Monday, April 06, 2009

Women & group prayer:A survey for Orthodox Jews

Start here.

In addition to making me think about my future participation in the Women of the Wall, should I have an opportunity (and the nerve), the movie "Praying in Her Own Voice" did get me thinking about women and group prayer in general, and the Orthodox community's response(s).

I've quoted the Out of Step Jew's opinion on women's tefillah groups several times before, but it's worth quoting again:

"The main modern-Orthodox Halakhic argument against these groups is that it is instead of tefila b'tzibbur (prayer with the necessary ten man quorum) and therefore women are giving up a greater good to attain a much lesser good. While I don't doubt that this is a true Halakhic statement since the real-life tradeoffs are never so simple, this argument is disingenuous. If tefila b'tzibbur was considered such an important part of a religious woman's life Orthodox communities would make sure that women could participate in daily or at least weekly minyanim (as many do for Megillah reading on Purim, for hearing Parshat Zachor and for hearing the Shofar). By looking the relative sizes of most women's sections it is obvious that this is not a value for Orthodoxy. It's safe to say, Halakhah notwithstanding, that tefila itself is not considered an important value for women.

But that is beside the point. I know of modern-Orthodox and religious-Zionist communities where women gather in homes on Friday night not to say Kabbalat Shabbat [psalms and songs introducing the Sabbath Evening service] and ma'ariv [evening service], but to say tehilim [psalms]. There are even more communities, especially in Israel and not just amongst Sephardim, where women gather in these same groups on weekday evenings or nights, not to say mincha [afternoon service] or ma'ariv but to recite tehilim.

These practices are not just condoned by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, they are praised.

So, when a woman recites chapters of Psalms with a group of women when she could be praying mincha or ma'ariv in a proper minyan, that is praiseworthy, but when they actually say the mandatory prayers, read from a Torah, and listen to a dvar Torah, that is blameworthy?"

Thanks to the Jewish blogosphere, I've also become acquainted with women's "Amen groups." (The short version, for those who don't wish to read the linked article, is that these are gatherings of women at which women recite various blessings aloud for the express purpose of enabling other women to answer "amen." Krum as a Bagel doesn't have many kind words to say about women's Amen groups. Here's his original post regarding these groups.

Krum is right about women's tefillah groups and women's amen groups having something in common: In both types of groups, women say "amen" as a group to brachot (blessings) recited by other women.

Why does Krum consider this to be such a terrible thing?

The way I see it, women's tehillim groups are not a threat to Orthodox Judaism because no mandatory prayers are being recited. (The recitation of tehillim [psalms], while laudatory, is not required of any Jew, to the best of my knowledge.) Women's amen groups are not a threat because there's no requirement to say one's brachot (blessings) aloud, to the best of my knowledge. But both have the same thing in common with women's tefillah groups: They're an expression of the wish of many Orthodox women to pray as a group.

Wherein is it written that the only proper way for an Orthodox Jewish woman to pray (when not behind the mechitzah at a minyan) is alone, and, oft-times, literally facing a wall?*

The acceptance of women's tefillah groups (would) require(s) both men and women to accept the idea that women can be, even to the limited extent allowed by Orthodox interpretations of halachah, independent agents in praying as a group.

So here's a survey for my Orthodox readers: What's your opinion of group prayer for women? Are you in favor of, or opposed to, women's amen groups, women's tehillim groups, and/or women's tefillah groups, and why?

*(I've seen this at my office many times, where a woman will find a quiet corner in a stairwell to davven [pray] minchah [the afternoon service] because, as is the case in many places in which weekday services are held, there's no mechitzah in the room in which the men hold their minchah minyan, and, therefore, the women can't be in the same room when the men are davvening minchah. Heck, I've davvened that way at my office many times myself.)


Anonymous jdub said...

What's your opinion of group prayer for women?

JDUB: Don't care. NOt my issue pro or con. If they want to do it, fine by me as long as they don't say devarim sh'b'kedusha.

Are you in favor of, or opposed to, women's amen groups,

JDUB: Opposed, they're stupid.

women's tehillim groups,

JDUB: Don't care. Don't see the value, but don't care.

and/or women's tefillah groups, and why?

JDUB: My rabbi permits it, my wife is agnostic about the issue, and I don't care. I've been to one (my niece's bat mitzvah was at one) as a spectator, and it turns me off, but that's largely because the davening seemed so "conservative" and not organic. I think that's because women generally aren't as used to davening in a minyan, and/or leading davening.

