Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Pushing the Bounds of Orthodoxy

One of the problems troubled the Modern Orthodox movement is its lack of structure. As noted elsewhere, it is too often defined in the negative. It is not Chareidi and it's not heterodox. What it is, however, is harder to define.

There are those who who this nebulous definition to push the boundaries of acceptable Torah observant behaviour in order to satisfy their personal inclinations and desires. Too often these initiatives are undertaken in order to minimize the conflict that many in the Modern Orthodox community undergo when Jewish law and practice conflict with the values of the surrounding secular society.

One of the areas that is pushed most is that of tefilah, prayer. Davening is traditionally a male-dominated affair as women lack the obligation of tefilah b'tzibur that is incumbent upon males. However, we live in a society that strives towards full egalitarianism (except in divorce court, for some odd reason, but I'll save that for a different rant) and this discordance can be quite troubling for the observant Jew who wants to be traditional but also in sync with current values and mores.
The answer for some has been to try and push the boundaries of egalitarianism within the Jewish prayer service. For example, under the guidance of Tova Hartman of the Hartman Institute, the Shirah Hadashah congregation in Israel has created all sorts of innovations and even a mini-guidebook to explain the halachic basis of the liberties they have taken with expanding the role of women within the conventional prayer service. I've previously reviewed this booklet and shown how it abuses the halachic process in order to come to a pre-determined set of answers.
Now comes news from Toronto courtesy of The Canadian Jewish News that another group of pioneers are greating an egalitarian Orthodox minyan called the Partnership minyan. Now, this isn't the first foray of Modern Orthodoxy into egalitarian practice. For decades, many MO synagogues had something called family seating in which married couples and young children sat together while older singles sat in separate wings. With only one exception, these synagogues all left Orthodoxy to join the Conservative movement.
Despite the impressive curriculum vitae of some of its founders, this Partnership minyan misses the point of halachic davening in several major areas, especially that of Krias HaTorah.
With reference to other parts of the service, there is much debate amongst the authorities about the obligations incumbent upon women. This is important to review as some Orthodox egalitarian congregations encourage women to lead certain parts of the service based on certain assumptions.
Krias Shema, for example, is a time-bound positive injunction which implies women are exempt from reciting it, but the Rambam holds that women are obligated to accept the yoke of Heaven upon themselves daily implying that they should say it to fulfill the mitzvah. As for Pesukei D'zimrah, the Mishnah Berurah considers it an adjunct to the Amidah which women are obligated to say and therefore holds that they have to pray that too. However, in his Shaar HaTziun commentary, he questions that assumptom. The Aruch HaShulchan and Kaf HaChayim seem to compromise by saying that women can say pesukei d'zimrah but are not obligated to. However, this would lead to a problem for the Shirah Hadashah congregation which explicity allows women to lead that part of the service. If pesukei d'zimrah is obligatory upon men and not upon women, how can someone who is not obligated (the potential chazanit) fulfill the requirement for those who can (the men)?
The next issue in terms of women leading services comes from the issue of kol ishah (Berachos 24a). Like se'aros ishah, there has been much discussion amongst some modern poskim (see Seridei Eish 2:8, Tzitz Eliezer 5:2 for examples). The most lenient position seems to be that of the German poskim who allowed women to sing zemiros with men. However, it seems clear that a solo chazanit leading services in a shul was not what they had in mind when they permitted this. Thus for a woman to lead services, especially during pesukei d'zimrah where much of the singing is simply the shaliach tzibur moving from paragraph to paragraph, there would be a problem permitting this. The only way around would be to have her read the relevant parts out loud instead of sing them but when contrasted with the ability of the male prayer leaders to sing the same sections, the result would be a highling of the inequality, not a blurring which is clearly the Partnership's intention.
The basis for the belief that women can have aliyos in Torah observant shuls comes from a very suggestive baraisa (Megillah 23a): "The Rabbis taught: All (who go to read the Torah) count towards the seven (who are called up), even a child, even a woman. However, the Sages said: a woman should not read from the Torah out of consideration for the dignity of the congregation (k'vod hatzibur)." This ruling is brought almost verbatim by the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 282:3) and the Rema, far from disputing it, only qualifies it by noting that since the baraisa uses the word "even" it implies that women and children can have some of the aliyos but not all of them. Even then, he does not set an upper limit so theoretically according to his ruling, women could take six of the seven aliyos.
Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin in Bnei Banim vol. 4 specifically addresses the question of women getting aliyos. He notes that during the time of the gemara, only the first and and last called to the Torah recited the berachos on the reading. A woman is not obligated to read the Torah and therefore her recitation of the berachah would not fulfill the obligation of the men listening but that only meant she couldn't go up for the first and last aliyos. The middle ones which were free of blessings before and after would be fine. However, he brings two opinions from the Meiri. The first notes that since nowadays each person recites the blessing over the Torah, a woman would not be able to have an aliyah. However the second states that since only the first aliyah is d'oraisa (since Moshe established it) and the remainder are only d'rabbanon, the concern with a woman not fulfilling the men's obligations would only apply to the first aliyah.
There are some halachos that are theoretically possible but impossible to do in practice. For example, one who is eating seudas shlishis at the end of Pesach (assuming the holiday ends on a Saturday night) might, in theory, be able to draw the meal out until chometz is permitted and then eat some bread. Yet because the meal was begun during the holiday, he would be able to mention the holiday of Pesach in his bentching despite having eaten bread! However, this is not possible in a practical way since he must daven Maariv and make havdalah before he can rebuy his chometz and doing so would mean bentching beforehand.
Similarly, while the baraisa permits women to have aliyos, getting them to the bimah would be problematic. The Chasam Sofer (Ch.M. 190) notes that the main reason for avoiding the mixing of men and women in shul is to prevent unseemly thoughts that would lead to the congregation's prayers being rejected. This begs the question: how does the woman get through the men's section and stand on the bimah without mingling with the surrounding men?
(Interestling, the Maharam paskens that in a congregation where all the men are kohanim, a kohen should take the first two aliyos and the rest should be given to women, but this is certainly an exceptional situation. Rav Henkin notes that this negates the concern of peritzus with the woman going up to the bimah with the men. He further brings references from the Rishonim that show that peritzus is not a consideration in preventing women from having aliyos)
On the other hand, the Levush says that "nowadays" (back 450 years ago or so) men and women commonly mingle leading to a habituation that would negate the possibility of unseemly thoughts. (It's interesting to note that the Aruch HaShulchan uses the same reason to permit the reciting of Krias Shema in the presence of a married woman who does not cover her hair) But looking at the context of his remarks, he was talking about a seudas mitzvah which is not as stringent a situation as public prayer. Thus this source cannot provide support for a woman walking through the men's section to stand for a prolonged period of time on the bimah.
Other potential lenient sources are the Mishpetei Uziel and the Igros Moshe who both permit mingling during gatherings. However, they limit their permissiveness to small groups, not fixed congregations.
In terms of the assumptions the partnership group makes to get around these problems, the logic seems quite flawed. For example:
The minyan’s mission statement reads, in part, that the community “follows the approach of those Orthodox rabbis who have argued that the dignity of human beings (kavod ha-briyot) is a crucial halachic value that permits us, and in fact obligates us, to expand the roles of women.”
How does kavod habriyos obligate an expansion of the roles of women in the prayer service? That women have no public roles during prayer is not a humiliation or denigration of the gender that they should need to have their kavod defended in the first place. In other words, the Partnership seems to have made up a problem and found those "Orthodox rabbis" who have a solution to it. But I would contend that the problem doesn't exist in the first place.
Halachic values do evolve, Rabbi Lockshin said. As an example, he said that in halachic literature there is no expectation that a parent will support a child beyond the age of eight or 10, but rabbis in Israel agreed unanimously to change the age until which parents must support their children.
But this also makes no sense when you recall that this minyan is basing itself on a baraisa to permit many of their innovations. In other words, they're not looking at forward evolution but at grabbing at rituals that may have existed centuries ago. I doubt, however, that they are interested in many other unobserved laws, like those of selling one's daughter into marriage or a thief into six years of slavery, things we just don't do anymore today. The article mentions that Prof. Lockshin avoids the obvious comparison with Conservatism but I can think of another reason why: his new group seems to be picking and choosing when it comes to setting their values.
He based part of what he said on an article by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro titled Qeri’at ha-Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis, which appeared in the Edah Journal, a modern Orthodox publication, in 2001. (Links to Rabbi Shapiro’s article and other sources can be found at
The Edah article “has led to some serious changes in the way people are thinking,” Rabbi Lockshin said.

