Putting the Silent Partner Back Into Partnership Minyanim
Guest post by R. Dr. Barry Freundel
Rabbi Barry Freundel is the rabbi of Kesher Israel congregation in Washington, DC, Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Liturgy at Towson University, Vice President of the Vaad of Washington and head of the conversion committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His books include Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of a Jewish Prayer and Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response To Modernity. A highly condensed version of this article appeared as “Kabbalat Shabbat: Recited by the Community; But Is It Communal?” In Tradition 44:2. The below sections are excerpts from the full annotated article, available here: link (PDF)
Over the last few years a new phenomenon has appeared on the Jewish scene. This phenomenon, referred to as “Partnership Minyanim”, claims to be Orthodox and/or halakhic, and to offer increased opportunities for women to participate in services. Specifically, women are allowed to serve as prayer leader (in some venues a woman is always asked to lead) for Kabbalat Shabbat – but not for Maariv on Friday night. On Shabbat morning a women may serve as Hazan(it)for Pesukei Dezmira but not for Shakharit and Musaf. So too, a girl may be asked to conclude the Shabbat morning services beginning with Ein Kelokeinu. Finally, women are given aliyot and read Torah at these services (in some places this is allowed only after the third aliyah). There are some of these groups that follow somewhat different structures.
The title of this article reflects a fundamental concern about how this new development has come to the community. Partnership Minyanim exist in many areas; Jerusalem, New York, Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere. Yet there has, to the best of my knowledge and research, not been any formal attempt to discuss in writing whether these practices are or are not Halakhic. In effect, Halakhah has been the silent partner in the development of Partnership Minyanim.
This article is written to at least begin the process of filling that gap. The focus here will be on Kabbalat Shabbat and the question of whether a woman can lead that service in a mixed gender setting.
I chose that aspect of Partnership Minyanim for several reasons. First, a number of these groups only meet on Friday night, or began their existence as only a Sabbath eve service. Some have then added a Shabbat morning tefillah while others have not.
Second, there has been some written discussion of women and ‘aliyot over the past few years- which we will reference below- but there has been nothing about women and Kabbalat Shabbat. Finally, the issues that we will touch on in this presentation will also deal with many, if not most of the questions that would be raised by women leading parts of the morning services. On the other hand there are more relevant areas of halakhic concern that can be examined when it comes to Kabbalat Shabbat than there are regarding any of the other parts of the services that are given to women at Partnership Minyanim.
I. The Case for Partnership Minyanim
This is a difficult section to write in the absence of any in-depth published defense of the practices followed at Partnership Minyanim. What I describe here comes from conversations or reports of conversations held with those who support the halachik permissibility of these groups-particularly as regards Kabbalat Shabbat. It is, therefore, in the nature of hearsay and I apologize in advance for any shortcomings in my presentation. These shortcomings would easily be rectified by someone coming forward with a written halachik defense of Partnership Minyanim.
Inadequate though it may be, what follows is my understanding of the arguments in favor of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, but not Maariv at a Friday night service. There appear to be three prongs to this argument. The first point is that the Hazan or prayer leader at a communal service helps fulfill the prayer obligation of the tsibur or community. Women have no obligation to be involved in tefillah be-tsibur (communal prayer). They, therefore, do not count towards a minyan for a required service such as Maariv. So too, they cannot lead a communal service because they cannot fulfill the obligation for men, who are required to pray communally.
On the other hand, Kabbalat Shabbat is not part of the talmudic era requirement of tefillah be-tsibur and is not part of the rabbinic mitzvah of davening. That is because its origin lies in the 15th and 16th centuries and not in the talmudic period (1st to 7th centuries). Kabbalat Shabbat is, therefore, only a community custom. It also does not require a minyan for its recitation. As such, a woman may lead since there is no obligation that would remain unfulfilled by her leadership.
