Monday, October 15, 2012

Why Women's Ritual Participation is Not The Answer

One of the signature features of Orthodoxy is the assignment of different public roles to men and women, and the reservation of specific ritual duties to males and females, respectively. In the past, I have been invited to a number of discussion forums that dealt with the idea of empowering Jewish women by expanding the scope of their ritual participation in the home and the synagogue. Apparently, those familiar with my stance as an outspoken advocate for women's Torah Study expected me to support this initiative as well.

 However, much to their chagrin, I was and I am strongly opposed to this approach. I do not believe it offers an authentic and satisfactory response to the concerns raised by Modern Orthodox women. In fact, I believe that this tactic is poorly conceived and fundamentally misguided.

This is why I was interested to see the arguments put forth in  this article from Open Orthodox Rabbi Zev Farber in which he vigorously promotes expanding the range of ritual participation available to Modern Orthodox women. His suggestion is that we go back to basics, reexamining each and every area in which distinctions have been made between men and women and questioning whether these distinctions have a legitimate halakhic basis or are simply customs by default, "the way it's always been done". On the surface, such a reconsideration of common practice in the light of traditional sources sounds reasonable and healthy. Certainly no harm can come from the advancement of knowledge and understanding.

Rabbi Farber's article also makes some outstanding points about the double-standard that is applied to the motives of men and of women vis a vis ritual participation. There is a tendency in the Orthodox world to criticize women who express interest in ritual activity. The movement to establish women's prayer groups, Torah readings, etc., is attributed to their ignoble desire for fame, honor, or power. Yet the men, who are subject to these same petty desires and impulses, who enjoy receiving honors and basking in the limelight just as much, are granted the opportunity to participate in these rituals as a matter of course, without having their agendas scrutinized or their motives questioned. These are very fair and accurate observations.

However, while I sympathize with his sentiments and accept the cogency of much of his reasoning, I strongly disagree with Rabbi Farber's conclusions. In my opinion, the solution is not to encourage MORE ritual participation among women. On the contrary, the objective should be to educate our communities to an understanding that ritual participation is not the sin qua none of Divine Service.

 Participation brings with it the thrill of performance in front of a group, the widely coveted opportunity to shine. However, in essence, it is not outward ritual that perfects us. It is not reading the Torah publicly, nor leading the prayers before the congregation, nor reciting Qaddish that draws us nearer to Hashem and actualizes our spiritual, intellectual or moral potential.

This objective, the ultimate objective of all of Torah and mitzvot, is realized only through authentic study of Torah and pure and sincere observance of mitzvot, particularly the mitzvot of Tefillah (genuine prayer) and the pursuit of justice, charity and kindness. The greatest Sages and Prophets of our history did not scale the heights of Divine Knowledge by virtue of serving as the cantors, rabbis or Torah readers in their synagogues; they were, by and large, loners and mavericks who pursued the truth relentlessly and independently, neither seeking public recognition nor caving to public pressure. This message is a message that both men and women need to hear. It is a principle that must regain its central footing in our religious consciousness and experience.

Were an archaic version of Rabbi Farber to have lived in the days of the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, we can envision the scene: He would have climbed the rooftops or the hilltops (there were no blogs back then) and proclaimed his dream of egalitarian ritual participation in the Bet Hamiqdash, the Holy Temple. He would have encouraged religious leaders to welcome women who wished to bring sacrifices to the Temple and to lean on them before they were offered (the Talmud in Rosh Hashana and Hagigah deals with the parameters of this halakhic subject). He would probably have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the halakhic principle that a non-Kohen can perform sacrificial slaughter, and sought to create opportunities for women to do so. He would have struggled mightily to involve women in the Temple Service to the full extent that Jewish Law allowed.

