Women and Leading Prayer Services
There are three tasks of a communal leader of prayer.
1. They must bring the community together; much like a conductor would work with an orchestra. This is in part technical; we must be brought in at the right time with the right tune, but also it is a spiritual, emotional and an artistic task. A great leader of prayer functions as a vessel, drawing a great spiritual response from the community and transforming the printed words of the Siddur into songful prayer.
2. They must fulfil certain key obligations on behalf of members of the prayer community. This is entirely a practical issue.
3. They must also serve as our representatives before God. We, the community, stand to be judged not only in our own right, but also in terms of who we appoint as our leaders.
Each role raises a different Halachic question in terms of women’s ability to lead prayers.
1. The role of keeping the community focussed and united in their prayer raises the question; is there something about women that distracts or otherwise makes it impossible for them to ‘conduct’ prayers for a mixed, male and female, community?
2. The role of fulfilling ritual obligation raises the question; are women technically able, in the same way as men, to fulfil obligations on behalf of both male and female members of the prayer community?
3. The role of representing a fully constituted prayer community before God raises the twin questions; who can and should lead a prayer community consisting of both men and women?
is there something about women that makes it impossible for them to ‘conduct’ prayers for a mixed, male and female, community?
I Talmud Brachot 24a
Rav Isaac said, ‘A handbreadth of exposed skin, in a woman is a sexual incitement [erva]...’
Rav Hisda said, ‘A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement…’
Samuel said, ‘A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, For your voice is sweet [erev]’ (Song of Songs 2:14)
II Kiddushin 70 a-b
Shmuel said, ‘A person should have nothing to do with women at all, whether adults or children. [Rav Nahman asked Rav Yehuda,] would you like to send a greeting to [my wife] Yalta. [Rav Yehuda] responded, ‘Shmuel said “the voice of a woman is a sexual incitement… Don’t even ask after her wellbeing.”’
III Prisha Tur EH 21:2
The voice of women who it is permissible to hear [can be excluded from the classification of kol b’isha] for they do not awaken the appetite.
IV Hidushei Ha Ritba Kiddushin 82a.
All is in accordance with one’s fear of heaven, and so, in the halachah all depends on the way a man recognises himself. Therefore if he requires prohibitive fences to curb his intentions, he should construct them and even viewing the coloured clothing of a woman is prohibited. But if he is aware of himself and knows that his desires are subjugated, then it is permissible for him to look at and speak with a woman who is an erva and to exchange warm greetings with a married woman... Only one who is thoroughly righteous and recognises his desires may conduct himself in such a manner… fortunate is one who conquers his passions and toils in Torah.
V Succah 52a
Abaye explained, [The evil inclination] is active against scholars more than anyone else; as was the case when Abaye heard a certain man saying to a woman, ‘Let’s get up and go on a journey.’ Abaye said, ‘I’ll follow them to keep them away from transgression. ’ He followed them for three parasangs across the meadows. When they parted company he heard them say, ‘Our company is pleasant, the way is long’. ‘If it were me’, said Abaye, ‘I could not have restrained myself’, So he went and leaned in anguish against a doorpost, when a certain old man came up to him and taught him: The greater the man, the greater his Evil Inclination.
VI Shulchan Arukh OH 75.3, Rema
But a voice which one is accustomed to hear [kol haregil bo] is not sexually enticing.
VII Ravia (C13) 1:76 p. 52
Applies only to those things which are not usually revealed [shain regilut lehigalot], but it doesn’t apply to an unmarried woman, with exposed hair because there is no licentiousness [hirhur], and the same applies regarding her voice.
VIII Sridei Aish 1:8 col 20
Hungarian [ultra-orthodox] writers were exceptionally strict and expounded from sources that the Mehitza needed to be taller than the height of a woman. Moreover … they prohibited going to synagogues without such a Mehitzah, and moreover forbid women from coming to pray and held it better that they stay in their homes. And for sure, their intentions are good – protecting the modesty which was customary in earlier generations – but in our time the situation has changed, and human nature has changed [nishtaneh hamatzav vnishtanu hateviim], and if women were kept in their homes and weren’t allowed to come to Synagogue, the Torah of Jewish life would be lost for them totally.
The Woman’s Place is in the Domestic Realm
IX Ps 45.14
All the honour of a Princess is internal.
X Exodus 15
Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea…’ And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing. And Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea.’
XI Avodah Zara 38 a-b
An Israelite may set meat upon the coals and let a heathen come and stir it until he gets back from the Synagogue or House of Study, and he need not worry; and [an Israelite] woman may set a pot on a stove and let a heathen woman come and stir it until she gets back from the bathhouse or Synagogue, and she need take not worry.
Are women technically able, in the same way as men, to fulfil obligations of both male and female members of the prayer community?
XII Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8
One who is not obligated in a thing, cannot exempt others from their obligation.
XIII Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7
All positive obligations connected to time – men are obligated, women are exempt
XIV Mishnah Brachot 3:3 & Talmud Bavli Brachot 20b
Women are obligated in tefillah, mezuzah and bircat hamazon.