Tue Apr 07, 08:25:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I was going to try to behave myself and not respond until more people commented, but I can't resist responding to your opinion on amen groups. I think Steg made a good point in this comment on Krum's original post: "Maybe they think it's good because it reinforces women's ignorance of Torah and keeps them far away from anything of actual religious substance." Seriously, check out the announcement copied in Krum’s other post, inviting women to say brachot from 8:15-9:00 AM: Forty-five minutes of saying amen to other people’s brachot (blessings) over milk and cookies (etc.)? Please. At least say tehillim. Even chareidi women are allowed to do that.

Wed Apr 08, 11:55:00 AM 2009  
Blogger smoo said...

For you I have reposted about egalitarian minyans at

Read Mendel Sperbers 50+ page article if you think my summary is too short:

I think there are legitimate means where a woman can express her love for God (or prayer) within a communal setting. And there are halachik mechanism to do so. We should be a more inclusive religion than we are now.

Wed Apr 08, 03:26:00 PM 2009  
Blogger smoo said...

I meant Mendel Shapiro not sperber.

Wed Apr 08, 03:29:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous jdub said...

Respectfully, R. Mendel Shapiro's opinion is so far outside the mainstream that nearly every other contributor to the Edah journal came out against it.

And Shira was asking about women only groups, not mixed egal stuff.

Wed Apr 08, 04:10:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Okay, I goofed, and owe some of the Amen group participants an apology--the groups that meet in the morning, such as the one mentioned in the announcement copied to Krum's post, recite and say amen to each other's birkot hashachar (morning blessings). It's the groups that meet in the evening that say amen to one another's blessings over food. Still, the whole idea that a group of women would spend 45 minutes saying the same brachot (blessings) over and over again just to give one another an opportunity to say "amen" doesn't sit well with me. In the same amount of time, they could say all of Shacharit (Morning Service) or Maariv (Evening Service), depending on the time of the gathering. Why should the recitation of tehillim or the repeated recitation of the same brachot by a group of women be considered a wonderful thing, while the recitation of an actual service by a group of women is condemned by many in the Orthodox community? I just don't get it.

Sat Apr 11, 11:18:00 PM 2009  
Blogger smoo said...

Just thought there would be interest in the egal stuff based on it being RELATED to the topic. I only reposted it for Shira's interest. I am removing it from my site. If you comment on any of my posts that u or anyone else wants that info I will email it.

Sun Apr 12, 12:26:00 AM 2009  
Anonymous Woodrow/Conservadox said...

This is kind of a sidebar, but here goes: you mentioned that the size of the women's side discourages prayer by women.

But in my O shul, the fact that the women's side is as large as the men's side actually DETERS women from going to daily and Friday night minyans.

Why? Because if all the men go on the men's side things get very packed and uncomfortable- the men's side is made for 10 or 15 and if 20 show up its adequate but not fun. So if a woman shows up once, she will notice that she is making the men uncomfortable by crowding them, and will usually not come again.

As far as the main topic, since I'm enough of a C at heart to not mind egalitarianism I am the wrong person to ask.

Sun Apr 12, 04:55:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Sandy said...

Just for your information, the UTJ (Union for Traditional Judaism) is the only Jewish organization that has taken a position in favor of women's tfillah groups. While there are individual Orthodox rabbis who approve of such services, no Orthodox groups have come out stating that they are permitted. And, of course, the liberal streams of Judaism think that such groups are irrelevant because they believe that women are can be counted in a minyan and certainly don't have to be in a separate group in order to lead prayers.

Sun Apr 12, 07:41:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Woodrow, one can work around the overcrowding problem by having a movable mechitzah.

Sandy, it stands to reason that the Union for Traditional Judaism would endorse women's tefillah groups, as they're a pretty left-wing group among traditionalists. It's really a pity that no other traditionalist organization has endorsed them, even though many of the members affiliated with these organizations do support WTGs.

Sun Apr 12, 08:50:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I'm not such a fan of WTG in that they're usually done in a way that copies 'standard' male-dominated tefilla, with all the important bits edited out. It just seems too much like second-rate play-acting. Sometimes i think it'd be better if the women just came up with their own prayers, modeled after Tkhina literature, and did their own unique women thing... but that opens up a whole nother can of complications.

Tue Apr 14, 02:50:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"I'm not such a fan of WTG in that they're usually done in a way that copies 'standard' male-dominated tefilla, with all the important bits edited out. It just seems too much like second-rate play-acting."

Gee, thanks.