And yet, after all this work, he would be headed in the wrong direction, and he would be leading others down a literally God-forsaken path. "What need have I of your abundant sacrifices, the Word of Hashem," Isaiah proclaimed. Jeremiah preached, "But I spoke not unto your forefathers...Regarding burnt offering or sacrifice. But this thing I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way I instruct you..."

Hosea may have said it best, when he declared, "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; knowledge of God, and not burnt offerings."

The sacrifices of yesteryear (may they speedily return with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, God willing) are analogous to the public rituals of today. Our goal should not be the offering of more sacrifices, so to speak. Nor should we be clamoring to involve more people in officiating at our "sacrificial services". Instead, we should be promoting, encouraging and championing the life-changing and self-transformative study of Torah among both men and women of all ages.

It is only first and foremost through the deep and passionate study of Torah and then - in light of that Torah knowledge - through sincere and authentic prayer, acts of kindness and compassion, and the ceaseless pursuit of justice and charity that our people will find its way back to Hashem once and for all.

 Emphasis on expanding women's roles in ritual performance will contribute more to the problem than to the solution. It reinforces an ancient, deeply entrenched and distorted view of Torah and further misdirects the focus of our religious life toward the outward signs, rather than the substance, of true knowledge of God and Divine service. To borrow a poignant phrase from the Rambam, this kind of initiative "leads neither to the fear of Hashem nor to the love of Him."


Yael said...

Dirshu et Hashem b'himatzo
If this is where women feel impassioned about Torah, and the lack of opportunities for ritual performance is causing them to feel angry at G and the community, and it seems to me that this is a widespread feeling, indeed... then perhaps this very passion is an opportunity for reflection and growth. People are motivated to think about it... why not use this passion to motivate a "deep and passionate study of Torah" leading towards "sincere and authentic prayer, acts of kindness and compassion, and the ceaseless pursuit of justice and charity"?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Indeed, we need leadership that approaches these feelings in just such a constructive manner...where is it?

channie said...

I was a part of the reading that sparked all this uproar in ATL, and far from desiring to be in any kind of limelight or kavod, I (and many of the 75+ women in that room) experienced a spiritual high from interacting for the first time with an actual Torah scroll, that honestly infused and enlivened my practice in all areas. My favorite quote from an incredible older woman in the community: "I'm so thankful that my seven year old granddaughter will not have to wait seventy years, like me, to touch a Torah. Sometimes you don't know what you're missing until you have it."

One more point: If you're going to be consistent, I expect that you will deny access to these (spiritually damaging) kibbudim to the men in your congregation as well as to the women. You can make the public aspect of services into a "necessary evil", while you draw the attention of your congregants, male and female alike, towards loftier things. I hope this is your plan, otherwise your argument strikes me as disingenuous.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Dear Channie,

I can't judge the motivation of any particular individual or group. Nor did I mean to criticize anyone or to take sides in any controversy (I didn't realize that there was actually an uproar down there!) I am identifying a general problem, the problem that we all attach far too much significance to public ritual disconnected from personal growth.

This overestimation of the intrinsic worth of public ritual is what invested that moment of reading from the Torah with so much emotional power, when in reality it is the content and message of the Torah, not the scroll and not the public reading, that should really be inspiring us.

As to your second point: There are halakhic parameters that govern and delineate the proper procedures of public worship. By strictly adhering to those parameters and neither adding to nor subtracting from them, we demonstrate that the public acts of worship have a specific and limited role in our lives.

By contrast, inventing super-halakhic public rituals in imitation of the halakhically mandated ones implies that there is something intrinsically and supernally valuable in these rituals BEYOND their halakhic function, something worthy of expansion, elaboration and proliferation, much like the people in the times of the Bet Hamiqdash were certain that there was great benefit in an abundance of sacrifices.

I think the greatest Qiddush Hashem of the entire story was the fact that Eden is doing the Daf. דיינו

channie said...


