Volume 8 Number 13

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Women's Davening Groups
         [Freda Birnbaum]
Women's Prayer Groups
         [Arthur Roth]


From: Freda Birnbaum <FBBIRNBA@...>
Date: Thu, 1 Jul 93 06:59 EDT
Subject: Women's Davening Groups

>Women's t'filah makes the claim to provide for the needs of women who
>are committed to halacha but do not feel completely satisfied with the
>traditional davening.  I will ignore for the time being the valid, but
>rather uninteresting response of, "So what;" ie, there is no
>halachically valid state of being "dissatisfied" with davening.  I'll
>simply leave it at this -- the Rambam, in the Guide to the Perplexed,
>expresses the idea that the halacha is not necessarily perfectly suited
>to every individual in every time period -- sometimes, a din may not
>feel comfortable, but it doesn't change the status of the din.  A
>trivial example, which will be expanded into a poor analogy: I may not
>be "satisfied" with the culinary options available to me, but I am not
>therefore entitled to violate even relatively minor kashrut laws.  I
>can't have ice cream after that chicken sandwhich, no matter how
>"unsatisfied" I feel.  Maybe the craving for women's t'filah is similar
>to my craving for ice cream -- very real, very genuine.  But "So what"
>-- perhaps women's t'fila too is simply a craving which can not be
>legitimately satisfied within halachic bounds.  And just as I feel like
>I am serving hakadosh baruch hu not for my own needs and purposes but
>instead in a more lishma fashion by skipping the ice cream, perhaps
>passing over a woman's prayer service can hold the same spiritual
>meaning in terms of avodat Hashem.

This is not only a poor analogy, it's nasty (tho perhaps unwittingly)
and it's ad hominem and it's condescending and it's assuming things about
the motivations of people the poster appears to know nothing about.  I
happen to be well-acquainted with numerous groups and individuals involved
in women's davening groups and this is not at all their general level of
frumkeit.  To imply by such an analogy that it is, however useful such an
analogy may appear to be to the argument the poster is trying to make,
is disingenouous to say the least.  The general level of frumkeit
in these groups is that the married women go to the mikvah and the single
ones don't have to.  In several of the groups that I am aware of, there
is a significant overlap between the women's davening group and the
women's chevra kadisha.  You do NOT get asked to be on the chevra kadisha
if your attitudes and behavior are like the ones described above re chicken
and ice cream.  How would the poster feel if I implied that every young
guy with views to the left of mine (yes, I do have views to the right of
some people, on selected subjects anyway! :-) ) was the kind of person who
took his tefillin on dates?  The analogy used above simply doesn't fit the

Please review Susan Hornstein's excellent piece in v7n101 for a better
understanding of what motivates women to be involved in women's davening

The hashkama minyan analogy that the same poster made is interesting.
My husband has said for ages that a lot of the hostility to women's
davening groups is not toward them as such, but is similar to that
directed at hashkama minyanim; in his experience, the people (or the
rabbi) are upset at the taking-away from the main minyan.  (I happen
to think he's being overly charitable, but then, he doesn't read
mail-jewish, I had to explain to him what a "flame war" was :-) . Not
that Avi lets too many of them get by.)  Many shuls however do have
hashkama minyanim, for a variety of good reasons.  If we can live with
that, why can't we live with something which enhances many women's
religious lives?

In conclusion, I was going to post this to Bob Werman privately, but
it seems like a good note to end on here:  THANK YOU for your
thoughtfulness and consideration and concern, evidenced in your post in
v8n3, in reply to a discussion on women and aliyot:

>Is kavod hatzibbur something the tzibbur has the right to relinquish?
>For example, could my congregation, all men, decide that we are m'vater
>ve-moHel on our kavod in this matter and therefore women are allowed to
>have aliyot?
>If this were all that modern women desired to make them feel more
>welcome in the framework of Orthodoxy and the vitur [giving up our
>right] were forthcoming, a lot of problems could be solved.  If there is
>such a possibility, I would suggest one such congregation be available
>in every major Jewish concentration, much like the erei miklat [Cities
>of Refuge].

It's good to be reminded occasionally that not everyone is an adversary.

Freda Birnbaum


From: <rotha@...> (Arthur Roth)
Date: Wed, 30 Jun 93 14:09:21 -0500
Subject: Women's Prayer Groups

    Aliza Berger explains (per Rabbi Weiss) that it is OK to say Ahava Rabba
without intending for this to be the bracha on Torah learning.  This is used
to justify the following with regard to the bracha "asher bachar banu":
   If a woman is called to the Torah, she recites it before the Torah is read,
   otherwise she says it later.  So, in practice, most of the women are saying 
   it later.  