Perhaps this is the greatest article in the world. I haven't read it so I can't say. However, I am not aware of Rav Mendel Shapiro being a posek with any authority. Unlke the world of modern academia where anyone with a degree can write an opinion, the system of halachah is simply not run that way. Grabbing at any halachic opinion without consideration as to whether it has any authority behind it is not a proper way to run a Torah observant group.
Jay Nathanson, a 37-year-old father of two young daughters who was at the meeting, said it’s important for him not to have them excluded. As well, he told The CJN, “it’s crucial for me to raise my [six-year-old] son in a community where every possible effort is made to treat women with as much dignity and respect as is feasible within the rigid confines of traditional halachah.”
This for me is the real crux of the matter. The real gut check of the observant Jew comes when he is told he, or she, cannot do something. There are limits. Not just anyone could offer a sacrifice in our holy Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt). Not just anyone could be king. Not just anyone could serve as a judge. Merit, while important, is not the only criteria for certain social positions within klal Yisrael and a major test of a person's faith is his or her acceptance of those limitations. If this man's two daughters will feel excluded by Torah Judaism because they cannot participate in services, if their fealty to God is entirely predicated on their getting what they want regardless of reigning halachic norms, then how loyal will they be in the first place?
Finally there is the issue of minhag to be considered. The rituals and conduct of k'lal Yisrael during davening are not routines performed without intelligent thought. Each community has its own customs as to how to handle different services and situations. The people of Israel in general have customs that are considered universal amongst all who call themselves Torah observant and it is a great sin to disparage these customs or abandon them on the assumption they have become obsolete.
One quick example will suffice. Would any Torah observant person seriously suggest abandoning the concept of Yom Tov Sheni because we now have a fixed calender? The gemara in Beitzah urges us to be careful with the customs we inherit from our ancestors.
The fourth chapter of Pesachim brings this into greater detail. The mishnayos in this chapter demonstrate multiple cases of varying customs in different places and the respect to be shown by people visiting a locale in terms of regional behaviours. Based on this, one might think that bringing egalitarian innovations into an exisiting shul might be considered improper but that creating a new congregation would avoid the problem since it could create its minhagim from scratch.
But to this, the gemara in Pesachim 51b writes about multiple cases of chachamim going to different places, engaging in behaviour that is technically permitted by halachah and then stopping when the locals complain that "we've never seen such things". The gemara continues that the Sages could have protested and pointed out that their behaviours were perfectly legal but they did not because "we've never seen such things" is a reason to forbid a particular action.
If this is so, what can be said about the innovations of allowing women to lead certain parts of the service or receive aliyos to the Torah? The practice of restricting these roles to men is certainly no local custom but one that has been adopted for centuries (at least) by the entire Torah world. To create a new congregation that allows these changes to the ritual would inevitably run afoul of the gemara's protest: we've never seen such things!
In conclusion, the words of the Rav seem especially relevant. (From "Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik" Volume 3, by Aharon Zeigler, p.19-21)
"Our bond and closed with Hashem comes from our performance of His Divine commandments which have intrinsic meaning. The objective fact of the mitzvah is primary and not the subjective emotions of the one performing the mitzvah... The absence of kavanah (emphasis and feeling of job) definitely indicates something lacking in the Divine servce. But the exhilaration is an outgrowth of the mitzvah, not its goal. We to the mitzvot because they are Divine commandments from Hashem... Any uplifting feelings must come from the satisfaction of having served the Will of hashem inthe prescribed manner He has commanded us. Women therefore can acquire the same satisfaction and exhilaration by performing the mitzvot they are commanded and need not seek closeness to hashem through mitzvot they have not been commanded."


SJ said...

the problem with modern orthodoxy is that it is a total joke. it is willaimsburg in regular clothing.

Garnel Ironheart said...

SJ, where ya been? Long time, no mock!

Dr Mike said...

