By Rabbi Michael J. Broyde
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was Founding Rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America. In the last few years Rabbi Broyde has written a number of articles on womenâ€™s issues from the perspective of halacha, including: womenâ€™s hair covering (link – PDF), womenâ€™s aliyot (link), women clergy (link), women receiving parsonage (link) and the issues of agunot (link – PDF).
I would like to make certain observations about the recent conversations concerning women leading Kabbalat Shabbat. Most of my points focus on halacha, and a few of them on sociology. As a general matter, I do not think that most of the commentators have focused enough on the theory of the halacha, but have excessively focused on the people and the personalities. While in the short run the latter seems central, in the long run, the former is what makes Torah timeless.
I. What is the Problem With Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat?
First, notwithstanding some of that which has been written, I seriously doubt that the recitation of Kabbalat Shabbat has the status of a davar shebikedusha, such that a woman as a chazan is a violation of the classical yatza-motzi rules. Kabbalat Shabbat is generally discussed in the poskim (see Shulchan Aruch 261 and 263 as well as Ishei Yisrael 36:14-15) in the context of a minhag and nothing more, and we have generations of tanaim, amoraim and rishonim who did not say it. Indeed, there have been prominent halachic authorities of the last generation who did not recite Kabbalat Shabbat. Furthermore, it is not generally treated as a davar shebikedusha in many communities socially, where, for example, a child will lead Kabbalat Shababat, chazanim repeat words in Lecha Dodi who never repeat words in tefilla, and the chazan will step off the bima to dance and engage in many other frivolities that are inconsistent with a davar shebikedusha structure. Claims that women cannot lead Kabbalat Shabbat because it is a davar shebikedusha or because it is a violation of the yatza-motzi rules, like a woman leading chazarat hashatz for Mussaf are, seem counter to the normative halacha and the normative minhag of many shuls. I thus doubt this is the correct approach.
Second, I doubt that there is any violation of halacha associated with a shul skipping Kabbalat Shabbat completely, or having no chazan at all for it. I know of a few yeshivot that do not even recite either the six customary chapters of Psalms or Lecha dodi or have no chazan for it. Furthermore, I doubt that Orthodoxy would exclude from its ranks any institution that do not recite Kabbalat Shabbat. I could even imagine synagogues skipping Kabbalat Shabbat in certain circumstances, but I cannot imagine a case where one can skip Shacharit. To put it differently, I would not consider a synagogue Orthodox if it deleted the Shacharit service, and I would consider the rabbi who rules the recitation of Shacharit not to be mandatory to be a sinner, based on a technical violation of halacha, but I would not do so for Kabbalat Shabbat.
Third, Kabbalat Shabbat need not be sung, and we should not base our analysis of the issue of women leading Kabbalat Shabbat on the kol beisha issue, as that can be readily avoided by simply saying Kabbalat Shabbat without any tunes at all (as I do to myself every Shabbat eve). That is not to say that the issue of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat in song is necessarily permitted by halacha, but rather it is to insist that the issue of song cannot be one of serious focus, since (unlike keriat hatorah) there is not even a special mitzvah to sing during Kabbalat Shabbat. The ardor of the various commentators on this topic would not be diminished one wit, I suspect, if a woman led Kabbalat Shabbat in a totally flat monotone without a note of song.
Fourth, I suspect that as a matter of normative halacha, we will be hard pressed to claim a consensus that women may not lead any communal activities in an Orthodox community, and that it is a violation of general rules of modesty in our community. There certainly are situations where women do lead even yatza-motzi activities, such as kiddush or maggid (or even Mournerâ€™s Kaddish according to some) and women certainly make birchot hanehenim for mixed audiences. In many of our communities, we have in fact developed practices that permit women to engage in certain public communal rituals that even fulfill the obligations of men, such as kiddush. Certainly, to the extent that there is a generic claim of a lack of modesty (tzniyut) in a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, I think that this argument does not resonate as correct in many RCA or OU communities.
Thus, I think that the real issue is exactly the one of violation of minhag yisrael. Whatever the theoretical basis of our custom is, it is clear that since the minhag yisrael of reciting Kabbalat Shabbat started five centuries ago, women have not led it. This is true even as there never has been a technical violation of hilchot tefilla, in my view, here. The issue is one of poretz geder, breaches of historical custom and change within Orthodox ritual.
