“The position of the Orthodox Union is that such practice is improper and constitutes an unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition,” read the brief statement that was made public on Oct. 14.
The statement was issued after an Oct. 6 vote by the lay board of the Orthodox Union, which is composed of roughly 100 members. Harvey Blitz, chairperson of the board, said that the vote was “not unanimous, but it was a very strong majority” in favor of issuing the statement.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, explained that the statement was not “necessarily addressed to any particular or any particular rabbi.”
“It’s the particular practice of a woman leading a prayer service for a mixed gender audience,” Rabbi Weinreb explained.
He said that the board considered the matter for several months.
“The feeling is this kind of thing is absolutely unprecedented in Orthodox synagogue life and whether some people take issue as to whether it is strictly prohibited by Halacha or not, the board felt that this was something not keeping with Orthodox practice,” Rabbi Weinreb said. “Therefore it was something they wanted to discourage.”
Both Blitz and Rabbi Weinreb said that the statement was not directed at any particular shul, however, the statement seemed to be a public rebuttal to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the Rabbi Avi Weiss-run shul, that had a woman lead the service during the summer. There are no consequences if a shul does not follow the pronouncement.
Rabbi Michael Broyde, a professor of law at Emory University and a dayan [judge] for the Beth Din of America, spoke out against having a woman lead Kabbalat Shabbos. In a lengthy post on the Hirhurim blog, Rabbi Broyde wrote that while there was nothing halachically wrong with a woman leading the prayers, it should be avoided since it is a “bad innovation,” and may lead to a woman leading one of the mandated prayers.
“Changing the custom so as to allow women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat as a chazan seems to me to be a practice that badly obfuscates between situations where a proper shaliach tzibur is needed and where one is not, and thus a bad innovation, likely to lead people astray,” Rabbi Broyde wrote.
Importantly, Rabbi Broyde also stressed that the breach in tradition was not strong enough to warrant prohibiting the practice on its own.
Yaacov Gross, a Lawrence-resident, challenged Rabbi Broyde in an opinion piece for The Jewish Week.
“This kind of “slippery slope” argument, where a seemingly innocent event will inevitably lead to an undesirable consequence, can be, well, slippery.”
Reached for comment, Gross panned the OU pronouncement.
“A healthy debate is underway on this subject among articulate and thoughtful Jewish scholars, including Rabbis Michael Broyde, Daniel Sperber, Mendel Shapiro and others,” Gross explained via email. “That debate is in the true halakhic tradition of argumentation and persuasion. I’m not sure I understand how a pronouncement by the lay OU board about what is or isn’t proper Jewishly contributes to this dialogue. The dialogue needs to continue within our community, and with it a willingness to accept the notion that different congregations may come to different conclusions on this non-halakhic issue.”
On the more conservative wing of the Orthodox spectrum, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel, said he “recognized no posek who permits” women to lead Kabbalat Shabbos. Rabbi Shafran explained that aside from the technical issues of hearing a woman sing, he said it would be a “more fundamental violation is of the mesora we have regarding liturgy and the attendant respective roles of the sexes. “
“Jewish women light the Sabbath candles and pray for their families. Jewish men go to shul and accept the Sabbath through the Kabbalas Shabbos service…” Rabbi Shafran said. “Making the attempted change even more objectionable is its obvious intent: to serve the twin false gods, so to speak, of Feminism and Political Correctness.”