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September 16, 2014 / 21 Elul, 5774
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Is Half a Loaf Really Better than No Loaf?

Is our traditional way of Davening so off-putting to women that it requires us to make radical changes?
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I do not question Rabbi Zev Farber’s sincerity. I even applaud his resolve to right what he sees to be wrong in the way we practice Judaism today. But I do not agree with him at all on the way to do it.

In a recent article on Morethodoxy, Rabbi Farber suggests that we change the paradigm with respect to a woman’s role in Judaism. His contention is that women are (at best) inadvertently ignored and mistreated vis-à-vis their public religious personae. Their current place in the synagogue is where this is mostly felt.

Rabbi Farber mentions the fact that women are excluded from any and every part of synagogue service and are basically considered a non entity in the vast majority of Shuls – having absolutely no participatory presence. Even those Shuls that try and accommodate them with things like Women’s Teffilah Groups or putting a Mechtiza down the center aisle of the shul which crosses the Bimah is at best a piece-meal approach to the problem of giving women a greater role. That – says Rabbi Farber is insufficient and does not satisfy a woman’s desire for a greater spiritual experience in the Shul.

Indeed, men do everything. They are counted toward a Minyan; Daven for the Amud; get Aliyos; get to say Brachos over the Torah; get to do Pesicha (open the ark when the prayer service requires it); get Hagbeh or G’lilah (lifting the Torah after Kriyah and/or rolling it together)! All women get to do (aside from Davening) is observe men doing it.

Rabbi Farber would like to see all that change – a basic overhaul in the role of a woman in the Shul – to the extent that Halacha allows. He claims that the only thing preventing real change is an antiquitated paradigm based on a culture that no longer exists. That paradigm stems from a time where women in every civilized society stayed home. It was for those reasons that Chazal, Rishonim and Achronim as late as the Chafetz Chaim created and maintained the current non participatory role for women in the synagogue. Here is how he puts it:

Women were rarely public figures and were discouraged from receiving too much education, taking visible public roles, participating in the power structure, and generally from being around men. If any woman were to express superior learning or knowledge than a man in front of a group it would have been a serious breach in etiquette. This is why, according to Tosafot (b. Sukkah 38a, s.v. “be-emet”), women do not lead the Grace after Meals for men or read the Megillah for men, since it would be insulting to them (zila milta). For the same reason, R. Israel Meir Kagan, in his Mishna B’rurah (281:4) argues that women should not say Qiddush for men, at least in public. The Talmud offers a similar reason why women do not read from the Torah in synagogue (b. Megillah 23a), although they are apparently eligible to do so, as it would offend the honor of the congregation (kavod ha-tzibbur).

In today’s world there has been a radical shift in societal attitudes about a woman’s role. Today we find women in all sorts of public roles. Roles that were once the sole bastion of men. There are female doctors, lawyers, scientists, politicians, Supreme Court justices, generals, CEO’s of major companies and university professors, deans, and presidents. You name the field and women can easily be found there.

Women of every Hashkafic type participate in public positions once anathema to them. One need not look any further than the ultra Orthodox Hamodia to see a woman, Ruth Lichtenstein, as its publisher. Or to note that the daughter of Charedi Gadol Rav Yitzchok Hutner earned her PhD at Columbia University.

Certainly the role of the woman has changed in our day even among the right wing.

So – says Rabbi Farber – things like Kavod HaTzibur that were based on no longer existent sensibilities should be re-visited. And he suggests that the entire paradigm be changed so as to accommodate the sincere desire of many women to more fully participate in the Shul… and thereby enhance their spiritual experience.

Here’s the problem. Rabbi Farber is an Orthodox Rabbi and as such he realizes that no matter what we do, Halacha forbids an equal role for women. Acknowledging that at least tacitly he says that we ought to do whatever we can – where ever we can – to allow as full a participation in the synagogue experience as possible.

I frankly don’t see how that will help. If I were a woman who saw what men do and wanted to have the same spiritual experience, half measures would not be satisfying.

If for example the strict letter of the law would allow a woman to Daven Pesukei D’Zimra at the Amud since that part of the prayer service is not a Davar SheB’kedusha (and need not even have a Chazan at all) how would that make me feel? I am still barred from being the Chazan during the actual Teffilah B’Tzibur. And I would still feel short changed spiritually.

The main areas of synagogue participation would still be barred from me. A paradigm shift would serve only to radically change the Shul experience to one which is unrecognizable. While there may be a Halachic way to do that, is it worth it?

Is our traditional way of Davening so off-putting to women that it requires us to do that? And will it ultimately be satisfying spiritually for a woman to stop where Halacha requires her to? She will still be required to sit separately from men. She can still not be counted into a Minyan. And she will still not be able to be the Shaliach Tzibur for the essential parts of the Teffilah.

In my view, as well intentioned as Rabbi Farber is, I don’t see any real benefit to this in the long run. All I can see is at best a slight – and probably temporary – mollification at the expense of a radical change to the traditional way of doing things in Shul – Halachicly permissible though it may be.

This does not mean that I don’t respect the desire of women who are sincere in searching for more spirituality in Judaism. They have that right. And it is a laudable goal. But trying to do that in a Shul just isn ‘t going to work ultimately in my view since woman are Halachicly barred from fully doing it.

What is the answer for these very sincere women? I’m not sure. But trying to equalize the role of women to men in the Shul is impossible if one is to stay within the bounds of Halacha.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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One Response to “Is Half a Loaf Really Better than No Loaf?”

  1. The answer may lie in non-Orthodox Jewish movements, but that generally is more of an anathema the more Orthodox one's approach is.

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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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