MARCH 8-14, 1985
An Open Letter
Dear Rabbis Parness, Bronspiegel, Alpert, Willig and Schachter:
I have just read (Jewish World, Feb. 15-21, 1985) of your intention to issue a responsum forbidding women from gathering together for prayer and Torah reading. I know how urgent many people think it is at this time to react to recent trends within the Torah observant community. But I believe it is wrong to issue a formal responsum at this time and wish to explain why.
First, I believe that a prohibition against women's prayer groups may in fact be unenforceable. The powerful momentum amongst younger Jewish women to fully participate in the rituals and obligations of our religion has already had a profound effect on the Reform and Conservative movements within the last ten years. While within Orthodoxy we must not succumb to allowing practices in fact forbidden by the rules of the Halakhah, we certainly should not obstinately refuse to learn from the experiences of our brethren.
Women in the Conservative movement were not satisfied with half-a-loaf. There is no basis for believing that Orthodox women will tacitly accept an opinion of five rabbis attempting to prevent them from engaging in the ritual and piety of their religion. I believe that forbidding women's prayer groups comes under the category of a decree which cannot be observed by the public at large. As you know, our Halakhah grants no sanction to its authorities to issue such a decree.
We within Orthodoxy must be alert to the signs of the times, and not turn our faces away from them. Precisely because of the pressures of the women's movement in our culture at large, we must make special efforts to accommodate our own sincere and energetic Orthodox sisters within the tradition.
Orthodox women will have no alternative but to interpret your issuance of a responsum as a put-down. You surely must have realized that the effect of issuing a response at this time undoubtedly may be counterproductive to your avowed goals. Issuance of such an unequivocal prohibition, as reported in the media, will call more attention to the very phenomenon you wish to deter.
Your responsum will serve as a rallying point for activism. In the end, by issuing your letter to stop women from gathering to pray, you may be inviting them to go much further than they had ever planned. Rather than putting out the fire, you may be fanning the flames.
No doubt you invested a great deal of care and energy in researching and writing your planned responsum. Many will have to argue that this is misdirected energy. If you wish to solve some of the problems today involving women and the Halakhah, would it not be better if you solved the problem of the agunah, the deserted woman, rather than the "problem" of women's prayer groups.
On a large scale, would it not be better if you directed your energies to bettering our educational system in yeshivas and day schools across the country? You must know that the crisis in Jewish education threatens to erode the very fabric of our culture. You must be aware of the great religious and social issues facing our people in the State of Israel. Would these not be better places to direct your talents?
Surely there are more important items on the agenda of the rabbinic leaders of our day than trying to prevent Jews from praying and reading the Torah.
Your activities in this area seem to me to represent one of the great ironies of contemporary Jewish life. All of you are outstanding American bred rabbis. However you are now projecting to the public an image of retrogressive, European reactionary authorities of past generations.
I urge you to reconsider your plans to issue a responsum at this time and to retract the opinion you have issued in order to give it more thought and study and carefully reconsider the implications of this course of action.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy
Associate Professor of Jewish Studies University of Minnesota
(Ordained, Yeshiva University, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, 1973)
Postscript - Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik refused to sign this responsum
In 1998 the Frimer brothers published an extensive article, "Women's Prayer Services - Theory and Practice" in Tradition, 32:2, pp. 5-118 (Spring 1998). They reported as follows:
...the Rav repeatedly emphasized to those who discussed with him the subject of women's prayer groups that his objections were predicated primarily on hashkafa and public policy, not strict halakha.- Annual repost from 2/20/06
It is for this reason that R. Soloveitchik declined to sign his name to the aforementioned responsum of the five RIETS Rashei Yeshiva opposing women's tefilla groups - despite numerous attempts to get the Rav to do so.
What is more, R. Soloveitchik instructed his shamash at the time, R. Kenneth Brander, that if anyone should ever assert that he did, in fact, sign the responsum, then R. Brander should publicize the falsity of the claim.
The explanation the Rav gave for this refusal was that the RIETS Rashei Yeshiva had based their objections on supposedly halakhic grounds, while his overriding concerns were of a hashkafic and public-policy nature. The Rav felt strongly that the line between strict halakha and public policy must not be blurred. This does not mean that the Rav's opposition to women's prayer groups was in any way weaker; any practice which runs counter to a Torah-based hashkafa or public policy is, in the Rav's view, wrong. Nonetheless, the character of R. Soloveitchik's objection to these groups was substantively different from that of the objections raised by the RIETS Rashei Yeshiva.