I have to say that I find it somewhat dismissive of you to tell me what about my experience is or should be meaningful. My daughter and I both do the Daf, but I'm not sure why that is relevant here. I think you misunderstood me originally: I was not asking you what you think I should value more highly, I was merely sharing my personal experience. The Torah is a powerful symbol; I'm pretty sure its not just me who feels that way. I'm not sure why you believe you get to say what about my practice should inspire me, or in what order.

Further, your response to my second point was unsatisfactory. It seemed like hiding behind large words and weighty social constructs from the past and acting as if its all simply halacha. Chatan Torah/dancing with the Torah/shaking hands & hasher koach-ing are not "simply halacha". I don't see why, in your world view, these things should be present for men, as you seem to consider them a hindrance to spiritual growth.

I apologize if I'm coming off harshly, all of this being talked about strikes a chord.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I am not trying to dictate the terms of your subjective experience. It is what it is. It is not in my purview to validate or delegitimize anyone's personal religious feelings.

Clearly the Sefer Torah is supposed to inspire awe and reverence in people. However, objectively speaking, it seems backwards to attach greater power and significance to the physical symbol of a message than to the message itself.

For the public reading of the Torah, essentially a ritual act, to be placed on a pedestal above the study of Torah itself, represents a confusion of priorities. I am speaking objectively and logically, not personally or spiritually.

I don't mean to suggest that you subscribe to confused priorities. But I don't see as many people - men or women - clamoring to actually engage with the content of Torah as I see pursuing the honor or "emotional high" that comes with holding, touching or reading from a Torah scroll. This is unfortunate, and reminiscent of ancient times, during which the Jews were very excited about sacrifices and the pomp and circumstance that attended them, and the Kohanim were very enthusiastic about the laws of purity and impurity that set them apart, but no one was too worried about truth, justice or morality.

I think that the original objective of many of these secondary customs like "yasher koach's" was to demonstrate honor for the Torah, not for the individual.

And yes, I would discourage excessive focus on these honors in my congregation. I actually have done it and continue to try to limit the overemphasis placed on receiving aliyot, etc. I try to practice what I preach.

In fact, just to underscore how serious I am, I am currently working to eliminate the traditional Bar Mitzvah from my synagogue and to replace it with a course of intensive Torah study for both boys and girls instead...That's right, ritualistic reading from the Torah should NOT be the focus, and when we focus on what really matters, it is naturally, and beautifully "egalitarian".

I realize this is a deep-rooted problem and I am taking my own version of "controversial steps" to weed it out.

It's natural to desire honor and recognition. It is regrettable that the Torah has been hijacked as a means of honoring human beings when it should really inspire us with humility and modesty.

I wasn't hiding behind weighty words. I was saying that we should carry out the halakhic requirement for public ritual worship when it is present, and refrain from proliferating additional forms of this kind of worship on our own.

Benjamin E. said...

If the public reading of the Torah is ending up being no more than a mere ritual, then the real problem is how we have turned what is meant to be a supremely powerful communal religious experience - a weekly micro-"Hakhel" of sorts - into a routine, mundane occurrence.

I have had powerful, content-ful experiences hearing public readings of both Torah and Haftarah. I have been shaken hearing a good baal kriah cry out on Yom Kippur morning, "Hachazeh tzom evchareihu?! ... Halo *zeh* tzom evchareihu: pateiach chartzubot resha...!" There is incredible power in not just reading but reliving that prophetic moment of rebuke, in feeling for a moment like Isaiah stands there rebuking us personally.

I could say the same thing for many moments of Torah - a good Torah reader reading the Aseret Hadibrot can transport you to the foot of Har Sinai; a short few weeks later, (s)he can cause you to tremble at the anger of Moshe as he descends from the mountain and as he cries with fire burning inside him, "Mi la-shem - *eilai!!*" The pain of Hagar, the instant before Avraham drops the knife, the fear in Yosef's brothers before Tzafnat Paneach.

