Yitzchak Blau
Yitzchak Blau

Women in Shul

Synagogue design, construction, and reconstruction often engender debate over the placement of the women’s section. Should the women’s section be a balcony, a slightly elevated platform, or on the same floor level as the men? What size mechitza works best?  Communities also often debate policies concerning women’s recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Though the two issues are certainly distinct, they overlap somewhat regarding whether the community perceives and portrays shul as essentially a place where men pray or as a center of worship for the entire community. A noteworthy book which recently came to my attention enhances our examination of the two issues.

Kaddish: Women’s Voices (edited by Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas, Urim Publications, 2013), is a collection of essays by women writing about their experiences reciting Kaddish for deceased relatives.  The voices expressed do not convey some radical agenda to overthrow the patriarchy. Rather, we encounter women understandably eager to personally honor a beloved relative or struggling to come to religious terms with their tragic loss. Such women deserve our sympathy and support.

For most of the authors, this involved their first long-term experience of daily – or thrice-daily – minyan attendance. In the spirit of “one mitzva leads to another” (Avot 4:2), daily shul attendance often impacts in an enduring and positive fashion, as attested to by multiple statements throughout the book.

“I intend to continue to go to my synagogue after my year of mourning” (41).

“Those early mornings also brought me into conversation with the story of the Akedah” (47).

“I therefore continue to go to shul regularly” (71).

“I looked forward to Monday and Thursday mornings, when the Torah is read in the lovely quiet of a non-Shabbat service. This may be Kaddish’s most ironic blessing of all: when those who were less-than-devout, by passing on, bring us close- literally and figuratively- to the Torah” (78).

“A daily dose of Torah study – one paragraph of Mishna each morning – has become mother’s enduring gift to me, even now” (106-107).

“Saying Kaddish enabled me to attend a whole year’s worth of daily prayers, weekly parshiot and the cycle of festivals. It was as if I had a personal course in Judaism” (183).

“Attending daily minyan, I gained a new understanding and appreciation for the liturgy” (214).

“Daily minyan was not something that I wanted to give up, even though it was no longer expected of me. I liked starting my day by speaking with God, and I liked being in shul. It framed the day differently  for me, and I felt a connection there…..It has been over two years since my mother passed away, and I have been going to shul regularly”  (228).

For these women, a year of Kaddish generated growth in their understanding and practice of individual and communal prayer, Torah study, and in identifying with the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. Surely, we should encourage such experiences. Two stories contain particular inspiration. One woman, estranged from Orthodoxy, ended up moving closer to a shul in order to enable Kaddish recital, leading to her realization of what she missed in Orthodox life (162). A Conservative rabbi who wanted to say Kaddish at an Orthodox minyan on campus chose to forego wearing tallit and tefillin at the minyan so as not to upset any of the regular participants (153-154). I found this an impressive display of prioritizing communal needs and norms over personal prerogatives and principles.

The collection balances anecdotes of men who were welcoming to their female co-minyan attendees alongside lamentable tales of those less hospitable. In the latter category, we witness a man who yells at a female mourner for taking up space in the women’s section  (113), men who walk out of a room because a female school administrator was saying Kaddish in her very own school (141), alongside more common inconveniences such as finding the lights off in the women’s section (231). I trust I need not explain why these behaviors are inexcusable.

Small gestures make a big difference. A number of women noted how the tzedaka box passed around during services never made it to the women’s section (147). If we want women to feel included as part of the community, we must encourage and value their charitable contributions. Inclusion would also entail a daily morning or evening greeting and the other attendees taking note when a regular female participant goes absent.

I once heard a rabbi say how the ideal mechitza would offer the women perfect vision of the men’s section and prevent the men from seeing the women at all. My wife, Noa Jeselsohn, made a highly insightful observation. If the men are going to consider the women an integral part of the praying community, they cannot pretend the women do not exist. Of course, we are not interested in men ogling the women, but neither should half our community remain invisible. Within the boundaries of halakhic separation, men shul-goers should be aware of the presence and significance of female participation.

What practical conclusions emerge? If women benefit in myriad ways from participating in communal prayer, we should encourage that possibility. This means that every tefila service, weekday or Shabbat, have an accessible women’s section with the door unlocked and the lights on. It means that men late to arrive cannot make use of the women’s section even if no women are yet occupying it. The pushka should always make its way across the barrier between men and women.

This value also has bearing on shul design and construction. Balconies convey that women are spectators more than participants. Placing women in the back of the shul creates a sense of their being segregated second class citizens. Women should be on the same floor level as the men, side by side with those men, and with a mechitza that does not totally obscure sight lines. I understand that space limitations often motivate the use of balconies but let us consider how rarely an entire community davens together. Most shuls have a hashkama minyan and perhaps a late minyan on Shabbat mornings. During summer months, many communities have an early and a late Friday night minyan. It is only winter Friday nights and chagim when maximum capacity is necessary. I propose finding another solution for those particular occasions; the rest of the year, we would do better communicating that women are an essential part of the praying community.

Women in some communities may prefer a balcony or a very tall mechitza and we cannot impose our values on them by insisting that they follow our architectural ideals.  However, there should at least be an understanding that such voices are not necessarily pushing for the frummer position. In fact, those aiming to make women feel more included in communal prayer may actually be the ones promoting maximalist avodat Hashem.

My suggestions thus far do not pose any challenges to halakhic requirements. Modern Orthodox shuls tend to assume that mechitzot exist to stop mingling rather than to prevent seeing. While rabbinic authorities do debate the appropriateness of women saying Kaddish, enough permit it that no woman who does so should be opposed. When we consider the emotional pull to do something for a cherished relative who passed away, we have even more reason to encourage it. Beyond the emotional component, we have seen the educational benefits of a year of consistent shul attendance. Without entering any grand debates about the positive or negative impact of feminism on contemporary religious life, we must make our shuls more welcoming places for women and promote their connection to the Divine.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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