Women’s Prayer Groups – R. Avi Weiss’ Position

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R. Avi Weiss is a very successful pulpit rabbi and Jewish activist. He has founded the organization Amcha that tries to stand up for the Jewish people in a number of venues. His efforts on behalf of the Jewish people and individual Jews in unfortunate situations demonstrate a caring heart and an effective organizational skill.

However, in the area of talmudic scholarship he has shown that he is not an expert and, indeed, has made many mistakes and published sub-standard works. I am not writing this without reason. R. Weiss has tried to publish talmudic/halakhic scholarship to justify some of his feminist innovations and, by forcing himself into the arena of such scholarship, has portrayed himself as the scholar that he is not. It must be said that his works should not be taken by the public to be serious scholarship.

The most obvious example is his article in The Torah u-Madda Journal about women reading megillah for men. His article was so flawed that I cannot understand why the editor agreed to publish it. However, as a redeeming act, the editor published a rebuttal article that ably demonstrated the many flaws in R. Weiss’ article. That R. Weiss would nevertheless publish that article as an appendix to the second edition of his book, Women at Prayer, is not only astonishing but raises many questions that I prefer not to pursue.

In this post, I shall address chapter eight of his book, Women at Prayer, and point out some of the errors that exist on almost every page of that chapter. The chapter is largely devoted to rebutting R. Hershel Schachter’s essay on the subject of Women’s Prayer Groups. As should be clear from my comments thus far, I believe that R. Avi Weiss is well over his head in trying to refute so great a scholar as R. Hershel Schachter.

Before I begin addressing R. Weiss’ arguments, I would like to point out that R. Weiss makes a most unfortunate choice in terminology. He repeatedly, throughout his book and in his article, refers to women’s “right” to read the megillah or lead the services, thus implying that women have a de facto entitlement to these roles and that anyone who rules strictly on these matters is denying women these rights. This kind of biased and leading terminology has no place in a serious Torah discussion.

I. Incomplete Fulfillment of Prayer

R. Avi Weiss begins by quoting both R. Hershel Schachter and R. J. David Bleich who argue that since prayer with a minyan is always preferable to private prayer, WPGs are misguided.

R. Weiss offers two responses. First, all-female prayer groups are the norm in girls’ schools rather than the administrators organizing a minyan for the female students every day. Therefore, it is clear that the administrators disagree with Rabbis Schachter and Bleich.

Of course, this argument is entirely incorrect. No school administrator would claim that they choose not to have a daily minyan in their school. Rather, the logistics of arranging it are too complicated for them to bother. If they had a choice between holding services with a minyan and without, they would certainly choose the minyan. In fact, Stern College for Women regularly has a minyan on Shabbos and I’ve been told by friends who have been in charge of that minyan that ensuring regular attendance of ten men is quite a logistical challenge.

Comparing settling for all-female, non-minyan prayer to actively choosing to forgo a minyan and pray in an all-female setting is simply mistaken.

R. Weiss also argues that some women have more kavanah, intent, in their prayer in a WPG. Therefore, for them prayer in a WPG is preferable to prayer in a minyan.

However, he (1) fails to prove this claim that it is preferable and (2) neglects that R. J. David Bleich explicitly addressed this case and came to the opposite conclusion.

R. Weiss embarks on a lengthy discussion of the different forms of kavanah in prayer, something that I will not bother to critique because it is not really relevant. I applaud him for delving into the meaning of kavanah in prayer but regret that he did not make it entirely clear that increased kavanah in the Torah and haftarah reading, or in the holding of the Torah, or even in the “repetition” of the Amidah do not override the benefits of praying with a minyan according to any opinion at all.

II. The Appeal to Contemporary Torah Scholars

In this section, R. Weiss argues that scholars are being dishonest when they claim that such luminaries as R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and R. Moshe Feinstein opposed WPGs. R. Weiss is both correct and incorrect on this subject, but his level of fault is so egregious that this section is almost painful to read. Keep in mind that R. Weiss is arguing in favor of WPGs.

For example, R. Weiss quotes R. Schachter as stating that R. Soloveitchik and R. Feinstein opposed WPGs. R. Weiss then writes (p. 106):

But these two Torah scholars had ample opportunity to publicly condemn such groups, and they very carefully held back from any issur (prohibition and always held open the real possibility of these groups functioning within the halakhic community.