When one reads Hamlet, one engages intellectually; you *feel* the pain and madness on stage. And if you don't, if the actors are no good, that's a problem with the execution, not the medium. And the Torah is certainly at least as compelling and powerful as Hamlet.

Anyone who has been to a good Yom Kippur service can tell you how it is more than fanfare, how a good shaliach tzibur does not merely perform but truly leads the kahal in a communal experience greater than the sum of its parts. It is also, of course, considered in Judaism to be of great value (hence the preference for praying with a minyan if possible), and it would be a chidush to argue that the communal prayer is a chok with no comprehensible meaning, done merely to obey God's inscrutable will.

Public ritual is a part of Judaism for a reason. The prophets railed not against sacrifices, but *empty* sacrifices devoid of content. Rather than minimizing our public ritual, perhaps we should be working to reinfuse it with the meaning and power it could hold instead.

And to return to the topic at hand, *that* is a goal worthy of the participation of women.

Jacob said...

...I (and many of the 75+ women in that room) experienced a spiritual high from interacting for the first time with an actual Torah scroll...

In my humble opinion, part of the problem stems from a misplaced relationship with the physical Torah scroll, as opposed to the abstract ideas that that scroll represents.

Consider that even the widespread custom of kissing the Sefer Torah is not grounded in classical sources. IIRC the Rama mentions a custom that the children [to the exclusion of adults] were brought close to the Sefer Torah to kiss it. But this begs the question: why wasn't the original custom developed in a way where all people, including adults, would approach and kissed the Torah? Most people today might wonder what would be the harm in such a thing?

But the answer is clear - there is an inherit danger in promoting an unwarranted fixation on the physical Torah scroll, such that it ends up supplanting the ideas contained in the Torah as the central focus of our religious service.

Until people (both men and women) begin to realize that, first and foremost, ours is a religion of reason rather than a religion of ritual, I am afraid we will continue to see people focused on the wrong issues and try and invent new and foreign ways to relate to God.

(BTW R. Maroof - your parallel to the prophets' attitudes toward sacrifices in the Temple is an excellent point).

Anonymous said...

R. Maroof's thoughts are complemented by R. Gidon Rothstein's work, We're Missing the Point. A fine summary of its main points is at

Barry Kornblau

Anonymous said...

I just noticed that R. Students review/summary of R. Rothstein's book omits the latter's discussion of women in Orthodoxy. A piece of his argument is at

Barry Kornblau

Liba said...

Hi Josh,

I am afraid that conflating the problem of misguided public ritual with the issue of female participation in Jewish practice effectively applies the same double standard to the motives of men and of women that you denounce earlier in your post.

Your point about educating communities to understand that ritual participation is not the sin qua none of Divine Service is well taken, but this has nothing to do with the issue of female participation in ritual -- it merely obscures the issue by bringing up another problem.


Jacob said...


But doesn't the alternative of promoting innovative female participation accomplish nothing but compound the problem to which you refer?

I thought that was R. Maroof's whole point.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Dear Liba,

It depends what you mean. I have been operating with the halakhic requirements and parameters as a baseline and asking whether increasing the number of people who are participating in public ritual, or creating new forms of public ritual to accommodate them, is a wise course of action.

To this question, my answer is no. I think we stick to what halakha mandates when it comes to ritual. On the other hand, I believe that participation in Torah study, tefillah, hessed and tsedaqa by both men and women should be expanded, increased, and deepened.

This is where our efforts should be invested. This is the message so powerfully conveyed by the prophets we have failed to heed for generations - ritualistic behavior does not lead to redemption. In the words of the Rabbis אין המעשה מביא לידי תלמוד. See also Rashi on Shmuel Alef 3:14.

As Rabbi Broyde said,female participation in ritual may not always be clearly prohibited or in violation of halakha. But that doesn't mean it is the most constructive use of time, resources or spiritual energy.

CN said...