You might have thought [that tefilah] is a time-bound obligation since the verse states I pray evening, morning and afternoon (Psalm 55), therefore the contrary is specified.
XV Rambam’s Mishneh Torah Laws of Tefilah 1:2-6
The obligation [of tefilah] used to operate like this; a person would beseech and pray every day and speak of the praiseworthiness of the Holy Blessed One, and then ask for their needs to be met … And so it was from the time of Moses until Ezra.
However when Israel was exiled in the days of the Wicked Nebucanezer, they were mixed in with the Persians and Greeks and other peoples… and when one of them went to pray [they erred or omitted things]. When Ezra and his Bet Din saw this they got up and fixed [taknu] the eighteen blessings in order … so they could be fluent for all… and in this way they fixed all the blessings and prayers in order in the mouth of all Israel.
XVI Shulchan Arukh OH 106:1
Women and slaves, although exempt from reading “the Shema,” are obliged to pray the eighteen-blessing prayer, because it is a positive mitzvah which does not relate to a specific time.
XVII Mishnah Brachot 3:3
Women, slaves and minors are exempt from the recitation of the Shema and from [wearing] Tefilin.
XVIII – Me
But this does not impact on our current discussion. The leader of prayer does not fulfil the obligation of a member of the community by reciting the Shema on their behalf. This is an obligation which, unlike saying the Amidah, cannot be fulfilled by another person, no matter their sex.
The key question is not whether women are obligated to perform each and every mitzvah, but whether there are mitzvot – obligations – that a leader of prayer fulfils on behalf of a community that women are either not obligated to perform or have a partial or lesser obligation than men?
who can and should lead a prayer community consisting of both men and women?
XIX Mishnah Megillah 4:3
Don’t divide the Shema [pores et Shema], lead the prayers [ovrin lifnei hatevah] and don’t do the priestly blessing and don’t read from the Torah … and don’t do the blessing for mourners or … the blessing for a groom … with less than ten.
Should Women be counted among the ‘ten’?
XX Mishneh Torah Hil. Tefillah 8:4
How do you do public prayer [tefilat btzibur]? One prays in a strong voice and everyone listens, and don’t do it with less than ten free adults [gedolim u’venei horin], and the prayer leader is one of them.
XXI Shulchan Arukh Orach Haim 55:1
Don’t say the kaddish with less than ten free adult males [zecahrim benei horin gedolim] who have two hairs, and this is the law for the kedushah and the barachu, we don’t say them with less than ten.
Who May Lead?
XXII Taanit 16a
And who is considered appropriate [regil] to lead prayers [on a fast day]? Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘one who is burdened [with a large family] and has no [means to support them], he works in the field and his home is empty. [Moreover] their youth is unblemished, they are meek and they are wanted by the people, they are pleasant and their voice is sweet and is expert at reading the Torah and other Biblical works and is proficient in various fields of Rabbinic learning and is expert in every one of the blessings.
XXIII Shulchan Arukh OH 53:5
The leader of the prayer community must be appropriate [hagun]. What is appropriate? They should be free from sin and never to have been the subject of gossip [motzi shem ra], not even in their childhood. They should be humble and desired by their community. They must look nice and have a pleasant voice and they must regularly read from the Torah, Prophets and Writings.
Mishnah Brurah ad loc
Their clothes should be long, so you shouldn’t be able to see their legs, and they should be first into the Synagogue and last out, nor should they be foolish or frivolous, rather they should be able to speak of the needs of the community.
And if you can’t find one who has all these qualities, choose the best of the community in matters of wisdom and good deeds.
On the Androcentric Nature of Rabbinics and Rabbinic Language
XXIV Hertz Pentateuch
The Jewish sages recognized the wonderful spiritual influence [of the Jewish wife], and nothing could surpass the delicacy with which respect for her is inculcated. [As the Talmud states] ‘Love your wife as yourself and honour her more than yourself. Be careful not to cause a woman to weep, for God counts her tears. Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of the virtue of its women. He who weds a good woman, it is as if he had fulfilled all the precepts of the Torah.’
XXV Mishnah Kiddushin 1:1
A women is acquired [niknet] in three ways…
Through money, a writ and sexual intercourse.
XXVI Cynthia Ozick, On Being a Jewish Feminist
In the world at large I call myself and am called a Jew. but when, on the Sabbath I sit among women in my traditional shul and the rabbi speaks the word ‘Jew’ I can be sure that he is not referring to me. For him, ‘Jew’ means ‘male Jew’. When the rabbi speaks of women, he uses the expression ‘Jewish daughter’ he means it tenderly. ‘Jew’ speaks for itself. ‘Jewish daughter’ does not. A Jewish daughter is someone whose identity is linked to and defined by another’s role. ‘Jew’ signifies adult responsibility. ‘Daughter’ signifies immaturity and a dependent and subordinate connection.
When my rabbi says ‘A Jew is called to the Torah’ he never means me or any other living Jewish woman. My own synagogue is the only place in the world where I, a middle aged adult, am defined exclusively by my being the female child of my parents. My own synagogue is the only place in the world where I am not named Jew.