The second point: One of the major objections to a woman serving as a prayer leader is that kevod ha-tsibur (the respect of the community, or the respect due to the community or the respect that the community is required to give to G-d) will be violated. In response, adherents of partnership services argue that kevod ha-tsibur, either does not apply today or that it can be vitiated by the congregation foregoing or forgiving its honor.
Point three: Women should affirmatively be allowed to lead services under these circumstances because of the principle of kevod ha-briyot (the honor due God’s creations). Women are demeaned by being unable to function in the role of prayer leader. This causes them great distress. Therefore, the principle of kevod ha-briyot should be invoked to diminish that distress and allow women to have this expanded role in Jewish worship. In general kevod ha-briyot vitiates rabbinic prohibition in cases of personal distress. This model should be followed here as well.
II. Response to the Second Argument
The primary focus of my reaction to these arguments will be an in-depth discussion of Kabbalat Shabbat and what I described as the first point raised in defense of Partnership Minyanim. That is the argument that seems to me to have the most substance. Therefore, I will first discuss points two and three more briefly.
The Halakhic argument about expanding women’s role in davening and the concerns of kevod ha-tsibbur center on the following two sources:
והכל עולין למנין שבעה אפי’ אשה אפי’ קטן אין מביאין את האשה לקרות לרבים
And all come up as part of the count of seven (people called to the Torah on the Sabbath) even a woman, even a child; one does not bring a woman to read for the many.
תנו רבנן: הכל עולין למנין שבעה, ואפילו קטן ואפילו אשה. אבל אמרו חכמים: אשה לא תקרא בתורה, מפני כבוד צבור.
Our Rabbi’s taught: all come up for the count of seven, even a child and even a woman. But the sages say: a woman shall not read in the Torah because of the community’s honor (kevod ha-tsibur).
Even assuming that the first source is also concerned with kevod ha-tsibur – which it does not mention explicitly – and even assuming that these sources can be overcome to allow for women reading Torah or getting aliyot in the contemporary synagogue (a very questionable assumption), there is still a profound and obvious problem.
Nowhere in these sources, nor in any other talmudic passage, is the issue of kevod ha-tsibur ever citied in relation to a woman leading a prayer service. Therefore, finding a path around the kevod ha-tsibur problem for Torah reading – if that can be done in keeping with Halakhah – does not speak to our question at all. Nonetheless, defenders of Partnership Minyanim often cite this issue and the contemporary attempts to find a Halachik way around this concern when it comes to Torah reading, in relation to Kabbalat Shabbat as well.
In that regard Meiri says explicitly:
קטן קורא בתורה שאין הכוונה אלא להשמיע לעם ואין זו מצוה גמורה כשאר מצות שנאמר בה כל שאינו מחויב וכו’ ואע”פ שהוא מברך הרי מ”מ יש לו שייכות בתלמוד תורה עד שאחרים מצווין ללמדו וכל שכן שהקטן רשאי לתרגם אבל אינו פורס על שמע ואינו עובר לפני התיבה ובתלמוד המערב אמרו שאינו פורס אא”כ הביא שתי שערות הא הביא שתי שערות פורס אע”פ שהוא קטן אבל אינו עובר לפני התיבה אע”פ שהביא שתי שערות עד שיראה כגדול ר”ל שיהיה גדול ובר מצוה הא כל שנראה כגדול עובר אע”פ שלא נתמלא זקנו
A child may read in the Torah for the intent is only to have it (the reading) be heard by the people, and this is not a complete mitzvah like other mitzvot about which it is said “whoever is not required… (cannot fulfill the obligation of the many) ” And even though he says a blessing, after-all he has a connection to Torah study to the point where others are required to teach him. Similarly the child may translate (offer the Aramaic targum). But he may not divide the Shema (understood to mean recite Barhu in the presence of a minyan that is not praying so that he can then go on to the sections of Shema and the Amidah having offered this important liturgy that requires a prayer quorum for its recitation) and he does not go down before the ark (he cannot serve as Hazan).