II. The Issue of Change and Innovation in Matters of Minhag: When is Change Good or Bad?
It is not a secret that Rabbi Daniel Sperber â€“ who certainly is a far more accomplished scholar than I â€“ has embarked on a process to change minhag yisrael when it comes to womenâ€™s matters. His goal is to create Orthodox communities where the customary minhagim that restrict what women do are abolished. Those things that halacha genuinely precludes are precluded, in his view, but those that are not precluded by halacha should not be precluded by historical practice, in his view. He feels that these change are warranted because of the needs of the times. It is worth reading his sefer â€œDarcha Shel Halachaâ€œ to understand his view and agenda. You or I do not have to agree with him to understand that this is what he wants to do.
What we do need to do is respond in a way that makes sense to the community around us, consistent with the reality of the world we live in. Claiming technical violations of halacha based on what normal educated members of our community think are difficult and farfetched reads of the halacha will not lead to our community respecting us or listening to us.
Furthermore, let me confess that I do not think that merely pointing out to the community that having a woman lead Kabbalat Shabbat is a vast breech of minhag yisrael is enough of an explanation of why it should not be done when speaking to large segments of the Orthodox community. Our community looks at many of its innovations in the last century that were breeches of historical minhag yisrael and yet necessary to adapt to life in America. The notion of Jews speaking the vernacular or dressing as gentiles do is a breach of minhag yisrael, the concept of a yeshiva which is a university or college is a breach, as is religious Zionism, as is the rabbi giving a sermon in the vernacular, as is women learning and teaching Torah, as are literally dozens of innovations in American Orthodoxy. Each of us, in our synagogues, I suspect, engages in practices that would have been completely unacceptable a century ago in Europe. Our community, I think, will not agree with us if we oppose this merely because it is an innovation. We must explain why it is a bad innovation.
Additionally, I doubt that we will be able to explain to our community that the problem is that our gedolim or poskim have not yet endorsed this activity. Three reasons explain why such a response merely preaches to the choir. First, many within the community perceive Rabbi Sperber to be exactly such a gadol; second, many within that community are prepared to act on matters of minhag without license from any gadol; and third, many perceive these matters of minhagim to be ones that the local shul rabbi is authorized to change, when no matter of halacha is invoked.
Let me be honest here on another matter. Those to the right of the RCA-OU-YU within Orthodoxy may justly oppose this practice merely because it is innovative, since on many matters the Chasidic community has consistently opposed social and religious innovation within the Jewish community and can oppose this as well, because â€œchadashâ€œ is â€œassur min hatorahâ€œ in those communities. However, in most of Orthodoxy such is not the case and it will not resonate as valid within our community to oppose this innovation merely because it is an innovation. People will just think that this is sexism with no basis in halacha.
Finally, speaking just for myself, I agree with the sentiment that innovation itself can be good or bad, and our practice on matters not precisely governed by halacha can change as the reality changes. To put it simply, I would have supported the opening of Yeshiva College in 1928, even against the consensus of poskim, as the times needed it and halacha permitted it. In the face of a proposed innovation to minhagim, we must ask whether this is a good innovation or a bad one, and not merely oppose all innovation.
Thus, in this and every other context, we must explain why any particular innovation is unwise, and not just innovative.
III. Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat: An Explanation of the Problem
I think, but I am not certain, that the proper explanation for our opposition is as follows: We all agree that women are not allowed to be shluchei tzibur for yatza-motzi matters as a matter of technical halacha, and we all agree that women cannot be shluchei tzibur for devarim shebikedusha, either. We furthermore agree that outside the synagogue setting (such as at kiddush or birchot hanehenin) women can be motzi men. Our opposition to women being leaders of Kabbalat Shabbat is thus, I suspect, grounded in our sense that even though technical Jewish law permits this conduct as a matter of hilchot tefilla, we fear that such conduct produces a reality that is hard to present as a stable status quo, and we are worried that people will grow confused as to what only men can lead: women leading Kabbalat Shabbat will easily slip into women leading Maariv, which is precluded by halacha as commonly understood. For this reason, Orthodox communities have never let women lead those parts of davening that technical halacha does not formally prohibit them from lead.
