Women’s Prayer Groups – R. J. David Bleich’s Position

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R. J. David Bleich is, in my opinion, an unfortunately under-appreciated giant of our generation. He holds a PhD in Philosoephy, lectures on Hullin and other subjects to semihah students at Yeshiva University, is a co-head of a kollel for dayanus at YU, teaches at Yeshiva College and Cardozo Law School and is a world-renowned expert on bio-medical ethics. He is a walking encyclopedia of halakhah which, with his acerbic wit, makes him close to an Ashkenazic version of R. Ovadiah Yosef. Why he is not counted among the top posekim of this generation is beyond me.

R. Bleich’s regular column in the journal Tradition titled “Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodic Literature” demonstrates his breadth of knowledge and his depth of understanding. It also serves as the majority of his series of books Contemporary Halakhic Problems. In volume three of this series (pp. 115-121), he reprinted with minor changes an article of his from the journal Sh’ma (15/299 – Oct. 18, 1985) that deals with Women’s Prayer Groups. At that time, the most popular term for these groups was “Women’s Minyanim” which R. Bleich adopted, despite the imprecision of the term. I wish that copyright law would allow me to reproduce the entire article because its eloquence and sensitivity greatly strengthen its arguments. Unfortunately, select quotes and a summary will have to suffice.

I. Sexism

R. Bleich points out the irony of Women’s Prayer Groups. Both women and men may attend regular services in the synagogue but men are barred entirely from Women’s Prayer Groups. This innovation is entirely sexist! This is halakahically irrelevant, but nonetheless worthy of note.

II. Improper Decision-making

R. Bleich makes the point that we have raised in prior points that going to the effort of attending an organized prayer service but choosing to pray without a minyan over with a minyan is making an halakhically improper decision. He illustrates it beautifully and I will reproduce his analogy (p. 117).

This point may be illustrated by the following analogy: No one is obligated to invest in funds in order to earn a profit… [C]onsider the person who does have both the funds and the desire to invest. He or she is offered two separate investment opportunities. Each is entirely risk-free and open-ended in terms of potential profit. The second is tied to the first in the sense that it is guaranteed to yield no less a return than the first but carries the additional advantage of a guaranteed minimum return. Which offer should the investor choose? Since the first investment opportunity carries no advantage over the second, while the second bears the distinct advantage of a guaranteed return, the choice is obvious. An investment counselor who recommends the first investment over the second has not only offered poor advice but has transgressed the biblical commandment “and thou shalt not place a stumbling block before the blind” Leviticus (19:14).

Women who pray with a minyan have a guaranteed better reward for their prayers than women who pray with a Women’s Prayer Group. If women are willing to take on the burden of leaving their homes and going to a place of prayer (i.e. they are willing to invest their money in an opportunity) and choose the lesser option of praying without a minyan (i.e. place their money in the opportunity that gives a lower return), they are making a foolish choice. Anyone who advises them to do so is giving bad advice, with all of the attendant implications.

R. Bleich further writes (p. 119): “Assuredly, the guaranteed benefits of tefillah be-zibbur outweigh those of any possible subjective experience.”

Of the rabbis who advise women to attend Women’s Prayer Groups, R. Bleich writes (p. 116):

There is no question that many women who participate in women’s prayer groups are highly sincere and are prompted by the loftiest of motives. Nevertheless, one can only conclude that their rabbinic mentors have misled them by reason of the latter’s own lack of erudition.

III. Torah Reading

R. Bleich (pp. 119-121) spends a good deal of time addressing the issue of reading the Torah at a Women’s Prayer Group. He first points out that a “real” Torah reading can only take place with a minyan. Regarding a “fake” Torah reading, one without the attendant blessings, R. Bleich deems it prohibited for a surprising and difficult reason. He claims that the Rambam in Hilkhos Melakhim 10:9 prohibits the innovation of religious rituals. The application of this prohibition to the Torah reading at a Women’s Prayer Group is very difficult to me and I will just leave this tzarikh iyun without elaborating on the entire matter.

Conclusion

R. Bleich ends with the following (p. 121):

There is no substitute for the prayer of the community as a unified whole. As so eloquently stated by Ramban in his commentary on Exodus 13:16, “The purpose of… synagogues and the merit of communal prayer is that people have a place wherein they assemble and express gratitude to the Almighty… and proclaim publicly and say before Him ‘we are Your creatures!'” To this end Jews, men and women alike, join together in the synagogue in common and collective expression of worship and devotion.

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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