Thursday, 14 February 2008

A Guide for the Non-Halachic Minyan

I've never known much about the Shirah Chadashah crowd, the so-called Orthodox egalitarians in Yerushalayim who have developed some interesting ideas about how to make a prayer service more equal-opportunity for all their members. However, recently a couple members of this crowd, Elitzur and Michael Bar Asher Siegal, published a booklet , Guide for the Halachic Minyan, in which they outlined their halachic approach to the issue of egalitarian minyans and the participation of women in services.

Clearly the Bar Asher Seigels are trying to develop a prayer format that they can be comfortable with, one that reconciles their desire to abide by proper halachic behaviour while indulging their need to be progressive and egalitarian at the same time. The problem is that this booklet does not answer that need. If anything, it unfortunately exposes the limitations of left wing Modern Orthodox thinking and expose the rest of its practitioners to yet more ridicule from the Chareidi community.

To start, the book ignores one of the single biggest problems with women conducting services, that of Kol Ishah. Now, there are multiple definitions of what it prohibited by this term, ranging from the extremely strict (see the previous post on burkas) to relatively lenient. However, most major authorities would agree that an individual woman singly pleasantly for men is forbidden. Had this booklet started by addressing this issue, even if it had used every lenient opinion available, it would have at least aknowledged this fundamental problem and that its authors had considered and dealth with the issue. However, there seems to be no mention of the problem. It is taken for given that the prohibition does not exist. not a good way to start the booklet.

Even if that fundamental problem is passed over, the contents themselves testify to the problems with the concepts contained within. Consider:

From the perspective of the halakhic feasibility of women’s leadership,
the prayer service may be divided into three categories:
Parts for which there is no reason to forbid women’s
leadership. Typically these parts may be left out of the service,
or may be led even by a child.
Parts of the service for which there is reason to think that
women’s leadership would be
problematic (devarim
shebikdusha, sections that involve positive time-bound
commandments or in which the leader fulfills the
congregation’s obligation, etc.), but for which women’s

Parts where women are apparently barred from fulfilling the
congregation’s obligation, though even here halachic solutions can be advanced.

In other words, the conclusion has already been reached that really, the entire service can be led by women despite problems involving d'var sheb'kedushah as well as the responsbility for the prayer leader to fulfill the obligation of the listeners.

Indeed the latter point is almost immediately addressed in an ingenious fashion:

Otherwise, though, the recitation of Hallel during festivals is
obligatory only upon men, as it is a positive time-bound
commandment, and women are therefore unable to fulfill the
obligation of a congregation that includes men. However, there is no
need for the prayer leader to fulfill the congregation’s obligation,
and if each person in the congregation makes sure to recite Hallel
individually, as is the common practice in any case, there is no
reason to prevent a woman from leading Hallel.

An interesting solution, therefore, is to reclassify the prayers as basically individual since each person is already praying out of his or her siddur which means the woman leading services isn't really leading at all, getting around the problem of her leading them in the first place. But if that's the case, why have a prayer leader at all? What unifies the congregation?

Going further into the booklet, one quickly learns about the halachic methodology used by the authors. As Michael Schweitzer noted in his milestone article, the way left wing Modern Orthodoxy often discovers its leniencies is through the concept that "where there's a halachic will, there's a halachic way." Looking at many of the sources throughout the booklet, it is clear that the authors did in-depth research but only considered those opinions that they agreed with, regardless of whether or not more authoritative rabbonim had rejected them.

In a way, this is not dissimilar to the concept of the chumrah-of-the-week in which eager Chareidim eagerly comb the rabbinic literature and then grab any stringent opinions they can regardless of how obscure the source is. The difference is that this group forbids what's permitted, a far lesser transgression than permitting that which is forbidden.

At any rate, halachah does not work in this fashion. It is not a grab bag of choices which allows each person to custom his or her individual level of practice. There are community standards and expectations which render certain opinions the norm and others not. Thee may be a Chacham Tzvi or Rabbeinu Tam that is permissive and reflects the worldview of the authors. However, the halachah may not follow these opinions. A cursory study of the Misnhah Berurah gives one insight into this methodology. A respected decisor, for example the Taz, may present a lenient opinion only to be opposed by most of the Acharonim. Thus we do not follow his opinion except possibly in certain extreme cases. This booklet seems to use the opposite approach - if there's a lenient opinion out there, they bring it as the source of their permissiveness. This is faulty and ruins the booklet's attempt at being a legitimate halachic guide.

Consider this footnote regarding the Shulchan Aruch's prohibition against women having aliyos even thought technically speaking the Gemara (T.B. Megillah) permits it:

Shulchan Arukh OH 282:3, on the condition that the congregation “waives the honor due it.” See
also Rabbi Mendel Shapiro’s comprehensive explanation: Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, "Qeri’at ha-
Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis" (Edah 1:2).

Again, a fundamental principle, that the congregation cannot waive its honour, is completely ignored and the opposite is assumed to be true. Most poskim agree that a congregation cannot waive its honour. What's more, there is a meta-halachic principle involved here as well. As noted by many authorities, including Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt"l, there are some behaviours and actions which, despite being able to find support for them in the literature, are not done in Torah-observant environments because there is no mesorah that they ever were done. The opposite approach, that some opinion somewhere permits something that has not been a Jewish behaviour until now and that therefore this new behaviour can be adopted without difficulty, is a recipe for anarchy. It de-emphasizes the community aspect of Judiams and replaces it with a Reform-like "religion of one" in which each person picks and chooses to craft a Judaism that fits his or her personal moral position. This is completely wrong since Judaism demands the exact opposite (cf. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch's explanations of the symbolic meaning of the Aron Kodesh and its placement in the Mishkan), a sublimating of one's personal feelings to the objectivity of Torah values.

In the end, this Guide for the Halachic Minyan will cause damage to the position of Modern Orthodoxy within the Torah-observant world. Conservatives and Reformers will be able to point at it and show how their religions are not so different so why don't the Orthodox accept them as legitimate? Chareidim will rightly point to the book as evidence that the only real difference between left wing Modern Orthodoxy and right wing Conservatism is the mechitzah, assuming the Shirah Chadashah crowd believes one is necessary (not mentioned in the booklet). Those Torah-observant people who don't know better will be led astray thinking that there is a valid source within the halachic system for egalitarianism. None of these can be considered positive outcomes.

In a recent conversation, Rav Benjy Hecht of Nishma noted to me a further futility to the concepts in the booklet. It is clear from the depth and breath of the literature on the subject aht God, through his Torah and the Oral Law, differentiates between men and women in halachah. What the Shirah Chadashah crowd seems to desire is a nullification of that differentiation to assuage their secular liberal principles. But if they are truly Torah observant, wouldn't removing the different between men and women be counterproductive to becoming more involved Jews?

I will conclude with a quote from Schweitzer's article which seems most relevant to this situation:

Modern Orthodoxy has come to emphasize matters that are only remotely connected with Torah, like showing concern for world affairs and engaging the general community in feel-good endeavours. The final result is that while the mother might express her modernity at an all-women’s prayer service, her children will do it at the movies.

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