Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

The Need for Women on Shul Ritual Committees

Recently with the change in the lay leadership of the National Council of Young Israel, a discussion emerged as to why no women were on the new lay leadership’s slate.  My understanding is that in the near future women will be elected to the slate and my hope and belief are that the leadership of the organization will be represented by both men and women to provide a voice for the entire membership that Young Israel is supposed to serve.

This discussion got me thinking about whether other religious organizations, committees or roles that may have been dominated by men in the past should have significant representation from women.  I think one committee that is often overlooked in this discussion is a shul’s ritual committee.  On the surface, I understand why the ritual committee in a typical modern orthodox community would be made up of men.  After all, most of the rituals in an orthodox synagogue, from the baalei tefillah, to the baalei keriah, to the gabbaim, to the kibbudim, are performed by men.  It stands to reason that the interested parties in these policies and procedures are men, so perhaps they should have the sole voice in making decisions about these issues.

However, I find that approach to be mistaken, perhaps based on my view of a ritual committee.  A shul’s ritual committee should try to ensure that the davening experience is meaningful for all of its participants.  One way of accomplishing that is to give people kibbudim for various events.  Sometimes these kibbudim are halachically mandated, and other times the kibbudim give the recipients a sense of belonging to the shul for being recognized because of a certain festive or solemn occasion.  However, sometimes providing a kibbud interferes with “tircha d’tzibura,” with burdening the congregation.  What if someone desperately wants to lead the davening or layn or read the haftorah, but the community is put off and doesn’t feel inspired by this individual’s davening or layning?  In evaluating the “tircha d’tzibura,” the impact that the davening or layning has on the community feeling inspired, shouldn’t the entire community, both men and women, have a say?  It is true that women are not obligated in tefillah b’tzibbur, but don’t we want to encourage women to come to minyan and be inspired by the experience as well?  As such, shouldn’t they have a strong voice in helping fashion the tefillah in a manner that is sanctioned halachically but also inspiring?

My sense is that in many communities, many women tend not to attend shul for much of davening.  Some have young children to care for, but many do not, and many shuls have youth groups to accommodate those who do. Why then, do so many women only attend shul towards the end of davening?  I think that there are different approaches as to how to respond to this reality.  Perhaps the fact that women are not obligated in tefillah b’tzibbur means that even women who are not raising children at home can choose if they want to attend minyan.  If this is not something to which they feel particularly connected, then maybe we need not encourage them to come to shul.  However, another approach is that while women as a group are not obligated to participate in tefillah b’tzibbur or many other positive time-bound mitzvot, we certainly recommend that they participate in these mitzvot when they are able to do so.  I would hope that a Shabbat morning davening in shul together with the tzibbur has the potential to be a meaningful, inspiring spiritual experience and therefore, women’s voices certainly should be added to a ritual committee to help formulate and implement policies and procedures to create such an experience.

There is another reason why it is important for women to participate in ritual committees.  In the past, I have encouraged the men in our community to attend our daily minyanim and if they haven’t done so in the past, to start slowly, with a few minyanim per week and then build from there.  According to the Shulchan Aruch, men should attend minyanim absent unavoidable circumstances.  Of course, I recognize that though this obligation belongs to the men of the community, it takes a toll on their wives as well.  Women with young children are left to care for them while their husbands are at minyan, and families without children are asked to alter their plans and structure their lives in a way that allows the men in their lives to attend shul. Sure, I might suggest some ways to mitigate this stress.  For example, maybe fathers could go to minyan and make up the time they missed from helping with the children at another time.  That being said, it is important to note that minyan attendance is something that affects our entire community in some way, and should be appreciated as such.  In my view, it is therefore another important goal of a ritual committee to partner with the Rabbinic leadership to encourage families to appreciate the halachic value of men attending daily minyanim on a regular basis.  As such, it is important to have both men’s and women’s voices in a shul’s ritual committee to help develop and implement these critical objectives reflecting a core value of any orthodox shul.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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