I was asked a surprising question on Shabbos. A friend, a moderate Charedi, occasionally catches a minyan at HIR. He felt that the latest development — R. Avi Weiss allowing a woman to lead the Kabbolas Shabbos service (link) — put the synagogue beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. I expressed surprise that he didn’t think having a woman rabbi was beyond the pale while this is, but his was clearly an emotional reaction. He asked me whether he is still allowed to daven there occasionally. Even though my friend’s rabbi is away for the summer, it is not my place to answer questions that have such repercussions. So instead I told him a story.
But before I get to that, I know that some will have the opposite reaction of my friend and will ask what could be wrong with it, so let me list 5 things. But first let me also point out that, it seems to me, there is less wrong with having a gentile band accompany Mussaf on Shabbos morning with instrumental music than allowing a woman to lead Kabbolas Shabbos. Yet the leading authorities of 19th century Orthodoxy unanimously opposed that innovation.
1. It is part of a long trend towards egalitarianism, which we have discussed extensively over the years here. This is not only prohibited confirmation of the Heterodox but also demands public policy attention.
2. This is a change in synagogue customs, which is never to be taken lightly.
3. There is a tzeni’us issue of a woman standing in front of the entire congregation and leading it.
4. There is a kol ishah issue when a woman leads the congregation by singing. You might counter that there are leniencies when others sing along and the songs are part of the prayer service. This is what R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik said about that argument: “I know all the heterim [leniencies] and none may be relied upon” (The Rav Thinking Aloud, p. 119).
5. As Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer discuss at length (link, section labeled “Kevod haTsibbur and Partnership Minyanim”), a woman may not lead the congregation in anything obligatory, even if the obligation is only rabbinic or by custom. Since Kabbolas Shabbos has been accepted as a binding custom, women may not lead it. They asked R. Aharon Lichtenstein, who agreed with their analysis and conclusion.
On looking through the limited literature on this subject, I found only two responsa that allowed this practice: (Conservative) Rabbi David Novak in Tomeikh Ka-Halakhah, vol. 1 p. 42 and (Conservative) Rabbi Wayne Allen in Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues, p. 15. And now add to this list Rabbi Avi Weiss: link – PDF.
Let me get back to my friend’s question. When he asked me whether he may pray in R. Avi Weiss’ synagogue, I responded with a story, which I will not retell here but may leave for another time. The point of the story is that the implication from a prominent posek is that we should stay away. That was recommended to me, even though I suffered financial loss, and that is what I suggested to my friend.
I appeal to the congregants of HIR. Do you really want to be isolated from the Orthodox community? Talk to your rabbi and ask him to reconsider. And if talking does not get his attention, as the High Holiday season approaches, consider whether changing the amount of your donation to the synagogue will make your voice heard.