This comment of Meiri, which is often cited as a critically important source supporting the arguments of those who see aliyot for women as acceptable, specifically excludes the extrapolation that it is also acceptable to have children (or women) lead services. Torah reading is simply different than prayer and Meiri is explicit about that claim.
Similarly, Mendel Shapiro who authored the first article advocating that woman can get aliyot in a mixed service wrote in that article:
“From the Orthodox point of view, it is clear that halakhah cannot endure the sort of egalitarian service that is now commonplace in the Conservative and Reform movements. By all Orthodox accounts, Halakhah prohibits the inclusion of women in the requisite minyan of ten as well as the mingling of the sexes during the synagogue service. But while these prohibitions appear both formally and ideologically to be insurmountable, there is one portion of the synagogue service—qeri’at ha-Torah (the public Torah reading)—where to bar women’s participation may not be absolute.”
Though not stated explicitly this, too, would seem to exclude women from leading Kabbalat Shabbat services regardless of what one does with kevod hatsibur in the context of Torah reading.
III. Brief Response to Point Three
I am always troubled by presentations that purport to speak for an entire group. In this case the claim is that women feel demeaned and distressed by their inability to lead services generally and Kabbalat Shabbat specifically. However, it is not clear to me that this claim is true for all women. Certainly there are some who do feel this way and that should be taken seriously—but there are also many who do not feel this way at all. In fact, in my experience I’m not even sure that a majority of Orthodox affiliated women react this way.
It seems to me that a claim like this needs several elements for it to be given the gravitas that its proponents seek. We would need to know who or what group is entitled to speak for women—all women, all Jewish women, observant women, orthodox women, etc. It is also necessary to have a clear idea of what percentage of women actually feel demeaned, troubled, or unhappy at not being able to lead services, and what percentage is happy or unconcerned with the status quo. To my knowledge no one has made a formal presentation of the data that exists on these questions- if any does exist. Absent an attempt to gather that information scientifically we are dealing with anecdote and hearsay.
Also important in this regard is the question of how many women would actually be willing to lead such a service? It seems to me that any consideration of this type needs to distinguish between those who are unhappy and those who are really willing to do something concrete if the opportunity is offered. As far as I know kevod ha-briyot, however one understands it, does not deal with cases of vicarious distress. Whatever leniencies it might allow, the person afflicted is the subject of the leniency, not others who might see and be concerned. In short, simply making the claim that “women are distressed” does not give that claim sufficient moment to be the basis for a change in halakhic practice.
In addition, this usage of kevod habriyot is halachically without precedent in classical sources. Kevod habriyot can be used to overcome rabbinic law in a specific situation of distress. If someone discovers that they are wearing clothing that violates rabbinic prohibitions of shatnez they may wait to get home to disrobe rather than be embarrassed in public.
That determination is a onetime leniency. It does not allow that individual to continue to wear these clothes in public day after day or week after week on the premise that once they have put them on they will be embarrassed to take them off. Kevod habriyot is not a lever that can be used to pry away the weight of halakhah on an ongoing basis.
It also never appears in relation to a class or group of people—only in regard to an individual in distress. In addition, that distress is never about the ability to perform a meaningful act. It is always about avoiding a clearly and overtly embarrassing situation for that individual. It is also, as we said, never vicarious, but always about the individual themselves. None of this would seem to conform with the idea of asking one particular women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat on any particular Friday night, and it certainly does not fit with granting the entire halakhic category of women the right to do so on every Friday night from now until eternity.
There is also profound halakhic danger in this approach. All laws create some measure of burden and, therefore, of distress at some points in time. Using kevod habriyot in this way eliminates the binding nature of all rabbinic laws. If a rabbinic law is distressing I do not need to follow the law and can claim kevod habriyot.
This slippery slope is already here. Daniel Sperber also wrote an article arguing that women could get aliyot. He makes direct and repeated use of kevod habriyot as a rationale for this practice in this article.
