Recently, I had a conversation about women’s tefillah groups, during which I stated that I had been involved with several of them in different capacities over the past few years. The person I was talking to told me that according to his observations, women’s tefillah groups peaked about a decade or so ago — what women wanted to attend now is partnership minyan, where they can have more active participation. Then during the past month of Tishrei, I participated in or was asked about practices for four separate women’s tefillah opportunities located within my broader community. It would seem that for some, women’s tefillah continues to provide a meaningful way of engaging in ritual.
Do women today want to be in partnership minyanim? Do they want women’s tefillah? The answer could be one, or the other, or both, but feminism doesn’t require full commitment to only one approach. Feminism instead makes two requests: for women to have the opportunity to be involved in discussions about practices that affect their lives; and for women to be trusted that the choices they are making are justified and legitimate. For many, the notion of Orthodox feminism is a non-starter, as women are, according to halachah, less obligated in specific parameters of mitzvot than men. Yet as the example of continued support for women’s tefillah groups shows, allowing women to create spaces that are meaningful to them deepens involvement in their communities.
For those who would say that feminism is anathema to Orthodoxy — feminism being a modern idea that is intrinsically harmful to Orthodoxy’s mesorah — this notion of women’s tefillah is, in fact, not new. The practice of women reading the megillah has extensive discussion in the Talmud and in later commentaries. These foundational texts open the door for the involvement of women in public ritual, which is to say that such possibilities are also part of our mesorah. Whether this metaphoric door should be opened further or closed altogether is a matter for each community to resolve, but there should not be any question as to whether there is a place for women’s tefillah in Orthodoxy at large.
Indeed, women’s tefillah groups should not automatically be instituted at every shul nor are they necessarily appropriate for every community. The range of what women’s tefillah looks like shows that practices can differ significantly depending on the community that they are serving, much like the various minhagim that apply at different shuls. Women’s tefillah could comprise of Tehillim, a reading of Megillat Esther, a bat mitzvah celebration, or a Simchat Torah leyning — or all of these options (and beyond). In any community, the availability of such opportunities could depend on any number of factors, including the general communal outlook toward such activities and the views of the rabbi about such practices.
I have found that such groups work best and endure longest when they find a balance between these three factions — clergy, community, and the women seeking to change current practices — which often means compromise from all sides. Yet it is important to keep the basic principles of feminism in play when discussing how to make such opportunities available. If women in a community want to create a women’s tefillah group or expand on an existing one’s offerings, they should be treated with the assumption that their motives are legitimate.
When halachic issues are involved, rabbis and others who are experts in relevant texts can be of help in two ways. First, they can make connections with other communities that have women’s tefillah to share practices. Second, they can assist these women in identifying pertinent texts to explore further how such events can take place in halachically valid ways. Women who are dedicated to expanding opportunities for engagement at synagogue should be commended. To shut them down without discussion or question their motives is belittling and causes resentment.
When I was the gabbait for the Orthodox Minyan at Harvard Hillel, we came up with careful terminology to differentiate between our services: we had a community reading and a women’s reading. This distinction serves as a reminder that not all women will want to be involved in women’s tefillah, nor do they need to be. At its core, feminism is about offering choices and, perhaps more importantly, trusting that the choice each person makes is valid. Our women’s readings opened doors for members of our minyan to become involved in ways that I had not anticipated: an elderly woman was called up for the first time in her life during Simchat Torah; women who had grown up in communities that did not have these opportunities came to our events; and a novice leyner in her 60s made her debut with the fifth chapter of Eicha. It is always a pleasure to witness the excitement and enthusiasm of women who are given the opportunity to engage with ritual in meaningful ways. The creative potential for women’s tefillah is not limitless, but it is expansive: my hope is that our communities can create more spaces such as these where women feel welcomed and valued at shul.