Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Women's ritual roles

On DovBear's blog, LadyKaye wrote a post on whether women can lain from the Torah in public and discussed the reason given in the Talmud against it, that of "Kavod HaTzibur" (respect to the congregation). She discusses the 2 explanations generally given for Kavod HaTzibur. One is that women were simply held in lower regard. The other was a convoluted apologetic that involved women's educational opportunities (see her post for a full explanation.)

I thin there's no question that it's the lower regard for women that accounted for Kavod HaTzibur. Women were deemed inferior. That's OK, since most of the world deemed women inferior at the time the halachot were written & codified. (Mishna & Talmud.)

Actually, Judaism was more respectful of women's rights and status than the surrounding society. They were deemed inferior, but not property. Since the episode of B'not Zelafchad in the Torah, Judaism has had a tradition of working within the halachic system to make things better for women as times demanded.

Unfortunately most of the Orthodox community today has forgotten the elasticity of halacha. Women who can be CEO's, doctors, lawyers, and college professors in the outside world are relegated to sitting behind the mechitza and taking no public role in tefilla.

It is no longer OK to treat women as inferior by appealing to outmoded ways of thinking that happened to find its way to some halachic standards.

Shuls like Shira Chadasha & Darkhei Noam have taken up the ancient tradition of stretching (not breaking) halacha to enable women to expand their roles. It's a shame that most of the Orthodox world has created only one innovation - the concept that halacha cannot change.


  1. Personally I would hate to have a public role in tefilla. But that could be because I'm abnormally shy... As for other women, my sister-in-law makes the bracha over the challah on shabbas and I'm fine with that too. But when it comes to tefillah, since there is a lot of singing involved (well, at least on shabbas), maybe people are worried about kol isha.

  2. As far as I understood, "mipnei kavod hatzibbur" really means that guys are 'overly attracted' to girls, and might have negative responses to hearing and seeing a girl in center stage in the sanctuary. So the reason they didn't allow girls to read the Torah was not because of the inferiority of women, but because of the inferiority of men! (this is, by the way, the traditional Orthodox answer).

  3. "It is no longer OK to treat women as inferior by appealing to outmoded ways of thinking that happened to find its way to some halachic standards."
    -- YES! Well put.

    I know about Shira Chadasha, but what (and where) is Darkhei Noam?

  4. And women can be professors and CEOs. Just when it comes to public prayer, they can be separate but equal, except for the one leading the prayer (the same exists by Western Muslims).

  5. So the reason they didn't allow girls to read the Torah was not because of the inferiority of women, but because of the inferiority of men! (this is, by the way, the traditional Orthodox answer).

    I am familiar with the traditional answer, that women are on a higher plane, they are more valued, etc.

    1) It's apologetics. There's no traditional basis.

    2) It's a sign of how much the Charedi world is out of touch with more modern Jews, that they would think that putting women on a pedestal is something that modern women would respond to positively. Most women want to be real people, not some object of holiness. Putting women on a pedestal is condescending in its own way.

  6. Jessica,

    I don't feel that women must lain or daven for the tzibur. I think that women who are more comfortable in a more traditional shul have the absolute right to daven that way. I only object to the mainstream Orthodox insistence that it is assur for women to want to , to lain and lead tfila.

  7. OHO,

    Darkhei Noam is a popular minyan on the Upper West Side. There is seperate seating with a mechitza, but they allow women more of a role.

    Their website says:

    At Darkhei Noam, women lead pesukei dezimrah, hotza'at vehakhnasat sefer torah (the Torah service), and fully participate in keriyat ha-torah (Torah reading). This is done in the context of a traditional minyanwith ten men and a mehitzah.

  8. to some the presence/absence of women during davenning is not longer an issue of inferiority.

    i am a memeber of a small minyan of professionals where the women in general could not be treated more egalitarian, yet we stop short of having them participate in 'tefillah' and 'kriah' simply because we (the majority) believe the issue is a question modesty and that 'tefillah' is not a time of mixing sexes period. the women do attend our shiurim and are invited to give 'divrei torah', but this is only after davvenning.

  9. David,

    I daven in a shul similar to yours. I don't think I would daven on a regular basis in a shul with mixed seating or without a mechitza (though I am respectful of the Conservative movement's right to do so.) What I prefer is the Darkhei Noam style of tfilla, relying on a genuine halachic tshuva as the basis. Unfortunately, such a shul doesn't exist in my community.

    You say that in your minyan it's not an issue of inferiority, and I accept that. But the reason your minyan davens as it does and the reason it's considered kavod tzibur not to have women lain is because the system, which is originally based on the inferiority of women, set that standard long ago.

  10. of course, until recently and even for some still today and to use a old yeshivishe term they weren't 'goirus' the women as part of the active portion of the question about that.

    but even in our "modern" group and our time, and even the most progressive still feel unconfortable having the women participate during 'tefillah' specifically and i put it down to a form of 'tzinut'

  11. David,

    Tzniyut has been defined 2 ways

    1) Dressing in a way that will not be provocative to men

    2) Playing more of an "inner" role than a "public" one.

    I assume you're not suggesting that women can't lain in your shul because of #1, because I doubt any woman would come dressed provocatively to davening in an Orthodox shul.

    And if it's #2, then that is simply slapping a label on what I've been saying. If women are not to have too much of a public role, but men can, how is that not deeming women inferior?

  12. certainly more because of reason 2. but its not a label and its not just a role. davenning is different. to keep men and women separate during davvenning has absolutely nothing to do with inferiority. i will concede that a good part of this attitude may be due to conditioning...i.e as dati jews we may have been conditioned to react this way, but no matter how properly dressed a women is, for most hetro-sexual males, there is an element of sexuality in her presence and that's not appropriate during a time that is meant for communing with g-d, however trite that sounds.
    and to say why should women be 'punished' because men are built that way or can't control their thoughts, is a non-starter as far as i'm concerned.

  13. I have been thinking about this recently. One of the explanation that I have heard concerning Kavod HaTzibbur is that if someone saw a woman laining that that might imply that men in the community are so unlearned that they have to have a woman lain. Well, you can totally turn that on its head and say that no, in fact, the men in the community are so learned that even women can lain and so in fact it would be a pride of the community, not an embarrasment.

    Of course, all of this is only word play and the assumption behind it (that women are intellectually inferior to men) doesn't change a bit.

  14. The thing I've always found fascinating about restrictions against women's participation in a public manner in ritual life, and about such rulings as the prohibition against women singing (some say dancing, as well) in the presence of men is that the arguments are all one-way. Everybody's so worried about *men's* uncontrollable imaginations. And women's, pray tell? Are woman assumed to be totally free of sexual imagination, that nothing that *men* do in *women's* presence is considered even worth discussing?

    Why can't traditional Judaism acknowledge that we're *all* sexual beings and hold *all* of us, male and female, responsible for our own behavior? Why is half the Jewish people "blamed" for the sexual desires of the other half?