First, note that R. Weiss claims that both R. Soloveitchik and R. Feinstein believe that there was a “real possibility” that WPGs can be permitted. As we shall see, R. Weiss himself will demonstrate that this is incorrect. Second, R. Weiss is arguing that since R. Soloveitchik and R. Feinstein issued careful statements about WPGs and did not scream “Assur, assur assur!” they must have held that such groups are permissible. Again, R. Weiss will himself demonstrate – and state explicitly – that this is simply not true. He actually subsequently proves that R. Schachter is correct, but leaves this criticism of R. Schachter intact.

R. Weiss writes (p. 107): “In the early 1970s, Rav Soloveitchik indicated to some rabbis that under certain guidelines, women’s tefillah groups are permitted.” The source for this statement, R. Weiss tells us, is R. Shlomo Riskin. As the Rabbis Frimer demonstrated at length (in their article that was published after the first edition of R. Weiss’ book but before the second, revised edition), this is an inaccurate portrayal of the dealings between R. Soloveitchik and R. Riskin. See the quote in an earlier post on this subject.

R. Weiss’ conclusion is that R. Soloveitchik opposed WPGs for reasons other than “halakhic grounds,” or reasons that R. Weiss understands as being non-halakhic. In plain English, R. Soloveitchik opposed WPGs precisely as R. Hershel Schachter claimed.

Interestingly, R. Weiss shares with us in footnote 39 (p. 112) the following exchange between him and R. Soloveitchik:

For this writer, the distinction between public policy and a binding halakhic opinion became clear in a related discussion I had with Rav Soloveitchik concerning the carrying of the Sefer Torah by women through the ezrat nashim (women’s section). In conversation with the Rav I asked whether he felt this was prohibited. I remember the Rav’s response with great clarity: “Don’t do it.” I then asked: “But Rebbe, are you saying it is assur?” The Rav Answered: “I didn’t say it’s assur. It’s mutar (permissible), but I want to protect you.”

Here again, the Rav’s “don’t do it” was not a halakhic pesak, but an expression of concern – a concern which in this case, the Rav felt, would protect me – but a suggestion which was certainly not halakhically binding, and one which I have respectfully chosen not to follow.

Let me get this straight. He asked his mentor, one of the most profound talmudists and thinkers of the twentieth century, whether a course of action is advisable and this respected teacher responded, “Don’t do it.” But since he did not say that it is absolutely assur, R. Weiss decided to ignore him. Respectfully ignore, though. It is always important when dealing with matters of far-reaching communal importance to ignore your rabbe’im respectfully.

R. Weiss then reproduces two unpublished responsa from R. Moshe Feinstein about WPGs. R. Feinstein states that in order for a WPG to be allowed, the participants must be righteous and motivated entirely for the sake of Heaven. R. Feinstein further clarified that “the possibility of a group of women or for that matter men existing in any one community which will fulfill the lengthy philosophical criteria mentioned in his printed teshuvah is extremely remote. Therefore, realistically speaking he doesn’t recommend or actually condone the establishment of women’s prayer groups.”

Ahah! R. Weiss immediately notes that R. Feinstein does not actually condemn Women’s Prayer Groups. He only does not “recommend” or “condone” them. Ring the bell, we have a celebrity endorsement! You see, R. Feinstein leaves open the “extremely remote” possibility that nashim tzidkaniyos can be found – and evidently have been found in Riverdale, Teaneck and elsewhere – for a permissible WPG.

R. Weiss is correct that both R. Soloveitchik and R. Feinstein clearly disagree with many of R. Schachter’s arguments. But R. Schachter never claimed anything to the contrary! He only stated that these two scholars opposed WPGs, a claim that R. Weiss has proven to be correct.

R. Weiss then makes a startling, even humorous deduction (p. 111).

Also in a shiur (Torah session) given at Stern College, Yeshiva University (Spring 1986), Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, was asked about women’s prayer groups. He responded that he personally did not condone the services, as he saw little value in them. When I asked him aftewards whether his statement constituted a halakhic pesak, i.e., whether in fact, women’s tefillah groups were halakhically assur (prohibited), he responded in clear terms: “I did not say that these prayer groups are assur.”

Rabbi Shapiro affirmed this position in a letter he recently wrote. He concludes that a “woman’s minyan where devarim she-bi-kedushah (are recited) is contrary to halakhah and minhag.” The implication is clear. A woman’s tefillah group where devarim she-bi-kedushah are not said is not halakhically prohibited.

