Women, Kabbalat Shabbat and 23 years.

Rabbi Avi Weiss just made the news for letting women lead Kabbalat Shabbat, however there was a precedent 23 years ago. Back in 1987, I was studying in Israel. One morning, I received a phone call from friends in Washington Heights asking for the phone number of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits. They had organized what they termed a halakhic havurah, in which about 30 people participated. and wanted a pesak for women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat. Here is a first draft based on assembling the story via email.

In the late 1980’s there was Halakhic Havurah consisting of RIETS students, Female Revel students , YU graduates and other who attended for social reasons that lived in the heights. The leadership consisted of [Rabbi] Danny Lehmann, Larry Yudelson., Shoshana Jebwab and Michal Lieberman. The Hazanot were Michal Lieberman and Lisa Soleymani.

One of the founders formulated the motivation as a way “to push the boundaries, find allies and support, and learn about social action and power sharing. It allowed us to expose the socially conservative attitudes of our teachers, who more or less told us it was permitted but they weren’t going to allow it anyway. We were feminists who were troubled that halakhic obedience meant we were beholden to social and ethical mores of Babylon’s early Middle Ages.”

The group chose to have a woman lead Kabbalat Shabbat in a nonshul setting (an apartment in Washington Heights) because as far as they understood there was no actual halakhic problem with a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat in a mixed group, especially if it was not a regular shul. They reasoned that there was no need of a minyan for Kabbalat Shabbat nor even a need to actually recite Kabblat Shabbat since it was only a sixteenth century custom

The group called Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits z”l who had recently published his works calling for halakhic flexibility and sensitivity to women’s issues. Rabbi Berkovits said it’s legamrei mutar (completely permitted), no question. He quoted a halakhic authority who ruled that all issues of modesty and community honor follow the local sensibility. He cited how the Jews of Yemen wrote to Rambam saying that in their lands people wear shorts. Are the Jews allowed to wear shorts to the bima? Rambam answered in the affirmative. Rabbi Berkovits sent the group a teshuvah as a handwritten letter.

They also called Rabbi Yossi Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck who also said it was mutar and that he allowed the group to publicize the psak in his name. It is important to note that Adler was still willing to give this leniency even after Rabbi Hershel Schachter had pillaged and insulted Rabbi Adler in Hadarom for supporting women’s prayer groups. The assumption in 1987 for many was that the liberal forces among Rav Soloveitchik students would naturally triumph despite the critiques of woman’s prayer groups in 1983.

In addition, they called Rabbi Joel Wolowelsky of Yeshivah HS of Flatbush who was an advocate for women saying kaddish. Surprisingly, Wolowelsky said that it should not be done. His argument was that although kabbalat shabbat is not formally part of the service in a full halachic sense, we have been treating it as such for 400 years, so if women can’t lead maariv, we should not allow them to lead kabbalat shabbat either. Alternate rememberance, he said that a woman leading the kabbalat Shabbat in a mixed group is technically permissible but is not public policy. He was an advocate for the preservation of the status quo.

There was some push back from two of the RIETS students concerning kol issah, allowing a woman to publically sing. Therefore they had two women recite Kabbalat Shabbat at the same time. Nevertheless, one of the two left the group anyway. (As an ironic touch, years later he left the Orthodox community.)

According to one of the two women hazanot: “Leading with another person was very disappointing for me – we had to coordinate to sing everything together, so there was none of the spontaneity that one has leading Tefillah alone. When I lead tefillah at our Women’s Tefillah Group I can change my mind about a tune at the last minute, or add something, which i enjoy much more.”

The early 1980’s was a time of a direction not chosen. There was widespread women’s prayer groups, Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits were invited speakers at RCA conventions, and Rabbi Stevie Riskin was still in NYC. This group, the first group of gen-xe’rs wanted to push the envelope further. They expected the liberal positions to carry gen-x. However, by this point in 1987 Rabbi Yitz Greenberg was no longer an acceptable speaker on campus. This halakhic havurah was trying to push back, but that was not to be.

Shoshana Jedwab states that “In retrospect, I feel it was more experimental than a serious attempt to found a havurah that would last from year to year.” Eventually everyone in the group moved on, married, moved away, and started careers. Some of the participants are no longer Orthodox, others remain on liberal side of their communities, and a few slouched into an acceptance of Centrism. But this should be remembered as the start of women leading Kabbalat Shabbat in YU Orthodoxy.

Note- This post will likely change when I receive more information and corrections from the participants.

4 responses to “Women, Kabbalat Shabbat and 23 years.

  1. The momentum petered out in part (in my reading of a history that I was mostly absent from) because centrist Orthodoxy moved almost immediately to an embrace of the post-feminist anti-radical, acceptance of de jure social equality and could thereby move on without dealing with the critique of patriarchal power.

    I also wonder whether the Conservative fissure over ordaining women a few years earlier reverberated through liberal Orthodoxy.

  2. jonathan Hirsch

    Perhaps the implications of having a women lead Kabbalat Shabbat are different today since it is more associated with post orthdoxy ?

  3. As an outsider like AS, i believe that there more effort and energy among feminist in favor of women’s education rather that greater roles in a synagogue.

    Also, I believe that many felt more comfortable (or less uncomfortable) with women’s tefillah groups than women leading Kabbalat Shabbat. Many of the subsequent battles were waged there.

    It’s also possible that as Orthodoxy moved rightward in the nineties, the Orthodox left struggled to just hold ground.

  4. Alan, as you know, I was part of this group, was on the phone with Wolowelsky, Adler, and Berkovitz when the calls were made to them, and was one of the sources for this entry. There is one observation which needs to be added about why the chavurah did not continue. It is true of course that any such group consisting mainly of students is likely to be transitory in nature. Some of us were concerned about pressure from YU on those who took part, though as far as I am aware that never came to pass. What ended the group, in any case, wasn’t just a “slouch into centrism” however that might be defined. It would be more accurate to say that those who wanted to create a new path within Orthodoxy were put off by those who wanted to take the group on a trajectory away from both cultural and halachic identification as an Orthodox chavurah -some of the founders declared at a certain point that it would be moving in the direction of complete egalitarianism, which is how I came to be both one of the first to join and one of the first to leave. I can’t speak for anyone but myself as to why they stopped attending, but I can say that it started to peter out not long after. So there is backing in this whole tale both for those who want to point to it as the beginning of change within Orthodoxy (the recounting of the views of Adler, Wolowelsky and Berkovitz is correct) and for those who who would want to sound a note of warning about slippery slopes, or at least underline the thought that in some ways Orthodoxy can only be nudged in a more liberal direction from within.

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