For the last few years, Michal and Elitzur Bar-Asher have been collecting halachic sources detailing what women can do in a prayer service - a subject that raises no shortage of controversy.
Now their work has been collected in the first official guide of its kind, intended to help navigate the thorny terrain.
The last few years have seen a noticeable increase in partnership minyanim, prayer groups committed to maintaining halachic standards and practices while including women in ritual leadership roles to the fullest extent possible within the boundaries of Jewish law.
In practice, this means that the minyan is made up of 10 men, men and women are separated by a mehitza
(partition) and the traditional liturgy is used. However, women can actually read from the Torah, be called up for aliyot, and lead parts of the service.
Many mainstream Orthodox rabbis argue that women's participation in these roles is incompatible with Halacha, and for a long time this outcrop of prayer groups has functioned on somewhat shaky ground. But more and more, religious Jews committed to egalitarianism are using Halacha to prove that the two may be more compatible than some want to claim.
The latest effort by the Israeli couple, the Guide for the Halachic Minyan
(available in English and Hebrew), is the first time a collection of halachic sources on this issue has been assembled. While they are not making any "new rulings," they are "bringing to light what might have been hidden," the couple said from their home in New Haven, Connecticut, where Michal is completing her doctorate in Judaic studies. Elitzur is a doctoral candidate in Semitic philology at Harvard University and a lecturer in Semitics at Yale University's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
The guide, which is being http://upload.kipa.co.il/media-upload/kulech/1214602.PDF" target="_blank"> distributed on-line
, is intended to help independent prayer groups that are interested in increasing women's participation but may be unsure of how Halacha rules on many issues.
"We basically took the siddur and asked ourselves at every part whether women can do it or not," said the Bar-Ashers, who both grew up Orthodox in Israel, spent several years studying in yeshivot and currently serve as halachic consultants to a number of congregations on the East Coast.
In some instances, where the couple found no halachic source, they've suggested creative ways of allowing women to participate. Blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana is one such example. Instead of blowing, the couple suggests that women should announce the tekiot
(shofar sounds), and be appointed to decide whether each one is kosher.
Another example in the High Holy Day services is the repetition of the amida
, which has been traditionally off-limits to women. "If you go to shul on Yom Kippur, you know it's for the whole day," said Elitzur. While women are forbidden to recite the "core" prayer, the couple argues that based on their findings, there is no reason women should not be allowed to participate in the songs and piyutim
"We suggest that all the time, they should have two cantors who switch off, so the male cantor does the core, and woman does the rest," offered Elitzur. "This is a suggestion we put in the guide; it's not Halacha, but this is a new custom we started, and here is the halachic background."
Partnership minyanim are welcoming the guide in spite of some reservations.
"For us, it's an exciting and important step in the evolution of partnership minyanim, as we see more of these coming into the community," said Audrey Trachtman, a board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who is part of a minyan in New Rochelle, NY. At the same time, "it's important to recognize that it's a discussion, not intended to be a uniform practice," said Trachtman.
Rachel Berger - a founder of Migdal Or, a year-old partnership minyan in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood - agrees. "I think when you have a guide, it lends legitimacy to what you're doing," said Berger.
Still, one concern Berger and others have is that the guide may create homogeneity where it isn't wanted.
"What is so exciting about the independent minyanim is that they are very much about the people who are involved in them, and having a guide that standardizes them - you may lose autonomy," said Berger.
However, the guide is not meant to create a unified practice among the various minyanim, which are decidedly independent, but to outline practices that are permissible, the couple insists.
"We are not trying to dictate a common practice to all communities, but to offer a resource for those interested in increasing women's participation," Michal said. "We are saying if you care about women's participation, this is a way you can do it."
For now, though, partnership minyanim are still in the minority. The halachic opinions supporting a partnership minyan and permitting an expanded role for women have not been accepted by any mainstream Orthodox organizations. A number of objections have been raised to various aspects of partnership minyanim, and to the view that their practices are consistent with Halacha.
Earlier in the year, Elitzur published an article about the issue of women's participation and argued with the chief rabbi of Ariel. When word reached the communities in which they grew up, they were "very unhappy," said the couple.
But the Bar-Ashers are more concerned about moving forward, and they acknowledge that there is still a long way to go.
While many of these minyanim aim to extend participation to women as far as Halacha permits, they are by no means egalitarian - hence the phrase "halachic minyan" in the title of the guide, and not "egalitarian minyan."
The 26-page work is not intended to serve as a conclusive guide, but merely as a beginning, say Michal and Elitzur.
"If we do not specifically indicate that women may lead a certain part of the prayer service, this does not mean we have concluded that they cannot," the introduction says. "Such silences should be seen as invitations for further study of the sources that may eventually lead to the discovery of new grounds for permission."
"We don't think it's ideal, and that's why we don't call it an egalitarian minyan, because women can't do everything," said Elitzur. "This is what we have until we can find halachot to justify a full egalitarian minyan; but for now, this is what we found."
For the complete guide, go to
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