An Open Letter to R. Aryeh Frimer

My friend R. Aryeh Frimer and his brother R. Dov Frimer, as part of their ongoing investigation to the Halachik legitimacy of Partnership Minyanim, recently published a rejoinder to R. Ysoscher Katz’s analysis of their book length study of the topic.  The Frimer brothers’ study can be found here, and R. Katz’s response can be found here.

Dear Aryeh,

I recently read yours and Dov’s recent rejoinder to R. Ysoscher Katz concerning Women having Aliyot and Partnership Minyanim.  (It can be found here.)  As you know, Aryeh, I’m not a talmid chacham, much less a posek.  I’m merely a casual observer of the Orthodox scene, both in America and here in Israel; maybe one day I succeed in becoming an armchair quarterback on such matters.  I’ll say though that your Halachik analysis makes far more sense to me than did R.  Katz’s.  Your rejoinder does as well.  But, as we’ve discussed more than a few times in the past few months, I fear that comprehensive Halachik analysis such as yours will not carry the day.

Once the Rav z”l very publicly and on a principled basis, ratified advanced Torah learning for women, including Talmud and Codes, the current struggle was inevitable. I daresay that it was entirely foreseeable.  To be a little loose with the Mishne, “לא המדרש העיקר אלא המעשה.  Teaching women the intricacies of Halacha could not ever remain merely theoretical, confined to the Beth Midrash.  Once exposed to the beauty of advanced Torah learning, They, as a matter of course, have begun seeking ways to express that knowledge within the Orthodox ambit that provided it.  For many, that means teaching what they’ve and expanding upon it.  For others it means endeavoring to fix problems that exist in the Halachik society that effect women, and to do so from a uniquely feminine perspective. That means addressing the power inequalities that abide in the Beth Din system, making Taharat Hamishpacha issues less uncomfortable, perhaps even confronting the entire community over perceived latent sexism.  (N.B.  I don’t intend to accuse anyone or any community of anything.  I simply point out that Orthodox women are becoming increasingly vocal and active as regards these issues.  Often they are correct and their contributions are positive).  But for many women, the expression of their newfound knowledge they seek is ritual; mainly the rite of prayer.  It’s no surprise that many would. Miriam also sang praises for G-d at the Exodus.  And now that they have been elevated to near equal status in the Bet Midrash, is it any surprise that they also want that same status in the Bet Keneset?  Did anyone really not see this coming?

Moreover, I think you ignore the sociology of all this to your argument’s detriment.  Part of why the Rav z”l opened up Talmud learning to students at Stern College was the fact that students there were getting accepted to medical school, or law school or going on to obtain higher degrees.  It made no sense to continue to close off advanced Jewish learning to women who could, with increasing ease, and did, with increasing frequency, obtain higher secular education.  This wasn’t novel.  It was the exact same justification for rabbinic support, a generation earlier, of the Beth Yaacov school system.  It was a response to changed social circumstances.  And it’s difficult, even for educated lay people, to distinguish it from the Partnership Minyan question.  Why was it ok for the Rav to respond to changed social realia, but not for us to do likewise?  I understand that the sources upon which you rely, and it is a most comprehensive collection of sources, all strongly mitigate against doing that in this instance.  Public prayer has a different set of priorities and regulations than does Torah study.  But there are equally authoritative sources upon which to rely had the Rav z”l wanted to deny women the opportunity to study Talmud at Stern College.  He clearly chose one route over the other, and it was couched in a social reality context.  And he was typically cryptic about his reasoning, not fine tuning the argument in anticipation of what’s occurring today.

As a result of that decision, Orthodox social realia changed.  Today, more and more committed women today go to minyan on a daily basis.  Oftentimes, they are as punctilious  about their tefilla b’zman as are men; or even more so.  Many of them even attend the Daf Yomi given before Shacharit.  I know of no serious non-Charieidi posek who would ever dare say any of this is a bad thing.  Women have increasingly become part and parcel of tefilla in schul.  They acquire that dedication at the schools they attend, where if they are co-ed, the girls are expected to be at all minyanim just as the boys.  The Halachik exemption from tefilla b’zman or b’tzibbur doesn’t wash in schools like FRISCH or Kushner or SAR.  The same holds true at NCSY shabbatonim or in the local Israeli  Tnuot Noar.  Girls are expected to participate in the tefilla, just like the boys.  Another example exists in the schul to which we both belong.  Compare the number of women in schul Friday nights to what existed when you were a child.  That’s a big break from the past.  One that begs a response.  To be somewhat cynical, which do you think is the more workable, and hence preferable model for 21st century Orthodox Jewish women, what we currently have, or the exceedingly pious “alteh babbes” of yore sitting Shabbes nachmitug, chanting Tzeneh Ureneh with the eineklach, who’s only semi-public act of prayer was a weekly recitation of Gott Fun Avrohom?  The charming and quaint rebbetzin up in the veiber schul reading the davening to the illiterate women, as described in Chaim Grade’s books, simply doesn’t exist anymore; not even as a literary figure to whom our young women can at all relate. For better or worse (I happen to think for both better and worse) we’ve moved away from that.

And all this leads me to the point I’ve been trying to make to you since I’ve had the pleasure of recently meeting you and davening together with you in schul.  Simply conjuring the sources and drawing the correct conclusions from them will not carry the day, if those conclusions fail to address the religious ambitions of those affected by them.  My concern is not for the feminists, who have an agenda of “fixing Orthodoxy’s patriarchal dictatorship” and the  violence to Halacha that ensues from that “repair” be damned.   My concern is for the growing number of highly committed young women who have been raised on a diet of high level Torah learning, who love it, who love Judaism and who genuinely want to express that love via ritual.  They exist.  They are in it Lishmah. They were created at the Rav’s first Talmud shiur, not at Stern College; but a decade or more earlier at his Maimonides School.  Orthodoxy embraced the process which led to all of this.  Orthodoxy is thus duty bound to them to do much more than simply say סליחה עד כאן ולא יותר  And, with all due respect to your scholarship and to you as a person, (who’s friendship I highly value) it’s intellectually disingenuous to ignore that reality.  Either imbue the status quo with a elevating mission that continues to make these women feel important and valued, or carve out acceptable public ritual for them, or concede defeat. But just saying “no” and nothing else will ring hollow with increasing resonance.  I don’t know for how long women will accept the cognitive dissonance.

Sometimes being right isn’t enough.

I’ll conclude with this.  Ironically, I don’t like Partnership Minyanim.  I’ve declined to participate in them, and I can’t see myself changing my stance.  My opposition is in great part based on arguments such as those advanced by you and Dov.  I also embrace Gil Student’s very valid point that just because something may be muttar, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  And I also oppose them for more personal and subjective reasons.  My fear however is I don’t know what I would say to my daughter or to a future granddaughter who might want me to attend such a service with her, and see her lead the tefilla.  Even worse would be a internecine fight among my children about my doing
so.  And I’m pretty sure most of us, you included, would have the same problem if sitting on the horns of that dilemma.  I don’t see a resolution of that in any of the literature on this issue.  And that is the most fundamental weakness in all the positions staked out so far.

Byedidut,

Daniel

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney in Jerusalem, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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