Women’s Prayer Groups – R. Yehuda Henkin’s Position

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The time has come to summarize and critique the writings of those who permit Women’s Prayer Groups. The first in this series is R. Yehuda Henkin, although as we shall see he does not entirely fit into this group.

R. Yehuda Henkin is the grandson of the renowned ga’on R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, who was a world-recognized posek in the mid-twentieth century. The younger R. Henkin is a rav in Israel and has written widely on modern subjects, particularly women’s issues, as well as a three-volume work of responsa. He is not particularly famous or recognized — I do not know anyone other than me who owns all three volumes of his responsa — but he is a serious talmid hakham and one of the few who are willing to take seriously the halakhic questions raised by feminists. He is unquestionably Modern Orthodox and has, together with his wife, founded an institute to teach the laws of nidah to female scholars and prepare them to be halakhic advisers.

A review of his responsa will demonstrate that he is neither particularly lenient nor strict; he calls them as he sees them. For example, he comes out fairly strongly in favor of separate seating at weddings (at least for singles) in responsum vol. 1 no. 35, which is quite surprising for a Modern Orthodox posek, much less someone looked up to by feminists. However, I do not believe that his responsa will ever become mainstream because his method of approaching a question is fairly unique and idiosyncratic. In other words, his derekh ha-limud is very unusual. That does not mean that he is wrong or is less than serious. It just means that I do not think that he will ever be a “big posek“, even before taking into account factional politics. He is nevertheless a very significant talmid hakham.

R. Henkin addresses the issue of Women’s Prayer Groups briefly in one of his responsa (vol. 2 no. 10), which he has since translated into English and published in his Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues. I will be using his English translation in this post and all page numbers refer to that book.

I. Public Prayer

R. Henkin starts off, “Some rabbis object to these women’s prayer groups because they lack the Halachic status of public prayer. But women have no obligation of public prayer… In many communities women did not go to synagogue at all… Unfortunately, many women’s sections and men’s sections alike are places of idle gossip” (p. 72).

In other words, it is not a minyan but so what? Women do not have to pray with a minyan. This is a valid response to the argument he quoted but does not address other issues that we spelled out in previous posts. For example, what about the problem of ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvot? Women who put in the effort to leave home and attend a service, but then intentionally do not go to a minyan and instead go to a Women’s Prayer Group, are passing over the greater mitzvah.

II. Torah Reading

R. Henkin then spends a good deal of time objecting to the claim that women are obligated to hear the reading of the Torah and, therefore, must attend a minyan. I fully agree with him on this, or at least his conclusion. Again, I do not share his methodology of approaching a question.

III. Foreign Influence

R. Henkin next addresses the argument that Women’s Prayer Groups are “inspired or influenced by the non-Jewish women’s liberation movement, in violation of the prohibition in Vayikra 18:3 against adopting non-Jewish practices” (p. 74).

He responds that “the Torah prohibits actions and not movements. Motivation alone is not a violation…” (ibid.).

In other words, there is nothing wrong with being influenced by non-Jewish ideas as long as we do not imitate their actual practices. This is, to me, a tremendous hiddush which R. Henkin really just tosses out there with barely any proof. All he does is direct the reader to Deut. 12:30 and the Ramban’s commentary to that verse. I would think that such an innovative idea would deserve much more elaboration.

He then adds another important caveat to this argument. “Since Christian women do not pray by themselves but with men, Jewish women’s prayer groups without men do not violate ubechukoteihem lo teileichu” (ibid.).

My understanding, perhaps mistaken, is that this is incorrect. The Feminist movement made inroads into Christianity just like it did into Judaism and, historically, all-female prayer groups were formed among Christians before Jewish women started to do so. However, I do not currently have a source to back up that impression. I will see what an internet search turns up. This is, clearly, a crucial point. If Christians were forming Women’s Prayer Groups first then there is ample reason to prohibit such groups for Jews.

IV. Synagogue Customs

R. Henkin accepts the critique that Women’s Prayer Groups are an improper deviation from traditional synagogue customs and therefore requires that they be held elsewhere, either in a private home or in an adjacent hall. He also prohibits the bringing of a communal Torah scroll for one-time use (ibid.).

V. Self-Delusion

“As for the charge that women are deluding themselves into thinking that they are conducting public prayer when in fact they have only the status of individuals, whether or not they are deluding depends on the circumstances in each community” (ibid.).


VI. Falsifying Torah

R. Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal, wrote that misrepresenting Torah is a matter of yehareg ve-al ya’avor, of the most serious nature. R. Henkin disagrees with the nature of the severity of this prohibition and even cites R. Moshe Feinstein on this matter. In other words, while falsifying Torah is a very bad thing, one must not give up one’s life rather than violate this prohibition. How this is an endorsement of Women’s Prayer Groups, I don’t know. If one accepts the premise that they are misrepresenting Torah, then all R. Henkin has demonstrated is that women need not give up their lives rather than form such a group. In other words, it has the same status as the eating of pig meat.

As an aside, R. Mordechai Tendler frequently states that this ruling of the Maharshal was very critical to his grandfather’s, R. Moshe Feinstein’s, world view. In other words, contrary to R. Henkin’s claim, R. Moshe Feinstein agreed with the Maharshal. Anyone interested in investigating this topic, that is really quite unrelated to the issue of Women’s Prayer Groups, is encouraged to spend some time trying to determine R. Feinstein’s view. Whatever it is, it does not in any way impact on our topic.

VII. Conclusion

R. Henkin concludes as follows:

Nevertheless, I am not endorsing women’s prayer groups, because one cannot rule from a distance without knowing the operative souls (hanefashot ha’osot). This issue is in the province of gedolim… Another reason for not issuing a heter now is that I saw an article in which one of the rabbis expounded at length on the dangers he anticipates from women’s prayer groups [perhaps R. Hershel Schachter? – Simcha].”

(pp. 75-76)

To summarize R. Henkin’s view:

1. Women’s Prayer Groups may not take place in a shul’s sanctuary

2. Women may not use a Torah scroll for such a group (if it is a one-time use)

3. He cannot rule on this issue without knowing the details of the local community

4. Only a gadol should rule on such a complex and delicate issue (compare with my recent post from R. Mayer Twersky)

From where I am sitting, R. Henkin barely addressed the many issues raised by R. Hershel Schachter and R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and those he addressed he did not do so convincingly.

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 has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He 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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