I could add another reason from the baraisa - on Shabbos the taking of medication for non-serious illnesses is forbidden by the Gemara because of the concern that the person will grind up roots and herbs to make the medicaments. Nowadays, of course, this doesn't happen as we just pop open the Tylenol bottle and the factories making the stuff do it on a schedule, not on a "did Fishel need some on Shabbos?" basis.
Yet even though the reason for teh g'zeirah is gone, the g'zeirah itself stands.
Similarly the baraisa. Even though a congregation may wish to remove the "kavod hatzibur" facet, the original g'zeirah, that we don't call women up still remains.

SJ said...

lol indeed garnel XD

i have better things to do these days than spend my time with people paranoid of evil spirits in the fingernails every morning. XD

Anonymous said...

So do you think women shouldn't have taken upon themselves the mitzvah of shofar?
Joel Rich

His Lordship, Garnel Ironheart said...

The situation is not analagous. A woman can blow shofar, but she cannot fulfill a man's obligation to hear it. The aliyah she gets though is part of the mitzvah of krias Torah which the men listening are obligated in and she is not.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Inherent within your post are two broader issues that need to be identified. One revolves around the way that Torah looks at what we may term "natural morality." The other concerns how Torah looks at gender distinction in general. Those who promote the partnership minyan most likely have definite views on both these issues. In regard to the place of natural morality within the realm of Torah, they most likely give it value, arguing that the Torah was always meant to be understood in the light of moral developments within the world's culture. Some of these developments may actually be presented as having been introduced by the Torah and then taken over by the world -- and when that happens, we have to be sensitive to how the world has developed these concepts. For example, while the Torah never actually outlawed slavery, it did introduce the concept that slaves must be treated with some civility and granted some rights. This, according to this theory led to the world eventually developing the ethic to drop slavery which Torah followers, it would be argued, should also adopt notwithstanding that the Torah did not actually forbid slavery. These theorists contend that the Torah sparks moral development in the world and then as the world flows with this moral development, we must include these moral developments into Torah. As such, in the case of women, they would argue that as the world has become more gender neutral and this is a moral advancement, we must introduce, through the language of Halacha, this moral development into Torah practice. We cannot let the past, they would say, stifle us. Of course the problem with this approach is that there is much within the Torah theory that supports the perceptions of the past and the unique moral value of Sinai. This would challenge this advancement of morality argument. Yet there is still some validity in this argument. In my opinion, what is really being introduced is a sophisticated and complex reality of dialectic that is inherent in the Halachic system. In the end, in my opinion, the issue is ultimately the process. This process cannot ignore the depth of the challenge. The questions are much deeper than what it would seem the partnership minyan is willing to entertain. What exactly is kavod hatzibbur, kavod habriyot? What is the value in participating in a public form of prayer? There is just so much more than the simple solutions of just change or just stay the same?

One of these issues is the very role of gender in our definition of a human being. Are men and women simply both the same -- human beings -- with some different body parts? Or are they almost different beings that share some similarities? Or is some strange combination of both these perspectives? In viewing the entire corpus of how gender broadly affects Halacha, one finds that the real question is what is man and what is woman? This issue is actually highlighted in the present political debate on the definition of marriage. Is it the union of two human beings? If so, same sex marriages should be accepted. If it is specifically the union of a man and a woman, than why? Is that only a concession to the idea that marriage should include some theoretical inclusion of procreation (eventhough, in accepting that people who cannot have children can still get married this is not necessarily practically real) or is it because we actually see an inherent difference between men and women? And that may affect so much else. The issue is not whether women can get aliyot. It is so much more.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Anonymous said...

The situation is not analagous.

"Women therefore can acquire the same satisfaction and exhilaration by performing the mitzvot they are commanded and need not seek closeness to hashem through mitzvot they have not been commanded."

Joel Rich

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Yet there is still some validity in this argument. In my opinion, what is really being introduced is a sophisticated and complex reality of dialectic that is inherent in the Halachic system.

To drop a name (which Rabbi Hecht doesn't appreciate) Rav Soloveitchik holds there is no validity to this argument.

And it makes sense to me. Because when you say it is valid to introduce norms and values into Judaism that have risen outside the rigorous halachic system, you have essentially opened up Yahadus to be assimilated by any foreign ideology or set of values.
Halacha is a technical field with rules of interpretation and legislation. It is cannot be manipulated by the values of contemporary society.

