For quite a while now, the women’s prayer group debate has gone on and on, mainly with Rabbis writing psaks that have no actual halacha whatsoever to back them up really but like Rav Kook, are primarily concerned that women’s prayer groups are something foreign and that they uproot tradition and open the door to feminism.
The chief argument against women’s prayer groups is that they uproot tradition, the mesorah and der heilige mincha. To cite R. Gil Student’s piece,
R. Meiselman writes, “The fact that we have a mesora, a tradition from each previous generation, to praise and how to praise God, enables us to proceed. Halakha and tradition enable us to engage within prayer. The moment we deviate from these guidelines, our prayer loses its meaning, and more importantly, its justification.” He further writes, “In the area of the halakhot of prayer, minhag has greater power than in other areas of the halakha… For the Rav, minhag bet ha-keneset also had great significance…”
So you mean we can’t just decide to uproot minchag by innovating a new nusach. Which is why major portions of the Jewish world followed their mesorah and is davening Nusach Sefard and is following customs innovated by the Arizal or R. Chaim Vital? Oh wait, that was a giant splintering of minchag and mesorah. In fact we follow a whole load of minchagim that were the product of innovation in the last few centuries. We follow the Zohar which has no revealed mesorah.
Minchag Bet Ha Knesset? Please. Go to your average Chassidische Shteibel and you can see a whole bunch of new minchagim that completely splintered their mesorah.
Take a look at Machon Shilo’s Nusach Eretz Yisrael to see just how far we’ve left those halachic guidelines behind. Oh and remind me how many of us this sukkot slept in a sukkah, something that was viewed as mandatory in the time of the Mishna? Oh right, I forgot, our toesis get cold at night so we can toss Halacha out the door. But when a few women want to daven together, it’s suddenly the end of the freaking world!
Let’s face reality, this objection is completely hollow. Women’s prayer groups don’t innovate nusach and minchag. If they were men, there would be no issue here. If they were boys, there would be no issue here. But boys have the right of chinuch but women even lack that because children are seen to have a religious future while women have none.
The fact of the matter is that in your average shul women sit at the back of the bus, for all their torah tapes rhetoric, they are marginalized when it comes to davening. Is it so wrong for them to want to experience what it’s like being the focus of the davening, instead of the spectators on the outside?
Then there’s the debate over the motivation behind women’s prayer groups. No doubt some of those pushing the women’s prayer groups would like a lot of things that don’t jibe with Orthodoxy. Then again most don’t. And if the motivations of women who want to daven in prayer groups are to be held to account with the worst possible interpretation, then so should those men who reject prayer groups no matter how much they are compromised and conducted within the grounds of halacha.
The Frimers write, “[T]he women engaged in a women’s service were missing out on tefilla be-tsibbur, the recitation of various devarim she-bi-kdusha, and a proper, halakhic Torah reading-available to them only if they attended a regular minyan. Granted, women are exempt from the obligations of public prayer, but the Rav was deeply disturbed that women who had consciously chosen not to stay and pray at home, but rather to participate in a women’s tefilla group, were actively and deliberately opting for the inauthentic in place of the authentic.”
Similarly, R. Meiselman writes, “First and foremost, halakha simply does not allow one to opt for a secondary level of religious performance. We are absolutely obligated to pursue excellence in our divine worship. One who opts for mediocrity in his religious worship is not only a second class citizen, but also has violated basic precepts in Jewish law.”
I’ve seen this gem repeated over and over again a thousand times. Let’s pause to contemplate the absurdity here.
Halacha does not allow one to opt for a secondary level of religious performance… as applied to women who have no obligation in this case anyway and who are routinely kept away from prayers. If women have no such obligation, then imposing an obligation to pray with a men’s minyan is absurd. If women do have such an obligation, then doesn’t that justify Women’s prayer groups in the first place. You can’t toss women out the door and at the same time castigate them for not meeting the obligations they don’t have in the first place.
But first let’s contemplate of authentic and excellence in divine worship. Is it more authentic and more excellent to pray in a way that allows you to raise your voice and feel yourself as an active partner in prayer, rather than an unwanted spectator, muted behind a curtain? Is it more authentic to meet an obligation you don’t have anyway while diminishing the quality of your davening. Is that the best way to achieve excellence in divine worship?
Having denied women an equal part in davening, the argument is that separate but equal won’t fly either. It has to be segregation or it has to be nothing at all. Either stay home or stay behind the curtain. Is that really about concern with authentic divine worship or is that about control?
If women have no role in a men’s minyan and are expected to daven at home, then what is the real objection to their creation of a place where they can daven together?
The problem with control is that it’s elusive. The more you tighten your grip, the less control you really have. When you create a vacuum, something else replaces it. Take a look at Boro Park where some Chassidish groups have cut women out of much of Davening and then note how popular energy healing and similar practices are. Cut off women in Boro Park from Chumash and Tefilah and you get witchcraft, why be surprised over that. Cut off Modern Orthodox women and they’ll find other outlets, non-Jewish ones. Because much as many Rabbis fail to recognize it, there is a hole left in Orthodox Jewish women by alienating them from much of religious life. And that hole will be filled. One way or another.