"ours is a religion of reason rather than a religion of ritual"

Jacob, I have heard this one before, and I do not agree - but this is beside the point. My point is simply this, we wanted to read from the Torah scroll (without berakhot) because we spent months learning the layning and this seemed like a great way to celebrate Simhat Torah. It is not assur - if anything it is part of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah - it certainly is no less a mitzvah than dancing for an hour or having every single male in the shul have umpteen aliyot (which is certainly not a mitzvah either, might even be a problem according to some). So we did it, it was very moving, felt affirming of our identities as Torah observant women. My point is that it was a positive experience that in no way violated halakha so there is little reason I can see for people to oppose this. The attempt to hold us back from our muttar yet not halakhically mandated expression of ahavat ha-Torah while allowing the men to do a number of their own maybe-muttar but not halakhically mandated expressions of ahavat ha-Torah strikes me as nothing more than an abuse of male power and is unjust. Fairness is also a Torah value.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I don't think anyone is arguing that what the women in ATL did was in violation of halakha. Nor does anyone, to my knowledge, think that it is improper for women to learn to "layn" (sic). I teach both the boys and girls in this community, including my daughter, how to read Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim properly with their cantillation. The question is whether, for men OR women, the emphasis on public ritual is a wise one.

Jacob said...

Fairness is also a Torah value.


When you strip it all away, isn't that all what it comes down to? A deep resentment on the part of the participants that they are being denied a ritual that another class of people are a regular part of?

"Fairness is also a Torah value." Hmmm. Where have I heard that argument before? -----

רב לכם כי כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל ה

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

As I alluded to in my post, were we to be living in the times of the Bet Hamiqdash, there would no doubt be similar movements to enfranchise non-Kohanim and non-Levites in the very public and prominent Temple service, as Qorah argued they should be.

CN said...

Ah, Jacob the old Korah thing. Since Korah said "fairness" to overthrow Moses, than anyone who says fairness - like the Torah for instance (צדק צדק תרדף) must also be Korah, even if they aren't advocating anything forbidden according to halakha (keep in mind this was sanctioned by the shul rabbi). This is just rhetoric, I am sure you don't even believe, just couldn't resist the dig, I guess. Anyway, Monty Python did a skit on this kind of "logic" once (Professor of Logic), so I will leave it in their expert hands.

As my point has already been made, I will not belabor it - but here is a new point. Obviously we disagree, that is fine. However, there is a difference between our approaches. I am simply stating my view, you are attacking me and others. Actually, by calling me Korah - as silly as that was - you have embarrassed me (or tried to at any rate) which, if you are not aware, is an issur de-oraitta of malbin pnei haveiro be-rabbim (a yehareig ve-al ya'avor according to some), not to mention motzai shem ra for equating me with Korah. And you did this for what reason? Simply to defend your point that what I did was not assur but not a great idea in your opinion? Seems a rather trite reason to do two major issurei Torah.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

How can someone "unknown" be embarrassed or shamed? Nobody is attacking anyone personally here. We are discussing our ideas and variant approaches to the question of women's role in Judaism. Harsh criticism was registered against my view as well, and I realize that it comes with the territory. If we remain civil and respectful in our discourse, no harm should be done.

Jacob said...


Until now, I thought I was pretty safe from guessing the real identity of your alias and consequently from being in violation of 'malbin pene chaveiro' and 'motzi shem ra' by exchanging arguments with an anonymous blogger named 'unknown'. But once you dropped that Monte Python reference, I'm not so sure. :-)

I will be more careful from now on.

CN said...

This is channie, the "unknown" thing was a mistake - I am posting from my phone & not sure how to change that. Sorry. But... anonymous bloggers are also people, and comparing someone to Korah, especially when you don't really mean it, is insulting (although not public, I guess.)

CN said...

I don't think we've met, but appreciate the comment.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Yes, Channie, I knew it was you...but I still don't think anyone has engaged in any ad homonym argumentation here...criticizing ideas is OK, and we agree to disagree, perhaps even disagree strongly.

