Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Women and Kriat Hatorah - My Two Cents

Each and every year following Simchat Torah, the challenging and thorny issues related to women and public prayer once again surface in the public Orthodox consciousness. This month, articles by Rabbi Michael Broyde, a heartfelt (but in my view somewhat misguided) piece by Rabbi Zev Farber as well as a somewhat simplistic piece by his daughter raised the issue of public kriat Hatorah groups within the Orthodox community, and by extension, the larger issue of women's roles within Orthodoxy. Rabbi Farber's piece also generated responses from Rabbi Joshua Maroof and R. Raphael Davidovich. Happy reading.
Let me go back a bit.
Before the weekly parshah shiur began last Tuesday, a member of the shiur mentioned the issue of Women's Kriat Hatorah and said, "Clearly this is where the Modern Orthodox community is going. It will be a normative practice in twenty years, don't you think?"
I didn't think so, and told her so.
"But," she argued, "How are we accomodating the young girls who are looking for an outlet within the Orthodox community? Are we just going to push them away? Because if they don't find what they're looking for within Orthodoxy, they're going to look elsewhere." She later sent me the link to Eden Farber's piece.
I'm not so sure. The problem is, the more we try and accommodate, the more the gulf between Orthodoxy and modern society and its social mores grow increasingly pronounced. Eden herself articulated the problem: They give her the prayer for the State of Israel to recite; they ask her to deliver a dvar Torah. But that's not enough for her. She wants to layn and lead the davening.
On one hand, we cannot ignore the desires of these women; they come from a sense of injustice, and a bewilderment at the gulf between the secular world in which they live and the religious world they inhabit. And, we cannot simply follow a Chareidi perspective and tell them to shut themselves off from that world; that's not my worldview, nor is it a realitstic approach.
But this issue, like so many others, demands a sensitive and careful balance. I absolutely reject Rabbi Farber's demand for a "paradigm shift" away from a paradigm firmly based in halachic precedent. At the same time, we should not marginalize or demonize women who do participate in prayer groups or layn before women. It's not an activity that I'd encourage, but certainly not something I'd condemn either.
Why wouldn't I encourage it? After all, if it's not prohibited, and layning gives women a sense of spiritual fulfillment, why not encourage them to read from the Torah before a group of women? My answer, is to look at the facts on the ground.
While it's never fair to apply a generalization to any specific individual, generalizations are often quite accurate.

From where I sit, I don't see the women who participate in these rituals as individuals who submit to halachah and consider halachah the primary driving force in their lives. (Blu Greenberg did say it best.) This expresses itself not only in the way that they dress, but in the places that they eat, and in general in their overall level of frumkeit. (If you're reading this getting increasingly angry, sorry, it's my blog.) The women who I know who do submit to halachah; who are incredibly spiritual and place a primacy on shemirat hamitzvot, by and large aren't interested in Tefillah groups and layning. (Yes, there are exceptions, I know. But remember, I'm generalizing.) I would tell a woman who wants to increase her spirituality: first come to minyan each and every day, morning and night. There's a totally empty ezrat nashim. Learn daf yomi - which tens of women do without fanfare. If you're married, follow the halachot of kissuy rosh - according to any posek you choose - just not yourself.
And then, if you're still not fulfilled, find a group of like-minded and similarly passionate women to layn with.