Subsequently these words appeared in print:
In his essay “Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading,” Bar Ilan Professor Daniel Sperber assembles a diverse assortment of ways in which human dignity has been cited in recent centuries. Professor Sperber says that kevod habriyot “has been given wide application” and in various halakhic contexts. In the responsa literature, Sperber finds numerous references to human dignity superseding a rabbinic law.
This quote is from the new lenient responsum of the Conservative Movement that eliminates all prohibitions of lesbianism (they are rabbinic), allows male homosexuals to engage in any physical contact that falls short of Biblical prohibition, and accepts homosexual commitment ceremonies. To my mind this is an obvious next step in the process of carrying kevod habriyot to its logical conclusion if one follows the path taken by defenders of women’s aliyot and Partnership Minyanim.
In fact, simply using the issue of personal distress as one’s criteria, I have heard far more and far more painful distress expressed by virtually everyone whose physical attraction tends towards members of the same gender about the halakhik restrictions against their acting on that desire, than I have heard from women about the limitations on their leading services.
Halakhic rulings do not exist in a vacuum. They, as any legal decision, have consequences, both anticipated and unanticipated. The Posek has to be sensitive to the potential impact of his decision in the community, and frankly this development was, to my mind easily foreseeable.
In addition, based on this reasoning I see no obvious reason to argue that a Rabbi should not officiate at an intermarriage. After all a restrictive approach is demeaning and causes pain both to the Jew in love and to her Gentile partner who is also G-d’s creation. Since officiating at such a wedding is only rabbinically prohibited, kevod habriyot should win out here as well.
It seems obvious that other halakhic criteria beyond distress and kevod habriyot need to be factored in when examining these questions….
Continued here: link (PDF)
As women have become more educated and accomplished in contemporary life, many have reexamined their role within Judaism. For some the experience of the traditional structure of things has been examined and found acceptable, for others the limitations seem too restrictive. In exploring new roles and practices that might offer more opportunities the response of the religious establishment has not always been very supportive even of the quest itself.
People who follow this issue may remember the exceptionally well researched and erudite article by Aryeh and Dov Frimer in defense of women’s tefillah groups that evoked two “responses” that did not deign to even reference their article–all in the pages of Tradition. Anyone and everyone was certainly free to disagree with the Frimers and challenge their sources and conclusions, but the disdain was uncalled for and raised unnecessary negative emotions.
Also, Hazal were famously concerned about women’s negative feelings that arose because they were excluded from laying their hands on sacrifices in the Temple. They responded by allowing a modified type of hand-laying that would calm the women’s souls but also conform to Halakhah. We certainly could use more of that spirit.
But, as with women laying hands on the sacrifices, these changes–if they are to be implemented–must conform with Halakhah and appropriate halakhic epistemology. That means that innovation must come with serious halakhic analysis and yishuv ha-daat that explores not only the halakhic permissibility of any new step, but also its implications and consequences. In short the legitimate feelings of women cannot be allowed to create institutions that violate halakhah and that create a dynamic that steps outside of appropriate legal epistemology because the consequences of that are far more negative than the value of providing some comfort to some women and those men who agree with them as important as that may be.
For a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat one would need to respond to the sources requiring that the Cantor be able to grow a full beard at some point in his life and the Magen Avot precedent that even non-mandatory prayers become mandatory when custom has us recite them regularly in public with a Hazan leading the way. One would also need to claim that Kabbalat Shabbat is only tefillat rabim and not tefillah betsibbur; that teffilat rabim is an extension of tefillah beyihidut and not a minor form of tefillah betsibbur; that women count as part of rabim and that unlike the similar structure of zimun women can lead in a mixed setting here even though their basic hiyuv is different than that of a man. Given the overwhelming weight of our sources that oppose every one of those steps, it would appear that no legitimate halakhic conclusion can take the lenient position on this fundamental question central to the reality of Partnership Minyanim.
Instead we need to work even harder to try and find halakhically legitimate ways to respond to contemporary Orthodox women and their range of opinions and feelings and not open the door to practices that might split our community and lead to halakhic violation in many areas of Jewish law.
The complete annotated article is available here: link (PDF)