beis Yosef. Be that as it may, R. Schachter certainly has the right to rule like the Shakh against the Beis Yosef, as many others have done, especially considering the other precedents he brings that indicate that negative customs are binding.

VIII. Synagogue Customs

This is even more significant in regard to synagogue customs. The synagogue is our miniature Temple and, therefore, we must treat it with the extra sanctity necessary to such a holy place. The customs of a synagogue have even more import than other traditional practices.

One can suggest that this importance of synagogue customs only came into play in the 19th century as a response to the innovations of the Reform movement, which tended to focus on the synagogue. Even if this is true, it might be legitimately argued that the innovaters of WPGs are taking on the legacy of the early Reform movement and those staunch stances might still be entirely appropriate. Additionally, no generation is bereft of innovative Torah thought — ein beis midrash beli hiddush. The halakhic exegesis of the 19th century has become part and parcel of the Torah and cannot be set aside by merely noting the historical context of its genesis. If it was legitimate Torah then, it is certainly legitimate Torah today.

IX. Imitating the Gentiles

It is biblically prohibited to imitate Gentile practices. While this prohibition has limits, it certainly forbids practices that might lead to licentiousness. Since, as the past thirty-five years have taught us, the drive towards egalitarianism includes — in practice if not inherently — a push towards promiscuity, significant steps towards egalitarianism is prohibited as a forbidden imitation of Gentile practice. Exactly which practices can be termed sufficiently egalitarian to be prohibited and which not is not a simple matter and must be decided by our greatest scholars.

Yet, the reader will certainly ask, what could be promiscuous about an all-woman prayer service? Quite the opposite. There might be less of a “social scene” at a WPG than at some regular synagogues. This, however, is taking a very limited view of the phenomenon. “Women’s Liberation” and the “Sexual Revolution” are inherently tied together. The correspondence need not be direct for it to be entirely real. WPGs, as a facet of “Women’s Liberation”, are fundamentally linked to promiscuity. Keep in mind, also, that what can be labeled promsicuity in the Torah world is much less severe than what the general secular world would consider promiscuity. Even a mere loosening of societal bonds is a promiscuity in the world of Torah observance.

X. Gentile Practices in the Synagogue

R. Soloveitchik was extremely strict regarding allowing any Gentile practices into the synagogue. He believed that this is biblically prohibited and was adamant in his opposition to such practices. Religious egalitarianism first emerged in churches and only later spread to synagogues. Therefore, it is forbidden to imitate this practice that began in churches.

XI. Heterodox Practices

Aditionally, it is prohibited to imitate sectarian and non-Orthodox practices because it encourages these movements in their forbidden ways. Moving towards egalitarianism via WPGs is certainly an encouragement of the Conservative movement. It is really unquestionable that the Orthodox feminist rhetoric includes calls for practices that are currently considered to be non-Orthodox. The Conservative Jews who adopted various levels of egalitarianism a mere few decades ago certainly see a reflection of their own struggle in the Orthodox feminist movement. Permitting WPGs would legitimate their struggle and “confirm them in their practices” (Rashi, Hullin 41a). This is a concern that a number of posekim have considered in issuing rulings, including such Modern Orthodox luminaries as R. David Zvi Hoffman (Melamed le-Ho’il, vol. 1 no. 6), Rav Kook (Orah Mishpat, Orah Hayim no. 36) and R. Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg (Seridei Esh, vol. 2 no. 80, vol. 3 nos. 11, 93).

XII. Representing Religious Rebellion

R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was asked whether a synagogue may hire a Gentile to drive a bus on Shabbos that will pick up congregants and take them back and forth from the synagogue. R. Soloveitchik ruled that even though the technical halakhos of Shabbos would allow such a practice, because driving on Shabbos has come to represent the removal of the yoke of Torah it has special significance and cannot be allowed. Technical halakhah, and not public policy considerations, prohibit such an activity. When it moves from a simple practice to a symbol of anti-Torah sentiment, it gains larger significance and must be judged from that global perspective. WPGs, too, have gained similar symbolic value of the overthrowing of the male-dominated halakhic system and, therefore, must also be prohibited.

For this reason, even those rabbis who had previously ruled that WPGs are permissible must reconsider their rulings. This issue has moved beyond a simple Orah Hayim discussion into the meta-halakhic realm of symbolism — issues that are no less halakhically significant but much more complex. Once WPGs gained a special place in the feminist crusade its status significantly changed and must be evaluated as such.

However, it is unclear to me whether this is still true. While in 1985 WPGs may have been the front line of the feminist battle, it seems to me that this has changed and the war has largely moved into other areas.

Conclusion

For all of these reasons, R. Hershel Schachter paskened that WPGs are prohibited. While some are more convincing than others, his ruling is one that I believe to be consistent and legitimate (I add the latter only because some have boldly accused it of halakhic illegitimacy). In future posts we will examine other approaches on both sides of this debate. But in my opinion, the overwhelming weight of halakhic opinion is on the side of stringency.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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