A recent MJ posting (don't remember whose) also raised the objection
that waiting to say "asher bachar banu" would create the problem of
learning Torah without having made the bracha, since the whole purpose
of reading Torah in a women's prayer group is for learning.  This is
obviously not a problem for the woman called to the Torah first if she
is willing not to learn any Torah from when she wakes up until then.  If
it is decided before that day which women will be called to the Torah,
all the rest of the women can say the bracha early in the morning, just
as on any other day.  (Aliza, I assume the reason for your statement
that "most women are saying it later" is that they don't want to say it
earlier JUST IN CASE they are called to the Torah.  It would seem to be
a good idea to decide in advance who will be called up in order to
remove this question completely for all but a small handful of women.)
This still leaves an apparent problem for the women called up second
through last, who will hear one or more readings from the Torah (for the
purpose of learning) before their own without yet having made the bracha
on learning.
    In what follows, I would like to propose my own refutation to the
above problem.  Let me make clear that the logic is all my own, and no
halachic authorities have been consulted; nevertheless, it is enough to
intellectually satisfy me that reading Torah in a women's group can be
justified, at least with respect to this particular problem.  (On a
personal level, this whole issue is exclusively an intellectual exercise
rather than a practical matter because all my children are male and my
wife doesn't happen to be interested for reasons of her own.)  Like some
of the other contributors to MJ, I am very sympathetic to anything
within the bounds of halacha that can make women feel more emotionally
and intellectually satisfied with their Jewish involvement.  Having said
all this, let me caution the strong proponents of women's prayer groups
that acceptance of the argument I am about to set forth to justify the
activity in question may also require paying a philosophical "price"
that makes you uncomfortable.
    Suppose someone performs a positive commandment incorrectly.  Then
he is still obligated to perform it correctly, but he has in most cases
committed no sin.  For example, suppose someone shakes a lulav using
only 3 of the 4 minim.  Ignoring the issue of the bracha, which is a
totally separate issue (i.e., the mitzvah of lulav is fulfilled if the
shaking is done correctly even if the bracha is not made at all), this
person is still obligated to shake a proper lulav that day, but he has
not done anything wrong.  There is no PROHIBITION against shaking a
lulav that doesn't satisfy the halachic specifications.
    It is almost universally agreed that the only two brachot d'orayta
(of Torah origin) are the grace after meals and the bracha over learning
Torah; all other brachot are d'rabanan (of rabbinic origin).  When the
Rambam lists the 613 Torah mitzvot in his Sefer Hamitzvot, he does not
include the bracha over learning; in fact, other sources provide
different lists of the 613 mitzvot which differ from the Rambam's, but
to my knowledge none of them explicitly include this bracha.  Rav
Soloveitchik (Zt"l) and others explain that the Rambam regards the
bracha as part and parcel of the mitzvah of Torah learning itself and
hence is not a separate mitzvah in its own right.  Thus, someone who
learns Torah without a bracha has omitted an important aspect of the way
the Torah prescribed this mitzvah and hence receives no credit for it
and has not fulfilled his obligation to learn that day.  Except in one
respect (see below), this is no different and no worse than the one who
shakes 3 minim, i.e., no harm has been done as long as the person
subsequently fulfills the mitzvah correctly, including the bracha.
    The only real difference between the lulav example and the learning
example is that learning is one of the things (as we say every morning
in birchot hashachar) that has no "shiur", i.e., prescribed amount.  The
more we learn, the better off we are and the more reward we get for it;
the lulav need only be shaken once, and we would accomplish nothing
useful by shaking it in the prescribed way over and over again during
the course of a day.  Thus, many sources strongly admonish us not to
learn before the bracha.  However, the reason is not any grave sin
inherent in such an action; rather, it is an attempt to make sure we do
as much real Torah learning as possible.  Any learning we do without a
bracha may be intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying, but
it is halachically meaningless.  (A friend once told me that he had a
source stating that learning without a bracha is an actual sin, but he
could never show it to me.  Even if such a source exists, there are
enough sources for what I've stated here that a women's group certainly
can't be accused of operating outside the framework of Torah Judaism for
taking actions based on these ideas.)
    So women who postpone the bracha on learning are detracting from the
extent to which they fulfill the positive Torah commandment of learning.
Nevertheless, since the commandment has no "shiur", it is entirely
possible for them to fulfill this commandment quite satisfactorily (and
even extensively) according to all opinions starting from the time that
they eventually make the bracha.  The problem is that no matter how
extensive this fulfillment is, they will have forever lost the
opportunity to do even better by having their earlier learning added on
to whatever they wound up doing later.  The logical conclusion is that
the women who postpone the bracha have committed no sin, and as such can
probably rationalize (or even justify) the practice.  However, if I were
a woman involved in such activities, this justification would be
problematical from a philosophical standpoint because an activity
promoted as being for the purpose of learning is in some sense actually
detracting from the amount of learning being done.  One way around this
philosophical problem is to argue that some (even many or most?) of the
women in these groups do not spend their Shabbat mornings learning Torah
on weeks when the groups do not meet, so that the groups cause the total
amount of Torah learning by all the women combined to increase.  If this
is the approach used to make people feel emotionally comfortable, it
becomes all the more imperative to decide in advance who will be called
up to the Torah so that everyone else can make the bracha in the
morning.  Otherwise, the Torah reading becomes learning that "doesn't
count" for the great majority of those present!
    I have one final (rather amusing) idea on this topic.  Those who
want to find a reason to regard learning without a bracha as an actual
sin which cannot be permitted might have an argument that such learning
is bitul Torah!  I myself have never found bitul Torah arguments
persuasive, since there are very few of us who never attend plays,
sporting events, movies, and the like.  Certainly, I would venture a
guess that only a miniscule number of members of women's prayer groups
never do any of the above sorts of things; and certainly learning Torah
without a bracha has to be less "wasteful" than these other activities.
In my own life, I make sure that I learn to a reasonable extent every
day and then don't worry about whether I could have done even more by
eliminating other things that I also enjoy.  Nevertheless, it is ironic
that those who take bitul Torah issues seriously might be able to
legitimately argue that in this case the reading of Torah passages is
indeed bitul Torah!  This reminds me of a story a friend once told me
about his Yeshiva days; I have my doubts that it really happened, but
it's a cute story whether it's true or not.  He claims that the Rosh
Yeshiva was found learning in the Beit Midrash on Tisha B'Av.  The
students wondered how this could be permitted.  The Rosh Yeshiva
sheepishly admitted that it was not, but he remarked that he could
hardly see himself being sent to Gehinom as a punishment for learning
Torah!  And this was for something that was in the context of an actual
prohibition rather than just a halachically meaningless activity that
might hence bring charges of bitul Torah.

Arthur Roth


End of Volume 8 Issue 13