Women in Synagogue Life
Spotlight on... Halachah
By Nahum Gordon
We emerged in Biblical times. Society was patriarchal. Invariably, men were leaders of the pack, be they chieftains, prophets, monarchs, military campaigners, priests, scribes or administrators. And God’s curse on Eve: ‘…and your husband will rule over you…’ (Genesis 3:16) implied that women were destined to play second fiddle.
Yet, against all odds, women often played a pivotal role, be it Eve fearlessly grasping the poisoned chalice of morality, God telling Abraham to comply with Sarah’s demand regarding Ishmael, Rebecca brazenly manipulating Isaac’s blessing of his sons, Tamar risking her life to expose Judah’s cruel deception, Zipporah bravely saving Moses from God’s wrath, Hannah committing Samuel to God’s service, or Esther courageously exposing a plot to eradicate the Jews. The most remarkable example of female influence is arguably when, just before the battle with the Canaanites, the Israelite commander, Barak, tells the prophet and judge Deborah: ‘If you will go with me then I shall go, but if you will not go with me, I shall not go’ (Judges 4:8).
However, we live in a rabbinic era dominated by the halachic interpretations of the Talmud, the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch. Even though men and women stood at Sinai when God proclaimed the Ten Commandments, the Mishnah states that men’s and women’s religious obligations are different. Women are exempt from most positive, time-bound mitzvot (Kiddushin 29a). (Later generations offered possible reasons.) Therefore, only men can lead prayer services because the non-obligated (i.e. women) cannot recite all the tefillot on behalf of those who are obligated (i.e. men).
Public prayer in shul requires a minyan of ten adult men [Megillah 23b]. Tzniut (modesty) prevents women from sitting with men (Sukkah 51b/52a). Kol isha (a woman’s voice) distracts men from their prayers and encourages licentiousness (Berakhot 24a). A woman cannot recite from a Sefer Torah (Megillah 23a); she impugns the dignity of the male congregants (kavod ha’tzibbur) by implying that the men cannot replicate her performance. Did anyone consider her dignity?
You might suspect that the marginalisation of women’s participation in prayer services emanated from men consolidating their power and control over women, misogyny, cultural norms and customs, and male inadequacy. I couldn’t possibly comment.
Western societies have legalised egalitarianism and Judaism has not been immune to social pressure. The late, Modern Orthodox rabbi David Hartman observed, ‘Halacha must follow reality’. By researching the vast halachic literature and keeping faith with its principles, Masorti rabbis in the USA and Israel have produced teshuvot (halachic responsa to questions), which have empowered women, if they so wish, to fully participate in synagogue life as b’not mitzvah, ba’alei koreh (Torah readers), shlichei tzibbur (prayer leaders) or rabbonim, and to wear tzitzit, tefillin and tallitot. Women can freely enrich their spiritual lives within the halachic tradition.
Orthodoxy is typically more averse to change, but the 21st century has seen the creation of women rabbis and partnership minyanim. To quote Blu Greenberg, ‘Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way’. Amen to that.
Nahum Gordon is a founding member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and founder of Torah Chat, a Bible study group