Not!!! :(

1) "Sometimes i think it'd be better if the women just came up with their own prayers, modeled after Tkhina literature, and did their own unique women thing..."

a) First of all, Tkina literature was intended for women praying alone, to the best of my knowledge. Is *any* of it written in the plural?

b) Second, "'standard' male-dominated tefilla" has the sanction of centuries of tradition. Why should we women be expected to reinvent the wheel, when it comes to group prayer?

2) "but that opens up a whole nother can of complications." Indeed, what support could we expect to get from the rabbanim/rabbis if we *did* come up with our own "unique women thing"?

3) It could just as easily be argued that, when men don't have a minyan and "davven bi-y'chidut" (pray as individuals), *men's* davvening is "second-rate play-acting" too!

As I've theorized here, the only reason these prayers can be described as male-dominated is that it took about a thousand years for it to occur to any liturgy-writing rabbi that we women might actually wish to use a prayer book.

Humph, double humph, and triple humph!

Tue Apr 14, 04:55:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Correction: *One* of the reasons why these prayers can be described as male-dominated is that it took about a thousand years for it to occur to any liturgy-writing rabbi that we women might actually wish to use a prayer book. (See the post to which I linked in my previous comment.)

Tue Apr 14, 05:42:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Okay, so maybe I shot myself in the foot by linking to that other post: The traditional siddur (prayer book) is pretty male-oriented because it wasn't really written with the idea in mind that both men and women would use it.

So now that I've calmed down a little, Steg, I see your point. Tkina-style prayers written in the plural might not be such a bad idea. But they still don't have the sanction of centuries. It's challenging enough that Orthodox women are rarely permitted to lead prayers unless they separate themselves from the men. Is it such a good idea for men's and women's services to be composed of completely different prayers, too?

Tue Apr 14, 05:57:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Good luck doing a search for "Tkhina," to explain that type of prayer to readers not yet familiar with it. This is the best explanation of tkhinot/techinot that I could find.

Tue Apr 14, 06:16:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

BTW, my wife has the Artscroll's Women's Siddur, it has a bunch of women-oriented Prayers... My wife reads some of them after lighting candles when pregnant... though a bunch of Yiddish prayers for a non-Yiddish speaker is rough... though Hebrew is a foreign language as well, most of the words are more familiar.

The Women's Siddur is a neat start towards offering things for women. I think you'll see more development over the next 20 years... since while the MO community is adopting Hareidi garb and seen as "shifting right," sending women with a Jewish education and possibly a graduate degree into the Orthodox world is BOUND to create changes...

Look at the societal changes in the Arab world right now from women's education, how can we not see something similar in Orthodoxy?

Thu Apr 23, 02:33:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oops, sorry I'm so late replying to your comment, Al.

I've heard good and bad things about the ArtScroll Women's Siddur. I must confess that, reading the sample pages, for which I thank you for the link, I was struck by the editor's choice to pat women on the head for saying just the first line of the Sh'ma plus Baruch Shem, instead of the entire Sh'ma. I assume it's because of my Conservative upbringing, but I've always thought of the Sh'ma as the Jewish equivalent of a credo, a statement of basic beliefs, and I've never quite been able to wrap my head around the fact that, according to Orthodox interpretation of halachah/Jewish religious law, women are not obligated to say the Sh'ma. I can't help thinking that the addition of prayers specifically for women, however laudatory, doesn't necessarily compensate for the omission of whole sections of the time-honored traditional services.

Sat May 09, 10:52:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Received from RivkaYael via e-mail May 3:

To my knowledge, the biblical commandment to pray (as elucidated by the Rambam) consists of praise, thanksgiving and supplication. The requirement to fulfill the biblical oblligation through the shemonei esrei is a rabbinic commandment. Therefore a woman could technically fulfill her biblical obligation but be lacking in observance of the rabbinic commandment if she said techines (or something like that).

I don't think that WTGs are "male dominated liturgy with the important parts edited out--like play acting"--I think WTGs are there to satisfy the needs of women who are not comfortable praying in a male dominated setting--a comfort issue if you will, to help women fulfill their obligations in an optimal manner. You are right that many techinot are written in the singular. Most rabbinic prayer however was meant to be written in the plural--we pray for ourselves as well as on behalf of klal yisrael.

"It could just as easily be argued that, when men don't have a minyan and "davven bi-y'chidut" (pray as individuals), *men's* davvening is "second-rate play-acting" too!" (from your own comment to your post)

Very true. More so than women in WTGs."

Sat May 09, 10:54:00 PM 2009  

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