Bless This Holy Congregation...

Bless This Holy Congregation

By Blu Greenberg

On the one hand, the tzedaka box isn’t passed to the three women present at the daily minyan; and the new Chabad siddur deletes altogether the woman’s blessing she’asani kirtzono; and the rabbi names the infant girl in synagogue omitting her mother’s name; and the new sign on the door reads “women should refrain from using the front entrance but should enter the synagogue through the side door; and the 12 year old girls gab in the powder room during mussaf; and the rabbi asks the 20 women who arrived early for the bris to daaven in the vestibule because two guest rabbis complained the mechitza (divider) isn’t high enough, and the local women decide to make no fuss for fear the rabbi will ask the board to raise the mechitza so that “all” Jews can daaven in his shul; and the congregation attacks the rabbi for his halakhic ruling that the sefer Torah may be carried through the women’s section...

0On the other hand, the woman honoring her aliyah (emigration) to Israel with a parting kiddush (collation) recites kiddush for the entire congregation; and the Sisterhood is consulted so that the mechitza is built with equal sight lines; and women scholars are invited to teach Torah from the pulpit; and the eruv becomes a priority because the town leaders know the it will bring the young families; and the rabbi is careful to include “she” with every “he”, and say “men” and not “everyone” when speaking of tefillin (phylacteries); and the growing numbers of women reciting kaddish (mourner’s prayer) find the welcome mat out for them; and the women’s section is filled leil Shabbat (Shabbat evening); and the mother’s name is included as her bar mitzvah recites his aliyah blessing; and the little girls are called to open the ark for anim zemirot, and in some places, to lead adon olam....

Clearly, we are in a transitional state. At the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations Rabbinic Awards dinner last March, most of the 13 honorees mentioned women’s issues as critical to their congregational work. While women’s learning is no longer an “issue” — with learned and learning women now accepted as a treasured community asset — women’s role in the synagogue remains a source of confusion, exhilaration or frustration — all signs of a community in flux.

There is a great deal of sorting out to do, and one task is simply to frame the questions:

What is women’s role in tefila be’tzibbur (public prayer), the question addressed below in this issue? Can you be thought of as “guest” yet still immerse yourself totally in congregational prayer? Can the issue of tzibbur be dealt with without getting into matters of hiyyuv (obligation) and minyan, responsibility and accountability? Can mechitza serve as paradigm for distinctive but equal roles? If so, what are the new halakhic standards for compliance so that mechitza engenders a sense of equality? 

What do women seek in their spiritual lives and how do “synagogue” and “daavening”(prayer) figure in? Is “synagogue” different from “daavening”, the one pleasurable, the other of little consequence? At what age are young girls conditioned to a reality of second string player in prayer?

Does public policy or a “post Shulkhan Aruch” atmosphere take precedence over halakhic permissibilities? Who decides and how? What role does the moreh d’atra (leader of the congregation) play, the gedolim (great scholars), the board, the sisterhood, the religious committee, the rebbetzin, the community’s women (not always identical with the sisterhood)? What are the parameters of women’s protest regarding shul culture? What can be done without rupturing synagogue life and splintering the community? Is women’s tefilla an interim solution or a long-term model? A paradigm of other his/her structures in the community? Why do most Orthodox women remain aloof? What is the role of men in women’s tefilla, bat mitzvah, baby naming and other semachot (joyful occasions)?

Does the congregational intern have a special role in communal daavening? In women’s tefilla? What will her position lead to or be limited to? To what extent is the place of Orthodox women in shul a microcosm for their general status in Orthodoxy? And what are the implications for family life as we begin to re-imagine women’s roles in the spiritual congregation?

These are questions we face, poised at the threshold of new era in which gender equality will be increasingly integrated into Orthodox Judaism. Some answers will emerge from a conversation between laity and religious leadership; some will grow out of changes in the general culture that daily affect women’s self perceptions and longings; some will be answered by creating facts on the ground — the decision regarding the Women of the Wall has already begun to change minds and attitudes; and some questions may not be answered in our lifetimes.

None of this will be easy for when it comes to congregational prayer, the psyche, emotions and conditioning are forces as powerful as halakhic ones. Yet, we should welcome the evolutionary process that lies ahead, for on all sides it is about Jewish continuity and survival. For anyone concerned with the viability of Orthodoxy in the 21st century and beyond, refreshing the synagogue and the lives of men and women in it becomes a sacred task.


Women in Synagogue: Summer 2000