Are men and women simply both the same -- human beings -- with some different body parts? Or are they almost different beings that share some similarities? Or is some strange combination of both these perspectives? In viewing the entire corpus of how gender broadly affects Halacha, one finds that the real question is what is man and what is woman?

Again, RYBS was clear that men and women are different in deep existential ways. The Torah's own account of woman's creation and purpose, and the curses of Eve, established that deep difference for Judaism permanently. I don't see how Jewish feminists can ignore these seminal (pardon the double entendre) narratives of Bereishis.

Nicole N. said...


While you are focusing on the narratives of Bereishis, don't ignore the creation account that has Adam being created as both genders, either one side male and one side female or one inter/omni sexed individual. This to me is indicative that the gap between sexes is less pronounced than we often think...

It is also interesting that God's the differentiation of the sexes is accomplished through surgical means.

But overall, we are talking about halachot that are d'rabannan with respect to tefila (perhaps aside from kriyat shema) and the brachot of kriyat hatorah. The Jews seemed to get along quite well before the institution of the separation of the sexes at the simchas beis hashoeva. Two points about that as well... One. There was no mechitza at the simchas beis hashoeva, only a separation. Two. At the simchas beis hashoeva there was dancing and general merriment which would perhaps be more likely to lead to immodest congress than the solemn atmosphere of prayer.

So, here we are not talking about something that God commanded in terms of separation of sexes or exclusion of women from meaningful participation. What we are talking about is a rabbinic institution that did not contemplate women's desire for meaningful inclusion and contribution.

As a result, I don't see as problematic the desire to push the halachic boundary as far as it will go to allow women access to meaningful avodas Hashem...

His Lordship, Garnel Ironheart said...

> This to me is indicative that the gap between sexes is less pronounced than we often think...

On the contrary, why did you think He was in such a rush to split them apart!

> There was no mechitza at the simchas beis hashoeva, only a separation

Incorrect. The mishna in Sukkah makes it very clear there was a balcony for the women while the men remained on the main level.

> At the simchas beis hashoeva there was dancing and general merriment which would perhaps be more likely to lead to immodest congress than the solemn atmosphere of prayer

Again, the mishnah in Sukkah notes that only the leading sages of Israel participated in the dancing while the general masses watched and participated from the sides.

> So, here we are not talking about something that God commanded in terms of separation of sexes or exclusion of women from meaningful participation

No, we're talking about God commanding the highest standard of ethical behaviour between the sexes which the rabbonim implemented to the best of their ability. It is very clear that the Torah disapproves of frivolous behaviour between the sexes. Using the same authority they were granted to bring in other "fences" they built up barriers to immodest and unacceptable conduct in this area as well.

As for women wanting meaningful participation, this has always been a crock of an argument. Some of the most important participatory mitzvos, from lighting candles on Shabbos to keeping a kosher home to maintaining the observance of taharos mishpacha have fallen squarely on the shoulders of Jewish women.

However, with feminism's progressive denegration of home life and the role of women therein, the focus on the unequal participation in shul life has taken over. Yet the majority of women who demand to be counted to minyan or have an aliyah because they want to meaningfully participate in Jewish life have no clue about the majority of the mitzvos they are obliged to perform. They are interested in the flash and spark of public ritual, not the humdrum day-to-day routine.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Check your facts. R' Avi Weiss has nothing to do with Shira Hadasha and had nothing to do with its founding. He wrote a book called Women At Prayer which pushes the Independent Women's Prayer Groups model, not the Partnership Minyan model.

His Lordship, Garnel Ironheart said...

I never meant to imply he has anything to do with Shira Hadashah or Partnership minyanim. I am, however, lumping him in with them as they all seem to sit together on the far left of Modern Orthodoxy where the line between them and right wing Conservatism becomes extremely blurry.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Well then please correct your post, because as it is now you're making false claims about real people. These aren't characters in one of your novels, these are living breathing human beings with their own beliefs and opinions. So please check your facts and stop lying about people.

His Lordship, Garnel Ironheart said...

> these are living breathing human beings with their own beliefs and opinions

First of all, I've corrected the post after checking my background info. I had an incorrect memory of having read somewhere about how Rav Avi Weiss was a guiding authority at Shira Chadasha. Actually, it was his shul in Riverdale and I'd confused the two memories.

Second of all, thank you for your vigilance.