Chaim said...

Hmmm... Let me try this.
Were an archaic version of Rabbi Farber to have lived in the days of the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, we can envision the scene: He would have climbed the rooftops or the hilltops (there were no blogs back then) and proclaimed his dream of egalitarian ritual participation in the Bet Hamiqdash, the Holy Temple.

Were the gedolim of today and the kollelniks at BMG to have lived in the days of the prophets they would not be in the beit midrash all day learning. They would be engaging with all of Am Yisrael - actually being on hilltops and rooftops and not in the daled amos of the beit midrash all day. They would be speaking about the yatom the almana, the shafel ruach, and the poor. They would be speaking mainly about tzedek and and caring for the vulnerable - not what people are wearing (from hats to tights) what the ultimate etrog looks like, and whose is really orthodox. They would be questioning the motivations of those men who are fasting and wearing sackcloth and not doing the above.

Mike S. said...

Did Chazal not permit women to perform s'micha on their korbanot to give them "nachat ruach"?

Mike S. said...

As I alluded to in my post, were we to be living in the times of the Bet Hamiqdash, there would no doubt be similar movements to enfranchise non-Kohanim and non-Levites in the very public and prominent Temple service, as Qorah argued they should be.

Weren't the ma'amdot a way to give the non-Cohanim and non-Leviim a halachically appropriate role in the public service in the Temple?

benjyr said...

is the rabbi suggesting that halacha never changes? that the way do things never change?!?!?

thats absurd. of course it changes. in fact, the only reason orthodox judaism is still moderately relevant today is because of changes that strong leaders made over the years.

and here, in this case, i think many are actually arguing to include women WITHIN THE CONFINES OF HALACHA!!!!

i am just going to sit back and laugh at "men" who haggle and debate over whether women can or should do whatever the heck they want in this day and age.

in 100-200 years, your brand of judaism will be long gone. cant stick your feet in the mud and not expect the world to pass you by

Reuven C. said...

Shalom Rabbi Maroof,

To take your train of thought further, you seem to be saying that you find there to be too many resources expended on shul services anyway, and too much communal focus.

If I understand that correctly, then it is quite a profound statement.

Should shuls reconsider their financial and organization commitment to public shul services, looking instead to assure a minimal quality of services (i.e. no elaborate cantor, ba'al koreh, decorum), limit attendence (there are decisor who did not find attending minyan to be halchically required), and instead focus on study and chesed etc?

elisheva said...

I'm in agreement with Channie. While I wasn't at the Torah reading in question, I can only imagine the spiritual high that would come from receiving an aliyah. From leyning from the Torah myself (I don't know how but would love to learn). Or from leading part of davening. I do hear your point, Rabbi Maroof, that we should be seeking more personal ways to come close to Gd. But why not normalize women's participation? Energize *this* generation of women and girls with the spiritual highs of increased public service in the shul. Then, after the normalization, people can be educated to seek a more personal commitment of service to Gd. Telling women "oh this? this isn't what it's all about anyway" isn't going to stop me or my daughter from wanting our own spiritual high.

Anonymous said...

On the whole, I think you make some very good points. The ritual performances in shul are not necessarily the central part of observance. However, they are central to a spiritual connection to G-d. Similar to the sacrifices, the performance of the various rituals in the service are one of the main methods that we use to connect spiritually and create a community. I think that the role of women in the performance of ritual in as much as it enables them to forge a spiritual connection to G-d and the Community.

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Goodsonhvhg said...

On the whole, I think you make some very good points. The ritual performances in shul are not necessarily the central part of observance. However, they are central to a spiritual connection to G-d. Similar to the sacrifices, the performance of the various rituals in the service are one of the main methods that we use to connect spiritually and create a community. I think that the role of women in the performance of ritual in as much as it enables them to forge a spiritual connection to G-d and the Community.

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