Unbelievable! R. Weiss seems to have difficulty distinguishing between improper and permissible. If something is improper but not technically prohibited, he sees carte blanche permission to go ahead with it. R. Weiss lists leading scholar after leading scholar who oppose Women’s Prayer Groups and he concludes that since they did not use the word assur then there is nothing wrong with such a practice. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is more to halakhah then simply assur and mutar (see, for example, R. Mayer Twersky’s eloquent essay on halakhic values).

III. Imitations of Non-Jewish Practices

R. Weiss quotes R. Schachter’s invoking of the prohibition against imitating Gentile practices and suggests that, perhaps, we can take the good from Feminism and reject the bad. I do not believe that R. Schachter would disagree with this claim. However, he was referring to a very specific aspect of Feminism that has increased promiscuity and loosened the bonds of authority. Would anyone suggest that R. Schachter is against “equal pay for equal work” simply because Feminists advocated equality in wages?

R. Weiss’ claim (p. 113) that “[t]he reality is that participants in women’s tefillah groups are primarily motivated by increased Torah learning and not by the feminist movement” is not only entirely speculative, but contradicts the very public example of the initiators and advocates of WPGs.

R. Weiss claims (pp. 113-114) to have found a contradiction, perhaps even a reversal, in R. Schachter’s writings. In his first article on the subject, R. Schachter wrote that the main motivating factor in establishing WPGs was to innovate, gain publicity, etc. and that among the founders were students and graduates of JTS. In a later article, R. Schachter wrote that some women who participate in WPGs are educated and well-intentioned. I fail to see the contradiction – the gotcha! that R. Weiss was looking for. Yes, the early leaders and initiators of WPGs were Conservative (or Conservative-leaning) and had many unpraiseworthy intentions. But that does not mean that everyone involved with WPGs lack the proper sincere motivations.

R. Weiss (p. 114) then conclusively ends the discussion of the issue of imitating Gentile practices by quoting R. Yehuda Henkin, whose approach we discussed in an earlier post.

IV. More on Non-Jewish Practices

R. Weiss (pp. 114-115) quotes R. Schachter’s relaying of R. Soloveitchik’s position that there is a specific prohibition against imitating Gentile practices in the synagogue. As R. Schachter transmits, R. Soloveitchik saw as the source for this prohibition Nahmanides’ commentary to Devarim 12:30. In his extensive erudition, R. Weiss claims that R. Soloveitchik entirely misunderstood Nahmanides’ commentary and, indeed, any such application to contemporary circumstances “borders on the absurd.” I think that it need not be said that there is a slight possibility that R. Weiss, rather than R. Soloveitchik, is missing something here.

V. Motivation

R. Weiss (p. 116) quotes R. Schachter as prohibiting WPGs because they were introduced by “insincere, even rebellious, women.” R. Weiss’ response is that it doesn’t matter because the participants in WPGs are sincere. In other words, he rejects without argument R. Schachter’s claim, based on halakhic sources, that a new custom must be innovated with entirely proper motivations (see here section VI).

VI. Approbation of Noted Scholars

Here is another Twilight Zone moment. R. Schachter argues that new customs must have the approbation of noted scholars. R. Weiss (pp. 116-117) responds that “it is not at all clear that women’s tefillah groups lack this approval.” Remember? Rabbis Soloveitchik, Feinstein and Shapiro only opposed WPGs but did not declare them to be “assur.” That, in R. Weiss’ expert opinion, is approval.

VII. New Practice

R. Weiss raises (pp. 117-118) the issue of lo ra’inu eino ra’ayah and then quotes R. Eliezer Berkovits’ resolution of this problem. We already addressed that in an earlier post.

VIII. Location: Home or Synagogue?

R. Weiss (pp. 118-122) spends a good deal of time stressing the importance of praying in a synagogue and does not realize that, to some degree, he is arguing against WPGs. As many, including R. Yehuda Henkin, have noted, WPGs are a deviation from traditional synagogue customs and may not be held there. Clearly, R. Weiss disagrees. But if we accept what actual posekim rule on the matter and then look back at R. Weiss’ many sources indicating the importance of praying in a synagogue, we are left with a solid argument for praying in synagogue with a minyan rather than elsewhere with a WPG.

Tam ve-nishlam, shevah la-Kel borei olam

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief 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 serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five 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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