Why then do we let children lead services like Kabbalat Shabbat and Pesukai Dezimra? I suspect that the answer to that question is as follows (and it is complex): exactly because we are now a more egalitarian community than we ever were, we must be careful not to treat women like children as a matter of halacha. People do not perceive the gap between men and women as socially or religiously great (since both are obligated in most mitzvot min hatorah), whereas the gap between adults and children is very large both religiously and socially (as children are not obligated in mitzvot min hatorah at all). Thus, we worry more that women leading the parts of services (even parts that, when they lead, do not violate technical halacha) is far more likely to lead to women leading all of services than the possibility that we will forget that children are not full participants. Thus, we permit six year old children to lead Ein Kelokeino, because no one will confuse a six year old with an adult, but we ought not to permit Ein Kelokeino to be led by an adult woman, exactly because we will confuse her with an adult man, because she is an adult obligated in Jewish law. Since she cannot lead Mussaf as a matter of Jewish law, even as she looks like a fully obligated adult in our modern egalitarian eyes, we must draw greater lines distinguishing women from men than children from adults. We fear this confusion less when a women leads kiddush in the social hall or makes hamotzi over Shabbat lunch, exactly because neither of these are situations where we consider the person leading services to be functioning as a chazan.
Allow me to suggest an analogy of an innovation that is consistent with technical halacha, but unwise: communal prayer in the vernacular. Halacha permits such communal prayer without a doubt (see OC 101:4), and one could, consistent with classical Jewish law, imagine an Orthodox synagogue in which all communal prayer takes place in English, and no violation of Jewish law has taken place. But yet, we see no such synagogues extant and no community of Orthodox Jews communally praying in English, even as Jewish law clearly permits such prayer. I want to suggest why: It is a bad innovation to pray communally in English, albeit one that violates only the tradition (mesorah) and not the technical law. The reason why it is an unwise innovation is because it leads to a bad result (systemic ignorance of Hebrew) , not because it â€“ itself â€“ is bad I want to suggest that this is a worthwhile framework with which to consider women leading Kabbalat Shabbat. This conduct is exceptionally untraditional, is likely to lead to a technical violation of Jewish law in the future, and positions the community poorly to confront the next set of challenges directed at it. For that reason, I think it is not a practice to encourage.
Jewish law remains a dynamic legal system to this very day. Like all dynamic systems, change in custom is possible and in the last century in America much has changed within Orthodox custom. But, if our community is to grow and prosper, it is because we examine closely whether each and every proposed innovation is prudent and wise, as well as whether it is technically permissible. Furthermore, halacha â€“ more than many legal systems â€“ is aware of the fact that customs have to foster and facilitate halachic conduct in other areas of Jewish life and observance. Changing the custom so as to allow women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat as a chazan seems to me to be a practice that badly obfuscates between situations where a proper shaliach tzibur is needed and where one is not, and thus a bad innovation, likely to lead people astray.
 It is important to note that I do not mean to discount the kol beisha erva issue as a halachic one or even to imply that a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat while singing is not a kol beisha erva issue. Rather, what I want to point out is that Kabbalat Shabbat can be recited completely consistent with halacha without any singing at all by a man. Thus, singing is a secondary issue to the question of can a woman lead Kabbalat Shabbat services. If one concluded that the only prohibition present was kol beisha erva, then one could solve the problem simply be not having any singing. We have no halachic tradition of not letting a woman speak, least she might come to sing â€“ and thus if the sole problem where women singing, women could simply lead Kabbalat Shabbat as a chazan without singing and that would be a fine solution. Thus, kol beisha erva is a red herring and focusing on it is a bad idea.
 In truth, I think Rabbi Sperber wants to go even farther than this alone and wants to reexamine the question of whether the rules of yatza-motzi are expansive enough to allow women who are not obligated in certain rabbinic mitzvot fulfill the obligation for men in those mitzvot as well. See his Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives, p. 117 n. 105a and the discussion about this here: link.
 My wise and thoughtful student at Emory, Rabbi Ira Bedzow suggested this analogy to me.