In a move that apparently would make history for an Orthodox synagogue in the United States, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is scheduled Friday night to have a woman lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service where both men and women are expected to be in the pews.
A one-page e-mail letter was sent Friday morning to members of the synagogue, which is led by Rabbi Avi Weiss. The rabbi was recently embroiled in a major controversy over assigning the title Rabba to an HIR spiritual leader, Sara Hurwitz. The letter states: “Kabbalat Shabbat will be led by a woman. This is a halachically acceptable practice, and models our values.” While some Orthodox synagogues have women’s tefillah groups, a woman leading a Friday-night service for both men and women has apparently not been done in an Orthodox shul.
Traditional interpretation of Jewish law bars women from such a public role in the prayer service for various reasons.
The letter to congregants seems to anticipate controversy. “We recognize that this type of tefillah is not practiced in other Orthodox synagogues. We hope other synagogues will make room for this type of inclusive tefillah. Nonetheless, in deference to our own inclusive values beyond women’s involvement, and not wanting to distance ourselves from the Orthodox communal standards, we are not having this tefillah as our only Friday night tefillah, but as an addition to the Main Sanctuary tefillah.”
The letter, in making a halachic justification for a woman leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service, says that in such a service “no distinctions are made between men’s and women’s involvement,” and that it “is not an obligatory prayer service and contains no devarim shebikdushah (liturgical elements like Barkhu and Kedushah which have male leaders)."
The move to have a woman, Lamelle Ryman, lead a Kabbalat service, comes about three months after the Rabba controversy, in which Rabbi Weiss was widely believed to have caved to Orthodox critics who termed the title Rabba to be beyond Orthodox norms. Rabbi Weiss agreed to not use the title again.
Calls and e-mails to HIR Rabbis Weiss, Steven Exler and Hurwitz early Friday afternoon were not returned. A call to Ryman was not returned.